Saturday 24 December 2011

The Battle of Kinsale - fought 410 years ago on Christmas Eve 1601

Fought in Co Cork this day 410 years ago on Christmas Eve 1601 the Battle of Kinsale was one the greatest watersheds in Irish history. After near on seven years of victory in the field it signalled the beginning of the end for the Irish confederate alliance under Hugh O'Neill and Hugh O'Donnell and ultimately paved the way for the Jacobean Plantation of Ulster.

The battle was fought to relieve a Spanish expeditionary force which had been under siege by an English army of some 7000 men under Lord Mountjoy in the town of Kinsale. The Gaelic lords of the north after much deliberation on O'Neill's part and less so on O'Donnell's marched to the aid of their Spanish allies. In brief - militarily - the battle was essentially won by the English cavalry who after an initial riposte by skirmishing Irish kern calivermen carried the light Irish cavalrymen before them. Although adept at skirmish warfare the non-stirrup wearing Irish cavalry were the weak spot in O'Neill's army and their loss may not have counted for much excepting that when they routed from the field they routed directly into the flank of O'Neill's main unit of foot. This was a disaster for the well trained bonnachts of Tir Eoghan as it allowed the English horse to drive deep into the pike and shot unit which otherwise would have been impenetrable with its defensive continental style 'tercio' formation. After some support from elements of English infantry soon after and after sustaining heavy losses - the Irish unit cracked and the troops began to rout. It appears then that the small Irish/Spanish unit under Captain Richard Tyrell attempted to screen the Tir Eoghan men from the worst of the English pursuit when they themselves were attacked. They made a brief stand before retreating to a hill from where they themselves then fled the field. Having witnessed the defeat of the main battle and the vanguard - O'Donnell commanding the third and last Irish unit or 'battle' extorted his troops to intervene but it was too late but they at least departed the field in relatively good order.

Of a total of roughly 6500 the Irish lost 2000 dead or dying including 14 captains according to English sources. The English also captured 11 flags, O'Neill's entire baggage train and 2000 weapons. An unknown haul of Irish captives were further executed by hanging. The English in turn lost less than 12 men in addition to one officer but lost many horses - doubtless impaled by the Irish pikemen. It is speculated that Irish casualties would have been far worse only for the physical weakness of the near starved horse which caused the pursuit to be called off after one mile.

In the immediate aftermath O'Donnell sailed for Corunna to enlist more help but it was not to be and O'Donnell died not long before his 30th birthday - most likely of tapeworm - in Spain and was buried at Simancas in September 1602. With his death fell away any real hope of further assistance from the King of Spain, Philip III. Meanwhile - the ever resourceful O'Neill continued to hold out and did not actually surrender to Lord Mountjoy until the end of March in 1603 - and then under extremely generous terms. At this stage we could now get into Arthur Chichester's machinations, the price on O'Neill's head, the Flight of the Earls, O'Doherty's Rising etc but in another time and space.

The picture attached is a very small part a large canvass of the Battle of Kinsale which is now hanging in Trinity College, Dublin - where it has been kept since 1784. The painting is remarkable for its accurate portrayal of topographical features around Kinsale and in it's seemingly accurate serialisation into byte size pieces of the battle itself. It was most likely commissioned by Lord Mountjoy himself. In this particular section we see a group of O'Neill's bonnacht soldiers as they rout for their lives from the English horse. Although it could merely be the artist's own device - it is interesting to note that many of the Irish pikemen are still carrying their cumbersome weapons - albeit in the early stages of rout. Of cultural interest, and indeed of practical interest too from the historical interpreter's POV, are their short - Dungiven like - yellow (saffron?) doublets and their close fitting trews/trousers (quite unlike the baggier English knee length breeches of the day) and their wearing of what appear to be cabasset style helmets.

'Happy' Kinsale Day everyone (and a happy Christmas too) from Claíomh : )

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