Ireland’s Wars: The Siege Of Dunboy

This is the second half of what was originally a single post, that has since been split up as part of a re-editing process. The original is here.

Hugh O’Neill had retreated back into Ulster, Hugh Roe was on his last mission to Spain. But while Mountjoy was preparing to attack Tyrone and Tyrconnell again, events down south were taking all of the headlines in the year of 1602. The last of the significant Munster rebels was still to be put down.

That rebel was Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare, head of the O’Sullivan family in south Cork. Donal had been fighting the English for most of his life, and had come out in support of Hugh O’Neill’s revolt early on, playing a key role in the eventually doomed uprising in Munster. Unlike nearly all of the other rebel lords, who called it quits after the capture of the Sugan Earl, O’Sullivan Beare kept at it, probably aware that his letters to the Spanish King, intercepted and known to the English authorities, would mean his death if he surrendered or was captured. In the period immediately before the Battle of Kinsale his activities were mostly small, Munster long since past the point of being able to support a major rebellion against the crown, and with George Carew wielding a large amount of control throughout the province.

The Kinsale affair provided O’Sullivan Beare an opportunity to have more of an impact and he certainly took part in the siege and the battle that followed. In the aftermath he fled back to his own safeholds in Cork along the Beara Peninsula, where he would continue to hold out for some time.

One of Donal’s key fortresses was Dunboy Castle, near the very tip of the Beara Peninsula, not far from the modern day town of Castletownbere. The actual fortress itself was somewhat rudimentary, a stone towerhouse really, but it was a key strong point of the Bearhaven harbour and was a place from which much trade and business was done with the European continent. It’s advantages as a defensive point came from other obstacles: with a narrow channel on one side and difficult ground on the other – part rock, part bog – Dunboy was a surprisingly hard nut to crack. As TD Sullivan would write, several centuries later:

“Dunboy, Dunboy, the proud, the strong,

The Saxon’s hate and trouble long,

All Ireland’s hope and Munster’s boast,

The pride of Beara’s iron coast”

That’s near the beginning of his “Dunboy”, an epic poem describing the life of O’Sullivan Beare, the coming battle and what happened afterward. In the aftermath of Kinsale, with his forces scattered and largely defeated, O’Sau knew that he would need to hold what few fortresses he still had. A garrison of Spanish troops had actually been allowed to occupy Dunboy, and O’Sullivan first had to get them out of the place. With the surrender of del Aguila at Kinsale, the handover of Dunboy to English forces was made part of the same deal. Before they could attempt to get their hands on the castle however, O’Sullivan got there first, seizing back control of it before the Spanish knew what was happening, probably seeing no danger in allowing an “ally” back into, what was, his own keep. O’Sullivan kicked the Spaniards out, but kept their significant stores of muskets, gunpowder and cannon. The Spanish headed home, and George Carew was left fuming at the missed opportunity.

Some sources indicate that Carew became obsessed with the notion of attacking and capturing Dunboy, against all the advice he received to the contrary. The fortresses’ remoteness, its natural defences, the guns and cannon of its defenders, the potentially high cost in lives and resources in any assault and the sheer lack of necessity – O’Sullivan Beare was in no danger of overturning the English position in Munster after all – were all mooted as reasons to leave the castle be. The Earl of Thomond warned him it would have to be a large and costly operation. The Earl of Ormond advised him to drop the matter.

But Carew would not be dissuaded. Maybe he wanted to crush the last vestiges of rebellion. Maybe, unable to hit O’Sullivan Beare’s raiding parties and ambush groups, he simply wanted to have a go at a static target. Maybe it was pride. A more logical reason might have been the fear that such a coastal position would be used for any future Spanish landing, the possibility of which was unknown at the time. The castle could still be said to have been held in the name of the Spanish King after all. In that regard, Carew was seeking to capture and hold as many, if not all, southern ports as he could. It should also be noted that the objections were probably in line with thoughts that up to a thousand men could have been defending the castle and the area, which was not the situation in reality.

Regardless, after spending the first half of 1602 brining other rebels in Munster to heel, especially in the now largely pacified Kerry region, Carew determined to march on Dunboy with nearly the entirety of his military strength. The size of that forces is in dispute but could have been anywhere between 2’500 or 5’000 men. The number of “effectives” compared to the overall size of the army was probably much smaller, but they still would have easily outnumbered the defenders at Dunboy. He also had the support of a naval detachment, which would park itself off the coast and prevent any escape or re-supply that way. That naval detachment proved the main transport option, as Carew choose to forgo an overland march through the treacherous terrain of Berehaven, defended by troops loyal to O’Neill under Richard Tyrell, in favour of a trip to Beare Island, a small outcropping of land directly opposite Dunboy. This might seem a strange choice of besieging point, but it was actually a better angle of approach than that from the east. If another landing could be made on the point opposite Beare Island, then the English would be in a better position.

Those defenders were small in number, just over 140 men total. By the time Carew had his forces in position, in early June, the defenders did not even include O’Sullivan Beare, who had either rode north to consult with the rebels in Ulster about what to do next or had travelled to another sea port in order to secure a Spanish ship that had recently docked with supplies, trusting in his garrison and their guns to hold out. A confidant and ally, Richard MacGeoghan, was left in command. His troops might have been few in number, but they were battle-hardened and well-armed.

Carew successfully landed a force of men on the rearward side of the castle in a daring move, though they suffered some loss in driving off the defenders who had been placed there. Carew had feinted an assault on an obvious landing point of a sandy cove that had been entrenched by the Irish, only to land his main force somewhere to the west, outflanking them and winning a key fight in the battle to take the castle. Failure to prevent this landing was the first in a series of unlucky moves the Irish suffered, as holding the landing points opposite Beare Island was one of the only ways that Carew could have been stopped. An Irish source sarcastically dubs this sort of ruse “pretty tactics”.

For all of the castle’s strengths, there was only so much that it could endure. Carew had an advantage in artillery, and though the defenders blasted back with the guns they ha,d they could not hope to match the English firepower from land and from sea. Local allies, including members of O’Sullivan Beare’s family, informed Carew of the weaker points of the castle, and soon the cannon balls were raining down from positions he had been able to prepare since affecting his landing. Choosing to go about his business via the sea and Beare Island had been a risk, but it had now paid off.

Carew also busied himself reducing the surrounding area, capturing the mostly undefended point of Dursey Island on the very tip of the peninsula. Dursey was the intended “last stand” point of the Dunboy defenders, and its loss severely reduced their strategic options. MacGeoghan ordered several sorties, attempts to capture or destroy the English cannon, and was wounded for his trouble without gaining the objective. Such attacks were now of critical importance, as the rebels position was being torn apart all around them.

After ten days of siege and shelling, Dunboy had been largely reduced to rubble, its walls shattered and its tower felled. The old Irish stone, like so many castles in Munster and beyond, was not built to withstand cannon fire. The defenders, being gradually reduced themselves, still held out under the bombardment.

Attempts to get the garrison to surrender near the start of the siege had failed (MacGeoghan apparently used the opportunity only to warn off the English from an attack, which probably enraged Carew), and now MacGeoghan, realising his position was untenable, tried to re-open the negotiations. The messenger he sent out with a white flag was hanged and the attack continued. While this may seem an act of savagery, the understood laws of war at the time meant that acceptance of negotiations, after terms had been previously offered and rejected, was entirely at the besiegers discretion. Carew, playing hardball and intent on his prize, did not go the Mountjoy route of generous terms. One source also claims the Irish maintained fire while the messenger was sent out, but this is impossible to determine.

On this, the tenth day of the siege, Carew sent forward assault parties to swarm over the reduced walls and make an end of the affair. They were resisted fiercely, and the hand-to-hand fighting that took place was noted as especially bloody. MacGeoghan, though mortally wounded in the fighting, was able to hold off the English for one more day. 30 or so of the defenders made a dash for the sea and a potential swim to safety, but the English Navy was on hand to kill them all in the water.

Thomas Taylor, an Englishman married to the niece of Richard Tyrell, now took command, but could do little more than retreat with the 77 men he had left into the still standing cellars of Dunboy. Escape was impossible, and no surrender terms were offered. In desperation, Taylor sent word to Carew that he would set alight the barrels of gunpowder he had in his possession, blowing the castle remnants and any nearby attackers sky high, before giving it up without terms. Carew ignored this threat and cannon were brought up even closer to launch a continuous fire into the final rebel holdout from near point-blank range.

After one more day of this Taylor marched what few men he had left out of the cellar and into English custody, an unconditional surrender. They were all executed shortly after, some after being tortured. While the sources admire the “pluck” of the defenders, Carew’s actions were probably meant as a warning to others who had thoughts of such a defiant holdout. Many sources relate a story that McGeoghan, still clinging to life, was stopped from lighting the gunpowder stores at the very last second by a fast-acting group of advance soldiers before they ran him through. That may be a simple addition of romanticism to imbue the story, and the Irish, with a degree of fatal heroism, but is mentioned all over the place as happening. Others claim that McGeoghan was stopped by his own soldiers, who preferred to take their chances with surrendering. At least 80 English casualties occurred in the siege. While the overall numbers seem quite low, I am struck in my readings by the attention given to the battle and the fighting that took place there, which is written about in the grimmest terms.

Having captured the prize he set out to take, Carew then added one last bizarre addendum to the brutal struggle, using the same gunpowder stores to blow up the pitiful remains of Dunboy himself. Why he did so is unclear. I would posit that the damage done to the castle was so severe as to rule out any rebuilding effort – it remains a ruin to this day – and the final destruction of the stronghold in such manner was a clear signal of Carew’s intent to destroy the rebels and any places they choose to hide in. TD Sullivan was right in his description:

“Those grass-grown heaps, this crumbling wall

This low green ridge – can these be all,

That was and time have left to tell,

Thy lofty turrets crashing fell”

O’Sullivan Beare had lost a key position, and the peninsula itself was now mostly untenable. But still, the fighting in Munster was not completely finished just yet. One of the most tragic chapters of the Nine Years War was about to play out.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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3 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Siege Of Dunboy

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