Study shows size of Siege of Kinsale

New research into the Siege of Kinsale will be presented at international conference, writes writes Áilín Quinlan

Groundbreaking research into the Siege of Kinsale in 1601, in which some 7,000 people died, will be presented by a Cork archaeologist at a prestigious international conference later this week.

For the first time, the position of the English army’s trenches, forts and cannon in siegeworks which stretched across some 1,500 acres around the ancient Co Cork port have been comprehensively mapped and recorded.

Sophisticated computer-modelling techniques used in the latter stages of the 14-year study, will also be outlined to the ninth International Fields of Conflict Conference, the single largest gathering of battlefield and conflict archaeologists in the world.

The conference, which takes place at Trinity College Dublin from this Thursday until Sunday features some of the world’s top archaeologists, including Douglas Scott, whose work on the site at Custer’s Last Stand is internationally renowned, as well as Scottish archaeologist Tony Pollard, known for his work with the BBC series Two Men in A Trench.

Held only every two years, the event last took place in Charleston, South Carolina, and is coming to Dublin to mark the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 2016.

“Ask most people about the Battle of Kinsale and they’ll probably be able to tell you that the Spaniards arrived in Kinsale to support the Irish rebels, were besieged by the English, and that the English were in turn besieged by the Irish army of O’Neill and O’Donnell,” explains Cork-born Paul O’Keeffe, an archaeologist with Transport Infrastructure Ireland and co-director of the Kinsale Battlefield Project with his colleague and UCC graduate, Damian Shiels.

“Just when it seemed that the Irish couldn’t lose, they were utterly routed on Christmas Eve 1601 and a week later the Spaniards surrendered.”

Mr O’Keeffe is delivering the paper on the siege site research carried out by both men since 2002 while his colleague, the foremost battlefield archaeologist in the country, will make a presentation on the Archaeology of the Irish War of Independence.

English musketballs found in one of the English siege camps.
English musketballs found in one of the English siege camps.

However, Mr O’Keeffe explains, fewer people are aware that, in 1601, Kinsale was also the focal point of the most costly siege — in terms of human life — to have taken place on this island up to that time.

For 77 days throughout that autumn and winter, the harbour town was besieged by a 12,000-strong English army which constructed kilometres of massive earthworks — trenches, forts, and artillery batteries — cutting Kinsale off completely on the landward side.

“A thousand Spanish men died defending the walls of the town. Their blood ran in its streets and their bodies are buried there,” says Mr O’Keeffe.

Just outside the town, 6,000 men — mostly English, Welsh, and Irish — died cold, miserable deaths manning the trenches. Their bodies are now buried in unmarked grave pits.

The bodies of the Spaniards lie buried in the town, while the remains of about 1,000 Irish men who fought with O’Neill and O’Donnell are scattered from Millwater to Dunderrow and beyond.

In all, there were some 3,500 Spanish soldiers, commanded by Don Juan Del’Aguila, inside the town.

Behind the English siege lines was an army of 6,000 men, commanded by Hugh O’Neill and Red Hugh O’Donnell, which in turn was besieging the English forces.

Hugh O’Neill
Hugh O’Neill

In all, it is believed that about 7,000 people died — mostly from disease and malnutrition — but, says Mr O’Keeffe, any real knowledge of the siege or the burials seems to have passed out of folk memory.

“We are the first archaeologists to map and record the extent of the siege-works — up to now nobody knew where all of them were.

“This is the only siege site in the country which has been completely mapped and recorded,” says Mr O’Keeffe, adding that the project was also the longest-running investigation of any siege site in the country.”

The archaeological remains of the siege constitute the best-preserved siege landscape of this period in either Ireland or Britain, said Mr O’Keeffe, a native of the Cork suburb of Togher.

However, because of a lack of awareness of its importance, he warned, the site is being slowly chipped away by the expansion of the town.

It was this concern that led Mr Shiels to establish the Kinsale Battlefield Project in 2002 and with funding from Kinsale Town Council and the Royal Irish Academy as well as from Cork auctioneer Jim Carey, the men gradually unlocked the secrets of the landscape through archaeological investigation.

By 2015, they’d carried out desk-based studies, field walking, metal detection surveys, LIDAR analysis (laser scanning), and geophysical surveys.

From that work, they succeeded in determining the rough outline of the largest English siege camp, that of the Lord Deputy Mountjoy, which stretched for 29 acres. They had also identified the general locations of several other siege-works.

However, the sheer size of the siege landscape made the work difficult and earlier this year they tried a new approach, using computer modelling and two 17th-century plans of the siege to digitally recreate the siege field and its contemporary landscape. This allowed them to locate and map all of the siegeworks for the first time.

The full conference programme is available here


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