Why the Spanish failed at Kinsale to unite Ireland

Joanne O'Flynn and Breda McCarthy show their battle scars during a re-enactment of the 1601 Battle of Kinsale on its 400 year anniversary.

The Battle of Kinsale in 1601 was the highlight of a three-month siege of Spanish forces in the town and ended their hopes of conquest. Tom Hickey takes a look at a new book on this landmark moment in Irish history.

Kinsale is one of the most beautiful towns in Ireland, famous for its superb restaurants and splendid harbour, and delightful narrow streets.

Back in 1601 it was the scene of a major battle that changed the course of Irish history, and yet there was a lot more to Kinsale than just that bloody clash in 1601.

The Battle of Kinsale may have sealed the fate of Ireland, and precipitated the Flight of the Wild Geese, but it also marked the end of Spanish hopes of conquering Ireland - and eventually England - for Catholic Spain.

In The Last Armada, Des Ekin takes us behind the scenes of the Spanish and English royal courts, to better understand why events unfolded as they did, and who the principal figures in the campaign were.

The Battle of Kinsale was no one day wonder, rather just a disastrous episode in a siege that lasted 100 days.

“I was fascinated by the personalities like Aguila (the Spanish commander),” Ekin says. “He was little known and presented as a villain and accused of cowardice by the Irish.

He was in fact in prison when summoned, in a scene reminiscent of The Dirty Dozen, and called to lead the Spanish Armada.”

Juan del Aguila was a strong leader, whose ships were forced by unwelcome bad weather to land in Kinsale, but soon realised he had been handed a poisoned chalice.

He arrived with a bunch of meddling clerics, including Mateo de Oviedo, the self-styled Archibishop of Dublin who, Ekin said, was “the cheerleader of the invasion, an ideologue wedded to the idea of helping Catholics and with a blind trust in divine intervention”.

Assured that the Irish populace would readily flock to his side, Aguila was quickly disabused when the townspeople showed disinterest and even hostility.

More worryingly, he had arrived with 1,600 saddles, but the expected horses the Irish guaranteed never showed up – “a horrendous lack of intelligence”, says Ekin.

Worse still, part of the expedition returned home leaving Aguila and his men stranded.

And then the English army arrived under Charles Blount, a man implicated via his mistress in a failed plot to replace Queen Elzabeth. For him it was a chance to atone and regain his status with the queen.

Kinsale was indefensible, as Aguila soon discovered, though he made heroic efforts to protect the town’s 200 buildings and his men.

Cut off from the sea – and with no ships in which to escape (they had been removed with some of the Spanish forces at an early stage) – reality soon kicked in.

While the buildings were soon pulverised by Blount’s artillery, the Spaniards and terrified locals largely escaped thanks to the large cellars.

What they couldn’t escape was the wretched conditions that reduced them to eating dogs, cats and knackered horses. Still they held out.

Long grinding sieges were nothing new then, Ekin told me.

“The drama and excitement of sieges were always neglected, so I focussed on that.” He believes the siege was up there with the Alamo.

He outlines in detail how Blount’s forces built a hugely impressive fortification on Spital Hill (now Camphill).

Under the eye of Josiah Bodley, the engineering feat of erecting deep trenches and high walls unfolded by day and was zealously defended from marauding Spaniards at night.

The Irish revolt the Spanish hoped for never happened, and pleas to Ulster leaders O’Neill and O’Donnell eventually saw them make their way South at a leisurely pace, so busy were they in pillaging the countryside.

One of the more bizarre moments in the siege was when Aguila offered to settle the outcome in single combat with Blount - a great idea that would have saved many lives, but Blount declined.

When the Irish forces did arrive (a small detachment of Spanish soldiers who had arrived in Cork Cork earlier and seized Berehaven, Castlehaven and Baltimore were among them) they made several tactical errors, the worst being when their cavalry retreated through their own infantry lines, forcing their surprised comrades to break ranks.

It provided Blount with the perfect opportunity and he seized it, cutting through the Irish and forcing them into panicked retreat and disaster. It was a bloody Christmas Eve.

Ekin, whose previous work includes The Stolen Village, about a raid by Barbary pirates at Baltimore, draws on a rich trove of Spanish and English letters and documents to recreate the unfolding drama, particularly the effects on the Spanish forces and Aguila’s doomed efforts to hold out.

Aguila eventually negotiated a settlement on January 2 which not only ensured his forces survived, but also that their Irish companions’ lives were spared.

For his valiant efforts he would eventually be tried in Spain for his actions, although he was exonerated.

Ekin speculates – and he might be right – that even had the Spaniards won Ireland would have been under Spanish hegemony, and no better off than it was under the English. A sobering thought.

The Last Armada by Des Ekin (O’Brien Press, €19.99)


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