The Battle of Kinsale

Published in Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 2 (Summer 2004), Reviews, Volume 12

Hiram Morgan (ed.)
(Wordwell Books, 335)
ISBN    1869857704

This book, consisting of 21 chapters and 10 appendices by 20 authors, is the product of a winter school held in Kinsale in January 2002, the final event in a year-long commmemoration of the 400th anniversary of the battle of Kinsale. It deals not only with the battle itself but also with the lead-up to it, some of the important personalities involved and the aftermath, as well as an account of the commemoration and a suggestion for the future. Despite the diversity of the various chapters, Hiram Morgan, editor and main contributor, has drawn them together very well, particularly in his introduction and in his chapter on historiography. He suggests three possible outcomes if the battle had gone the other way: Ireland ‘becoming a dependency of the Spanish crown under a Hapsburg prince’; O’Neill ‘becoming king of Ireland with Spanish support and a nod from the pope’; or the establishment of ‘a type of aristocratic republic under an early version of the confederation of Kilkenny’.

Enrique Hernán’s chapter on the earlier, forgotten Spanish armada of 1596, wrecked by a storm, illustrates that while there was support for the Irish in Spain it was then still fickle, the fleet intended for Ireland being sent instead to Brittany. Hiram Morgan’s chapter comparing the Kinsale landing of Águila in 1601 with Sir Henry Dowcra’s earlier expedition to Lough Foyle in 1600 concludes that the latter succeeded because the former failed.  The Spanish army, according to Óscar Morales in his treatment of its attitudes to the Irish at Kinsale, were aware that the expedition was ‘a very hazardous and rash operation’ requiring greater resources than originally estimated. Their criticism of the Irish after the battle was used to cover up their own failures.

The key chapter is Morgan’s ‘Disaster at Kinsale’, where he looks at the contemporary English and Spanish sources to explain the result. He concludes that the main reason for the Irish failure was ‘the inadequacy’ of their cavalry: their horses were too small and were ridden without stirrups by lightly armed horsemen. In a complementary chapter John McGurk shows how the English navy under Admiral Sir Richard Leveson rendered a major, though less distinguished, role in the campaign. McGurk puts the naval operations in context, explaining that the Nineteen Years’ War (1585–1604) between England and the Spanish Hapsburg empire ‘had been fought out as much on the high seas as on land and was probably the first major war in history in which this was the case’.

Thomas O’Connor assesses whether or not Hugh O’Neill was a sincere Catholic, a new look at an old argument that dates from the Nine Years’ War itself, and concludes that O’Neill ‘experienced some sort of religious conversion in the mid-1590s which left its mark’. Kenneth Nicholls reveals much about Richard Tyrrell, an important ally of O’Neill about whom little was previously known. Valerie McGowan-Doyle’s treatment of Christopher St Lawrence and Pale loyalism illustrates very well the attempts by the Old English to demonstrate their loyalty by vigorous service against O’Neill. Despite such service, ‘their identity was ambiguous, their allegiance doubted and their loyalty unrewarded’. Ciaran O’Scea’s chapter on the Conde de Caracena, governor of Galicia 1596–1606, is very interesting. A strong advocate for the Irish, Caracena was later governor of Valencia when the Morisco minority was expelled from Spain in 1609, and the author makes comparisons between them and the Irish.

The chapters dealing with the aftermath of the battle cover a wide range of topics. In his chapter on the little-explored question of the debased coinage Elizabeth used to pay her soldiers, Joseph McLaughlin concludes that this had the effect of consolidating the victory at Kinsale, as many victorious officers sought their reward in Irish land rather than money. Vincent Carey’s chapter on the scorched earth campaign carried out by Mountjoy in Ulster after Kinsale emphasises that even English commentators were haunted by the havoc wreaked. Using Philip O’Sullivan Beare’s history, Clare Carroll looks at how defeat and persecution were remembered by Irish exiles in Spain, and how they salvaged ‘a sense of the justness of their cause and the necessity of continuing to fight for it’.

Mary Ann Lyons’s chapter on French reactions to the Nine Years’ War and the Flight of the Earls is very good. While Henry IV needed Elizabeth I’s support, he and a number of noblemen helped O’Neill and O’Donnell when they landed in France and allowed them safe passage, leading to a diplomatic row with James I. Glyn Redworth’s chapter on the ‘Spanish Match’ negotiations in the early 1620s, on the prospective marriage of Philip III’s daughter and James I’s son and heir, showed that toleration of Catholics in all the Stuart kingdoms, including Ireland, was an issue, owing to intense lobbying from the Irish.

Hector McDonnell shows how the MacDonnells of Antrim, in particular Randal MacDonnell, were able to come to terms with the new Stuart order. He suggests that Randal was able to understand the benefits, perhaps because the MacDonnells, though Gaelic, were incomers. David Edwards details the effective use of the military apparatus by the Stuart regime to deal with the Gaelic political order after Kinsale, an apparatus maintained despite cutbacks. Michelle O’Riordan questions the use of contemporary bardic poetry to achieve insights into changes in Gaelic Ireland, arguing that it was too formulaic and stylised.

Gillian Doherty details how scholars associated with the Ordnance Survey of Ireland in the 1830s and 1840s uncovered the descendants of noble Gaelic families, whose genealogical claims they were able to back up by documentary evidence. Many believed that ‘their ancestors had been illegally robbed of lands and possessions’. Many remained influential; their ancestral grievances intensified the struggle for the land in the nineteenth century and were a factor in the growth of nationalist consciousness. John R. Thuillier’s account of the 400th anniversary celebrations made me realise how much celebrations of historical events are themselves part of the study of history. And, for the future, Damien Shiels called for the use of battlefield archaeology.

The appendices contain a number of interesting items: maps of the siege and battle; documents on the role played by Irish ships and mariners during the campaign; a newly discovered account of the battle by a Spanish ensign; a list of Irish who left for Spain after the battle; and various pieces of Elizabethan propaganda relating to the battle, including the official account of it.

A special word of praise must go to the publisher for the book’s very beautiful, copious illustrations, which support the text very well. My personal favourite is a photograph of a statue and memorial to Admiral Leveson in the church in Wolverhampton where he is buried. This slab of a book will become required reading for both specialist and general reader alike.

Murray Smith


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