The Battle of Kinsale

By Joseph Carey

The Battle of Kinsale has been marked on the Irish side by a series of mistakes, misadventures and failure of proper communication that dogged this major historical event, and which would have repercussions over the following 400 years for Ireland.

The first mistake was made by engaging in the battle so quickly after Hugh O’Donnell’s arrival with his forces to join those of Hugh O’Neill. O’Neill, father-in-law of O’Donnell, was the senior figure on the Irish side and was cautioning that a delay was vital to establish better coordination and communication between the four main branches of the Irish forces: the O’Neills, the O’Donnells, O’Sullivan Beare’s armies and the Spanish army occupying the town of Kinsale.

Moreover, O’Neill, who had been in the vicinity for a number of days, had information that the English army was running short of provisions, especially bulky fodder for the horses of its cavalry, which would be impossible to replenish now that the English were surrounded. It was also known that the English army was suffering from dysentery and other diseases, resulting in a huge death toll of troops in weeks previous. Hugh O’Donnell was an impetuous young man who found it difficult to accept others’ counsel and insisted on mounting an immediate attack, even though his troops were not fully rested or recovered after a long and hazardous march from his encampment at Ballymote in Sligo to Kinsale. This epic march, which is the subject of other publications, was made doubly difficult because O’Donnell chose a course that would avoid towns, main roads and army garrisons, thus having to traverse over rough terrain, swollen rivers and the Slieve Phelim Mountains, in order to avoid Carew and his army at Cashel.

There may have been another agenda impacting his decision to attack at once, which was that he wanted to get to Castlehaven in west Cork as early as possible, where a Spanish ship awaited his arrival to take him to Spain in order to meet the Spanish king to request more support for the Irish cause.

Before the battle was launched, the positions of the respective participants were as follows: the Spanish army, led by Don Juan del Águila, occupied the town of Kinsale and had their ships in the harbour, but had dwindling provisions; the English army and cavalry occupied the ridge and high ground above Kinsale and they were led by Lord Deputy Mountjoy; the Irish troops, led by Hugh O’Neill, Hugh O’Donnell and O’Sullivan Beare, formed a semi-circle around the English army.

The total of the Irish foot soldiers numbered c. 6,000 and the total cavalry numbered c. 800 mounted troops. The number of English troops was c. 2,000 and the number of their cavalry was c. 450 mounted troops. However, it must be noted that the English cavalry troops rode large war horses, which were purpose-bred for aggression, height and strength. They also wore protective covering and had strong saddles with stirrups capable of sustaining a fully armoured rider swinging a heavy sword.

In contrast, the Irish horses were smaller, with some pack horses, and not accustomed to battle tumult. Worse still, the Irish cavalry had no stirrups on their saddles and thus had no support when required to swing a sword or an axe. These disadvantages were to prove disastrous in battle, coupled with the fact that Hugh O’Neill had lost his main cavalry leader and confidant, Hugh Maguire, Chief of Fermanagh, who had been killed by English forces at Inniscarra on the western side of Cork City on 11 March, 1600. In fact, Maguire was on a reconnaissance mission to Cork on behalf of Hugh O’Neill at the time.

It is believed that, had he lived, Hugh Maguire would not have deployed his lighter and weaker cavalry in a ‘full on’ attack against such a formidable mounted enemy, but would have used his mounted troops to harass the enemy at the fringes of the battle, as they did at the battle victories at Clontibret and Yellow Ford.

The battle plan on the Irish side envisaged that O’Donnell’s troops would steal up close to the English camp under cover of darkness, thus sharing the high ground with the enemy for a more effective assault. However, as O’Donnell’s troops marched forward, there was a great explosion in his rearguard which caused considerable confusion and alerted the enemy to the imminent attack. This proved to be a costly mistake as it negated the element of surprise and allowed the English troops to man their defences and the cavalry to mount in readiness for battle.

The Spanish troops were to join the battle from the town of Kinsale and attack the English camp from the rear, thus completing the pincer movement, but this did not occur.O’Neill’s troops were stationed at the lower end of the field of combat and were backing onto some boggy land. They had very little time to erect defences against a cavalry attack.
As the Irish cavalry rode onto the field of fray, they were subjected to a frenzied attack by the heavier English cavalry, who had the added advantage of the higher ground and superior equipment.

The Irish horse troops were scattered and driven backwards in disarray and unfortunately they ran through the ranks of O’Neill’s infantry divisions, causing great consternation and the upheaval of their military formations, resulting in O’Neill’s troops having to withdraw from the battle to reform on higher ground.

When O’Neill observed that the Irish army had lost the initiative and saw their agreed battle plans going awry, as the Spanish troops failed to leave the town and attack the English from the rear, and also O’Donnell’s late entry to the battle ensuring chaotic coordination, he chose to retreat towards Innishannon.

The English horse troops were rampant and caused a lot of slayings and injury casualties within both the O’Donnell and O’Neill troops. O’Neill, fearing rebellion at home, continued to withdraw his troops and began the march back to Tyrone.

The Irish involvement at Kinsale was thus terminated, leaving Mountjoy to exult on his unexpected victory and to enjoy his much enhanced reputation, both in Ireland and in England.As he had planned, O’Donnell set forth to Castlehaven for his journey to Spain, but he was also accompanied by some Spanish observers who had witnessed the battle at Kinsale. Their observations castigated the Irish leadership for not relieving the Spaniards still holed up in Kinsale, who now had to parlay for clemency to ensure their own survival and return to Spain.

As stated, Mountjoy received every accolade that could be bestowed on him but, moreover, many of the Anglo-Irish chieftains and others who had remained neutral in the conflict before now flocked to him to secure his patronage. He was now the most powerful figure in Ireland.

O’Neill returned to Tyrone, but his life was subjected to much more harassment henceforth from a much more formidable and widely supported adversary, until his eventual departure from Lough Swilly to Spain in 1607, in what history has termed ‘The Flight of the Earls.’ Ulster was now leaderless from an Irish viewpoint as the English conquerors proceeded in 1609 with the Plantation of Ulster. The Plantation meant that Irish landowners, especially those on the good lands, had to forfeit their titles to the land to be taken by officers of victorious armies or supporters of the English regime.

The Irish landowners were told to go “to hell or to Connaught.”