Christmas Eve 1601: The Battle of Kinsale

Battle of Kinsale 1601

Click for Larger Image If any one single battle of Ireland's Nine Years War was pivotal in nature, it is the Battle of Kinsale. Kinsale is a sleepy little port town in the southeastern portion of the country. Through tactical blunder, it became the focus of a battle that would permanently destroy Ireland's hopes for independence during this time period.

The Nine Years War was waged for a variety of reasons. The Irish wanted their independence from English rule and the English wished to further increase their lands and power in Ireland. Meanwhile, Europe was in the throes of the Protestant Reformation and a turf war emerged between the Catholics and Protestants. Since Ireland was predominantly Catholic, the Nine Years War was seen as an opportunity to undermine English hegemony by Catholic Spain and its supporters.

The hopes of the Irish rested mainly with Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone and Hugh O'Donnell, Earl of Tyreconnel. These two men were the last of the great Gaelic Chieftains and their strongholds were in the Ulster area of Ireland - the locale of the first English Plantations.

A series of revolts broke out here that started the war. Hugh O'Neill cast off his title of Earl of Tyronne and was accepted by the people as the O'Neill (hereditary title of the King of Ireland).

He led the Irish forces to quick victories and gathered great support. At the same time "Red" Hugh O'Donnell was terrorizing the English in the west, recapturing Sligo Castle and defeating Clifford, the English governor of Connacht.


Elizabeth I (Tudor), click for larger image For this Elizabeth I proclaimed both Hugh O'Neill and Hugh O'Donnell enemies and traitors and she recalled her forces from the Spanish War in Belgium.

Ireland, in turn, appealed to Catholic Spain for help. The English under Lord Mountjoy scored many successes and soon had control of Southern Ireland again.

When Spain finally came to the rescue, it was too little too late for the Irish. Phillip III of Spain sent a force of only 4,000 men commanded by Don Juan del Aguilla, whose ill-temper and impatience did not help his already poor skills at generalship.

Aguilla's force and his few ships landed in September 1601 at Kinsale in hostile territory. They were soon surrounded on land by superior English forces and besieged at sea by a hostile English fleet.

O'Neill's hand was thus forced, his choices being to abandon the Spanish and thus write off further help or to march through enemy territory and superior forces. To their credit, the forces under O'Neill marched south and managed to evade all attempts at stopping them.

They arrived at Kinsale in November with 12,000 men and immediately surrounded the English forces.

The battle became one of trench warfare and attrition and by December 2nd, Mountjoy's forces numbered only 6,500 while the Irish and the Spanish were close to 10,000 combined.

Pressure was brought to bear on O'Neill by both O'Donnell and the Spanish inside the city to attack the English forces and finally O'Neill relented.

On Christmas Eve, 1601, the Irish and Spanish attacked and were soundly defeated.

The Irish lost 2,000 and almost 1,000 Scots that had been sent to help in the rebellion. The Spanish were forced to surrender and sent home.

Thus in one blow the hopes of Ireland were dashed after winning battle after battle early in the Nine Years War.

O'Neill's reputation was tarnished and he could never again muster great support. O'Donnell went to Spain where an English agent later poisoned him. Any further hope of assistance from Spain was now also gone.

Dublin Castle in Medieval Times, Click for larger image The decision to attack was a costly one, as 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.

It probably caused the Spanish landing here in the first place, after the defeat of their Armada scant few years ago. Their control of the seas would probably eventually bring reinforcements for the English also, which had to weigh heavily on O'Neill's mind.

With a victory, the entire Irish population would have rallied to O'Neill's flag and the Spanish would have been encouraged to provide more support.

Many Irish gave up on their home after this loss to the English and migrated to the Americas. The power to resist the English was now broken and Catholic land ownership steadily declined for the next 200 years.

The Plantations under the English and the Scots-Irish continued to develop and take over the land that had been held by the Irish peoples for thousands of years.

Ulster itself, home of the modern day revolt in Northern Ireland, never recovered as its lands remain under English control to this day.

BW, December, 1999

Suggested Reading:

The Twilight Lords: An Irish Chronicle, by Richard Berleth. Alfred A. Knopf, 1978

The Story of the Irish Race, by Seumas MacManus. The Devin-Adair Company, 1974

Ireland in the Age of the Tudors, by R. Dudley Edwards. Methuen & Co. LTD, 1950

A History of Ireland, by Edmund Curtiss. Harper & Row, 1977


Famous Irish Hugh O'Donnell on The Clans of Ireland

Plantation of Ireland

The Tyrone Rebellion: History of Ireland

History of Ireland under Elizabeth I

The Great O'Neil: A biography of Hugh O'Neil of Tyrone

Tyrone's Rebellion : The Outbreak of the Nine Years War in Tudor Ireland

An Phoblacht/Republican News

Celtic Horizons


O'Driscoll Clan


Old Ireland

Kinsale: The consequences

Fermanagh History

MORE Christmas Stories:

Memories of Christmas in Ireland

Irish Christmas Songs

The Celtic Origins of Holly

The Celtic Origins of Mistletoe

The Celtic Origins of Christmas: Alban Arthuan