If any one battle in Ireland’s search for independence was pivotal in nature, it was the Battle of Kinsale that ended the Nine Years War of the Three Hughes against the Crown. The battle took place in January, 1602 and through tactical blunders, it put an end to Ireland’s hereditary Gaelic clan system. On a larger scale it was part of the Anglo-Spanish War (1585 -1604) of Protestant England against Catholic Spain.
Beginning in 1594, England’s colonial ambitions in Ireland suffered significant resistance from three Ulster war chieftains: Hugh O’Donnell, Hugh Maguire and Hugh O’Neill. It was a war of fort and forest against England’s attempt to establish frontier strongholds and Gaelic rule. The Irish used hit and run guerrilla tactics of ambush and harassment followed by withdrawal into the widespread forests. English armies seeking to relieve or supply forward garrisons suffered constant casualties. At the battle of the Yellow Ford in August 1598, the English suffered their greatest defeat on Irish soil in which the commanding officer was killed along with over 20 officers and several hundred men. British forces were further reduced by desertion and disease arising from the wet climate and poor nutrition. When the Earl of Essex arrived in Ireland in 1599 at the head of 12,000 troops, he made a truce with O’Neill and his army melted away without fighting a single battle. What had started as a rebellion of Ulster Chieftains seeking to defend their ancient rights, attracted support from discontented Chiefs and Lords across Ireland. Elizabeth was not in danger of losing Ireland; she had lost it and would spend a fortune to recapture it. She found the ferocious leader she sought to command her forces in Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, and appointed him Lord Deputy of Ireland with unlimited resources to bring the Irish to heel.
A policy of favors for those who aided the English and the construction of forts behind Irish positions increased pressure on the Ulster Chieftains and stopped their advance. O’Neill understood that while his troops excelled in hit-and-run tactics, they would be defeated in a formal battle and the new forts limited his ability to use best tactics. With suitable inducements, rival Irish chieftains began to return allegiance to the Crown. O’Neill sought military aid from Spain and it was offered in the expectation that the Irish would draw English support away from the Netherlands, which were rebelling against Spanish rule at the time. Spain sent Don Juan del Aguila to Ireland with 6,000 men, arms and ammunition. Bad weather separated the ships and nine of them, carrying the majority of veteran soldiers and gunpowder, had to turn back. The remaining 4000 men disembarked at Kinsale, just south of Cork on 2 October 1601 and rushed to fortify the town to withstand the approaching English armies. However, they failed to occupy the surrounding area and were vulnerable to a siege by English forces. Further, they had landed too little, too late in an area where O’Neill did not have much support.
Lord Mountjoy rushed to Kinsale with as many men as he could take and laid siege to the town. Reinforcements brought his army’s strength to 12,000 and the British Navy bombarded Kinsale from the sea. The Gaelic Chieftains considered their positions. The Spanish had landed far away from the areas under their control and in order to aid them, O’Neill would have to lead their troops into regions where support for their cause was doubtful. As autumn turned into a wet and stormy winter, the besieged Spanish began to suffer privation and O’Neill’s hand was forced. He could abandon the Spanish and write off any further help or march 300 miles through enemy territory to relieve them. To their credit, the Irish marched south and managed to evade all attempts to stop them. They arrived at Kinsale in November with 6,180 men and immediately surrounded the English forces. O’Neill had to abandon his successful hit and run tactics and risk open confrontation. A large force would be necessary; larger than they could afford to lose.
The battle became one of trench warfare. Pressure was brought on O’Neill by the Spanish inside the city to attack the English forces and finally O’Neill relented. On 24 December (English calendar), 3 January 1602 (Gregorian calendar) the Irish and Spanish attacked. In three columns they marched toward a night attack, but they failed to reach their destination by dawn and the English were waiting for them. The Irish were soundly defeated. The Spanish gave up the town to Mountjoy, and ‘on terms’ were allowed to sail back to Spain. Another Spanish force was sent but never landed as news of Aguila’s surrender was received and they promptly turned back to Spain. The decision to attack was a costly one, as a continued siege of the English would probably have resulted in victory. But the size and power of the English fleet was pivotal in this battle. The remaining Ulster forces returned home and after two more years of fighting the last of them surrendered in 1603, just after the death of Queen Elizabeth. O’Donnell went to Spain to seek more aid but was poisoned by an English spy named Blake. O’Neill went to Spain accompanied by other chieftains in what became known as the Flight of the Earls. Their intention was to raise another army, but the lands they left behind were soon divided up in the Plantation of Ulster and they were never able to return for they left behind a power vacuum that the English eagerly filled. The result of the Battle of Kinsale was devastating to the existing Irish culture as the old Gaelic clan system was finally broken. The years ahead contained nothing but grief for England’s first overseas colony.