A Day Out in Kinsale

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A Day Out in Kinsale

a visit to the site of the battle of 1601

by Jonathan Wray



In the summer of 2000 I found myself holidaying in the Republic of Ireland, based in the city of Cork.  I was with a German friend who has no interest at all in military history, but does like walking by the sea.  


It was to this end, that we took a bus trip to the picturesque harbour town of Kinsale.  The guidebooks said that it has a reputation for good places to eat, so we found ourselves walking into a pub called oddly, or so I thought, 1601, to partake of some superb sandwiches, and a glass of that liquid where the white part separates slowly out of the black!  Those of you, whose knowledge of Irish history is greater than mine, will now be beside yourself wondering when I was going to wake up to the significance of the pub’s name.  It came as we got up to leave and I noticed paintings of a battle and biographies of soldiers on the walls, all related to the Battle of Kinsale in, of course, 1601.  A rapid visit to the Tourist Office saw the purchase of John Thullier’s History of Kinsale – A field study approach, and the military background of this town became apparent.


The battle of 1601 took place between English armies and those of an Irish-Spanish alliance.  The battle lasted three hours and, on paper, should have been won by the larger Irish-Spanish force.  However it was not, and the effect on Irish history was emphatic as it brought to an end the old Irish society, paving the way for racial and religious prejudice.  Up to the end of the 18th century no Catholics or Irish were permitted to live within the walls of Kinsale.  


The King of Spain sent nearly 4,000 troops to aid O’Neill who was fighting for the Catholic cause in Ireland.  They should have landed in Ulster, but made landfall at Kinsale on October 2nd, forcing the Irish to march south to meet them.  For one hundred days the Spanish controlled Kinsale and areas round about. The English, under Mountjoy, arrived in November and started to retake the strategically important positions outside the town, with the fleet retaking the harbour.  The English now laid siege to Kinsale. 


In the north O’Neill, with other Irish chiefs, set off to help the Spanish, arriving in late December, to find 4,000 English between himself and Kinsale.  He set off to break through the English lines but was spotted by Mountjoy who out manoeuvred and destroyed his force.  It was several days later that the Spaniards in Kinsale realised that O’Neill was not going to relieve them.  They parleyed with Mountjoy who offered them an honourable surrender and safe conduct back to Spain


James Fort


After the Battle of Kinsale it was decided that the town must be fortified to prevent a further attack.  Between 1602 and 1604, James Fort was constructed opposite the town on the far shore of the Bandon River.  


Today, the fort is a brisk walk, via a bridge over the river, of about half an hour.  Don’t worry, there is a good pub waiting for you when you get there!  The ramparts and bastions are clearly visible, so you can see the classic star fort design.  Inside there are good remains of an inner fort, comprising of an inner square with garrison lodgings on three sides.  A sixteen feet high wall surrounds the inner fort, that would have provided a strong defence at the centre of the fort. 


Charles Fort


Across the river from James Fort is the impressive Charles Fort.  Sadly, on the day, we had insufficient time to visit it.  Built in the 1680s by William Robinson, architect of the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham, Dublin, the fort was intended to defend Kinsale from potential attacks by Louis XIV of France. It is one of the best surviving examples of a five-pointed bastion fort.  The seaward bastions were hollow (casemated), allowing a second row of canon to defend the fort.  However, impregnable from the sea, the fort was vulnerable from the land.  This was demonstrated in 1690, courtesy of the Duke of Marlborough. 



St Multose Church


Military interest can also be found in this attractive Church of Ireland church.  In 1649 Prince Rupert, blockaded in the port with a squadron of sixteen frigates, proclaimed Charles II King in the church when news arrived of the execution of  Charles 1, eleven years before the Restoration actually took place. 


Within the church one can find a relief carving of the arms of King William II.  These were placed there by the Duke of  Marlborough in 1690, replacing the arms of  James II who had been defeated by William.  Out of  our period, interest is maintained by the presence of the regimental flags of the Highland Light Infantry carried at the Battle of Waterloo and laid up in the church in 1850.


There is more to Kinsale that time prevented us from seeing.  It is has a good bus service from Cork and is definitely worth a visit, indeed I want to go back to see what we missed on the day.  All that remains is for me to encourage you to go, and also to say thank you to Johanna, who got her walk by the sea, but not quite the one she expected. 



Thuillier, J., History of Kinsale – A field study approach (Kinsale, 1987)

Bord Failte/Irish Tourist Board, Ireland Guide (Dublin, 2000)

Kinsale Union of Parishes, A Guide to the Parish Church of St Multose, Kinsale (Kinsale, 1992)


(our thanks go to the Pike and Shot Society for their kind permission to reproduce the above article, which first appeared in their in-house journal the Arquebusier)


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