December is a memorable month for the Irish for it marks the celebration of the birth of Christ. Yet, there are other dates in December that are also significant. For example, it was on December 24, 1601, that the most significant battle in Irish history was joined. It was the Battle of Kinsale. It put an end to Ireland’s hopes for independence at the time and destroyed Gaelic aristocracy forever. And it was all due to a tactical blunder.
The conflict known as the Nine Years War was waged for a variety of reasons. The Irish wanted independence from English rule, the English wished to further increase their lands in Ireland and the Crown had been attempting the suppression of Roman Catholicism since Henry VIII broke with Rome in December 1538. In 1587, Spain threatened to invade England and Elizabeth knew she could not muster her full forces against the Spanish while the threat of rebellion existed in Ireland. She controlled much of the south, but the major clans of the north remained uncertain. The largest of those clans were the O’Neills whom it was hoped were loyal since their leader, Hugh, had been raised by the Crown, schooled in English values, and returned as Earl of Tyrone. The next largest were the O’Donnells of Donegal and to insure their behavior, 15-year old Red Hugh – heir to its Chieftaincy, was kidnapped and held hostage in Dublin Castle. The third largest clan were The Maguires and a force would be sent against their clan seat at Enniskillen. What the English didn’t realize was that O’Neill’s English training had taught him English duplicity and treachery and he had been building alliances throughout the land to insure his security.
On December 25 1591, Red Hugh O’Donnell escaped from Dublin Castle and early in the new year he was brought to O’Neill who escorted him to Hugh Maguire, and safe passage home to Donegal and a clan now anxious for revenge. In May 1593, standing on the Rock of Doone, the inaugural stone of the Clan O’Donnell, he received a title higher than any foreigner could give – the ancient title of The O’Donnell, Chief of Donegal. The Maguire, Chief of Fermanagh was the first of the northern chieftains to take up arms when the English captured Enniskillen, his fort at the Gap of the North – the main access to Ulster.
O’Donnell answered Maguire’s call for aid, and the two Hughs swept across Ulster driving the English before them; they broke through the Gap of the North and recaptured Enniskillen. They next moved on Fort Monaghan, and the English sent reinforcements. They met at the Battle of Clontibert, where the English saw, for the first time, the Red Hand of O’Neill among the clan standards. Hugh O’Neill had cast off the title, Earl of Tyrone, and took the ancient title of The O’Neill, Chief of Tir Owen; the northern alliance of the three Hughs was complete with England’s trusted Earl of Tyrone at their head. The last remaining Irish War Chieftains were now a national force with O’Neill commanding 1,000 horse-soldiers and 7,000 foot-soldiers at a time when the entire English force in Ireland was less than 2,000. In 1596, O’Neill swept through the north and each blow was echoed by O’Donnell and Maguire in the west.
In 1598, a reinforced English army of 4000 foot and 300 horse met the combined Irish forces at the Yellow Ford on the Callan River in Armagh. What happened next had never happened before in Ireland. On August 14, the English were outmaneuvered, outgunned, outfought, and out-generaled. It was not the undisciplined hit and run style of the Irish and the recognition of Irish supremacy caused panic among the English troops. The Battle of Yellow Ford resulted in 3,000 English casualties and the loss of all arms and supplies. More than a victory, it was a national triumph. The Queen’s army had been destroyed, the north was O’Neill’s, and all Ireland awaited his army of liberation. As Berlith wrote in The Twilight Lords, The defeat was the greatest military disaster of Elizabeth’s reign. She was not on the brink of losing Ireland after Yellow Ford; she had lost it and would now spend a fortune to regain it. In 1599, Elizabeth sent Lord Essex with 16,000 troops to destroy O’Neil. In Louth, the armies met and O’Neill called for a parlay. The two leaders met and, though what was said will never be known, when it was over Essex and his army returned to Dublin. In defiance of Elizabeth, he had granted a truce! She accused him of cowardice, as Essex returned to England to lead a rebellion against her. Had O’Neill proposed such a plan to avoid conflict with Elizabeth, who was now an old woman? He had already negotiated with her successor, James Stuart of Scotland, and may have offered Essex a position in the new reign in return for a truce until Elizabeth’s death.
By 1600, O’Neill had won Ireland back, though there was still a small English presence; the only obstacle between him and independence was an old woman who would not die. As Essex was sent the Tower, Elizabeth poured men and money into Ireland until she found the leader she sought. He was Lord Mountjoy, a commander whose campaign has never been forgotten as all things Irish – crops, homes, and cattle – were wantonly destroyed. In September 1601, the long-awaited Spanish aid O’Neill had requested arrived, but they were too few and landed at the wrong place: Kinsale in Co. Cork. Mountjoy bottled them up and O’Neill raced his tired forces south to relieve them. The Spanish Commander unwisely attacked on December 24, drawing O’Neill into the battle prematurely. The mistake cost Ireland the victory which would have left her independent. The Maguire was killed, The O’Neill had suffered his first defeat and the new Irish nation was dealt a mortal blow in its infancy. Red Hugh went to Spain to seek more aid and O’Neill kept up guerilla raids hoping to outlive the aging Elizabeth. Offers of leniency were refused by O’Neill, but when he learned that O*Donnell had been poisoned in Spain, the greatest Irish Chieftain of his age came to Mellifont Abbey on March 30, 1603 and surrendered to Lord Mountjoy. He pledged obedience on April 3 and after the ceremony of submission was told: Elizabeth of England had died on March 24! Catholic James Stuart of Scotland was now James I of England. O’Neill had won and never knew it. He had outlasted the Queen only to be tricked into submission by Lord Mountjoy before agreements with James could be ratified. Had the December Battle of Kinsale been won, Ireland would have been free. Instead, the only thing in her immediate future was the Flight of the Earls and the destruction of Ireland’s Gaelic system of sovereignty – but that’s another story!