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Celtic Jewelry

Battle of Kinsale

Ancient Ireland
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If ever there was a decisive battle, or day or hour or even moment, in Irish history, it was sometime in the early morning of Christmas Eve 1601. In mid October, 7,000 English troops led by Lord Mountjoy had surrounded the Munster town of Kinsale, County Cork, held since 23rd September by a 4,000 strong Spanish invasion force led by Don Juan del Aguila. By the end of November, reinforcements had brought Mountjoy's strength to over 12,000.

After the savagery and ruthlessness used to suppress the Desmond Rebellion in Munster in the 1580's, local aid was weak. Even worse for the Irish, the Ulster power base of the main Gaelic leaders, Hugh (The Great) O'Neill and Red Hugh O'Donnell, was hundreds of miles away at the far end of the country (Ironically, as a young man, O'Neill himself had fought for the English against Desmond in the early 1570's). Ulster had been surrounded by a ring of English forts in the previous two years, had been invaded at Derry by a 3,000 strong army under Henry Dowcra, and many of O'Neill's and O'Donnell's allies had deserted them. O'Neill calculated that the Spanish could withstand a siege for some time - they had food, shelter, ammunition, and the necessary expertise. Also he knew that conditions were probably worse for the besieging army, since they were more exposed to the elements, and winter was coming. He therefore felt that an immediate march to Kinsale, with a guerilla army untrained for either siege or open warfare, leaving Ulster at the mercy of the English and local Irish rivals, would be foolish.

So, he chose a nearer target. In the hope of drawing at least some of Mountjoy's forces away from the Spanish, he broke through the ring of forts with 4,000 men, and attacked and laid waste the Pale, the English-ruled part of Ireland centred on Dublin. But, in spite of the pleas of the Palesmen, Mountjoy refused to budge from Kinsale, and eventually O'Neill and O'Donnell had to march their armies from Ulster down almost the full length of Ireland, across hundreds of miles of mud and bog in the middle of November. The long march was celebrated by the poet Aubrey De Vere : -

O'er many a river bridged with ice,
O'er many a vale with snow-drifts dumb,
Past quaking fen and precipice
The princes of the North are come.
Lo! those are they who year by year
Roll'd back the tide of England's war;
Rejoice Kinsale, thy help is near,
That wondrous winter march is o'er.

They evaded the English army of George Carew, sent to block them, and their combined strength of 6,500 men arrived at the outskirts of Kinsale in the first week of December. They were joined by another force of 700 Spanish who had recently landed at nearby Castlehaven, and the besiegers became the besieged.

Although 3 years previously, using a mixture of ambush and more orthodox infantry and cavalry tactics, O'Neill and O'Donnell had inflicted a major battlefield defeat on the English at the Battle of the Yellow Ford (external link), O'Neill usually preferred hit and run or Fabian tactics - they had served him well over the years - and he wanted to let hunger and disease further weaken Mountjoy's forces. By December, thousands of Mountjoy's men were unfit for action or had deserted. At the time of the battle they had only six days of food left, and with the Irish controlling the surrounding countryside, there was little hope of resupply. del Aguila, however, wanted the Irish to attack. Before they left Spain, the Spanish had been led to believe they would receive massive and effective local support in Ireland. Yet here they were, still besieged nearly three months after they had landed. Isolated in a strange country, they had withstood every bombardment the English could throw at them. They had fought and many had died in skirmishes as they sallied forth again and again to attack the English guns or supplies. They had had to wait almost two months for O'Neill and O'Donnell to decide to move south. And now, reduced to eating rusks soaked in water, their own food situation was becoming critical.

O'Donnell also wanted to attack. He and O'Neill had force-marched their men through three hundred miles of wet and freezing weather, carrying their weapons, ammunition and food on their backs. Now they were in strange territory, living on scraps of food, starving slowly and falling ill, with no shelter whatever, standing or sitting around all day in cold pouring rain, and sleeping night after night in sodden clothes in water-soaked ditches. O'Donnell emphasised the disastrous effect this was having on morale. Also, O'Donnell's natural inclination and that of his men was always to attack. For years, he and O'Neill had provided effective leadership for the Irish. The skills and personalities of the two men usually complemented each other well, with the dash and daring of the younger O'Donnell balanced by the more thoughtful, more cautious approach of the older O'Neill. After heated argument between O'Neill and O'Donnell, and after smuggled messages from del Aguila, it was agreed to attack at dawn on Christmas Eve.

What exactly happened at the battle is still debated. The following account of the battle, which is most detailed I've found so far, is from the 1942 book "The Great O'Neill" by Sean O'Faolain, one of Ireland's best known writers.

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Questions still remain about the defeat. Why did O'Neill give in to O'Donnell and del Aguila? Why did del Aguila not fight, at the moment of greatest opportunity, when for month after month he had withstood the siege so resolutely? Why had the Irish no cavalry at the battle? Whatever may be the full reasons for the defeat, it is probable that the half-trained Irish - steeped in the old Celtic traditions of raids and ambush, of hit and run, of a wild, mad, all or nothing charge for death or glory, and uneasy with formal discipline in spite of all O'Neill's efforts - could not withstand repeated determined, organised assaults from a trained army. It happened to Celtic peoples over and over again 2,000 years ago on the continent in their battles with the Romans, it happened to the Irish in their battles against the Normans, and it happened against the English at Kinsale.

See also Violence in Ireland .

The above is based mainly on Sean O'Faolain's book "The Great O'Neill",
available from Fred Hanna .

Published by Mercier Press
PO Box 5
5 French Church Street

Also partly based on "James Archer of Kilkenny" by Thomas Morrissey S.J. and "From Reformation to Restoration: Ireland 1534-1660" by Nicholas Canny.

Last updated September 2000.
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