A Christmas Battle that led to the Partition of Ireland

In December 1921, one hundred years ago this month, Ireland’s 26 southern counties were granted independence from Britain. The Irish Free State was born, with Ulster in the north remaining part of the UK. The partition of Ireland had become an inevitability since the English subjugation of Gaelic Ireland dating back to the Battle of Kinsale on Christmas Eve 1601, a tumultuous event that now has echoes of Culloden. 

The two key Gaelic Catholic leaders in Ireland were Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone and his Ulster ally Red Hugh O’Donnell. O’Neill was O’Donnell’s father-in-law. Following a surprise victory in Armagh in 1598, when O’Neill routed an English force, killing hundreds, he had persuaded the Spanish King, Phillip III, to send an armada of ships and 6,000 men to help him defeat the English army led by Baron Mountjoy, who had been appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland by Elizabeth I. Foul weather split the Spanish fleet, with some ships returning home, while the remainder, with 4,000 men, were forced to land in Kinsale, a remote and tiny fishing port in County Cork. 

For more than two months, 2,000 English troops and 450 cavalry under the command of Mountjoy, besieged the Spanish invaders in Kinsale, occupying the high ground surrounding the harbour. O’Neill was faced with a terrible dilemma. Should he march his army south, to the other end of Ireland, in mid-winter and through hostile territory guarded by the English, to support his beleaguered Spanish allies? He knew that by doing so, his troops could face almost certain destruction and he would be leaving the North undefended, but honour prevailed. O’Neill and O’Donnell’s 6,000 troops and 800 cavalry set out on a march that would decide the future of Ireland. They skilfully avoided an English ambush at Slieve Phelim, by undertaking a hazardous night-march across a frozen marsh, reaching Kinsale in ten days. As Christmas approached, they were joined by a small force led by Donal Cam O’Sullivan, Prince of Beare.

O’Neill knew that the English army was in a grim state. They had run short of provisions and now they were surrounded, they had no way of getting supplies. Dysentery and other diseases had led to a huge death toll in the English ranks. O’Neill advised his son-in-law that they should bide their time until the English troops were sufficiently weakened. But O’Donnell was impetuous and even though his men had just marched more than 200 miles from Sligo to Kinsale in horrendous winter conditions, he was determined to launch an immediate attack. O’Donnell’s exhausted troops mounted a night assault, hoping to catch the English by surprise, but an accidental explosion in his rear-guard alerted the enemy and caused confusion amongst his own men.

Had the Spanish attacked from the English rear, trapping Mountjoy in a classic pincer movement, the battle would have been won. But the Spanish commander believed the explosion was a ruse by the English to trick him into ordering an attack and he stayed put. The Irish horse troops were routed by the better equipped and trained English cavalry. When O’Neill realised that the Spanish would not be leaving the town to join the battle, he ordered his force to retreat. They were pursued relentlessly by the English who slaughtered them in their hundreds. The Spanish, still holed up in Kinsale, had to negotiate for clemency with Mountjoy. 

Lord Deputy Mountjoy was hailed as a hero for his overwhelming victory at Kinsale and became the most powerful figure in Ireland. To teach the Northern rebels a lesson, Mountjoy began a scorched-earth policy in Ulster, Munster and Tyrone, burning crops and killing livestock, effectively reducing farmland to a desert. Thousands died of starvation.  Red Hugh O’Donnell fled to Spain to try to raise more support, but he died shortly afterwards, probably poisoned by an English agent. The day before Queen Elizabeth I’s death in 1603, O’Neill surrendered to the English and travelled to London to seek clemency from King James I of England and VI of Scotland. For a time, King James was sympathetic to O’Neill’s entreaties, having learned how to deal with fractious clan chiefs in Scotland. But following the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, James I patience with Catholicism snapped. He ordered a crackdown on the Irish Earls and their followers, severely impacting on their power and income.

Tiring of the constant English harassment, Red Hugh’s successor, his younger brother Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnel, decided to flee to Spain. This was immediately viewed by the English as an attempt to plot another uprising. Realising that he too would be implicated, O’Neill resolved to leave Ireland as well. On 14th September 1607, along with around ninety followers, O’Neill set sail to Normandy from Rathmullan in Donegal, in what became known as ‘The Flight of the Earls’. The arrival of the Irish nobility in Normandy caused a major international crisis. King James I demanded their extradition and when the French refused, he suspected the Irish rebels would make for Spain to link up with their Spanish allies. But having signed the Anglo-Spanish Peace Treaty in 1604, Spain was reluctant to welcome the Irish earls, forcing them to end their days in Rome, as celebrated guests of Pope Paul V. 

The Flight of the Earls played directly into English hands. King James I declared their act of leaving his kingdom without permission as treasonous, laying the groundwork for the forfeiture of the Earls’ estates and titles. All the fertile land of six counties – Donegal, Derry, Tyrone, Armagh, Fermanagh and Cavan were confiscated by the Crown and handed over to Protestant settlers from England, Wales and Scotland, displacing the Catholic population in Northern Ireland in what was known as the Plantation of Ulster.  

The Flight of the Earls, the origins of which were directly linked to the disastrous Battle of Kinsale, led to the alienation of lower-class Gaelic and Catholic inhabitants of Northern Ireland and began a new era in Irish history, sowing the seeds for the future partition of Ireland.