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On this day 414 years ago, thousands of Spanish troops invaded Kinsale

The takeover was followed by an incredibly arduous siege that saw the English gain the upper hand over a small Spanish band – but it took them 100 days.

This article was originally published on 22 November, 2014. 

AT 6PM ON 21 September, 1601, Spanish forces invaded the Co Cork harbour town of Kinsale in response to a plea for help from Irish insurgents.

What followed was one of the greatest siege dramas in world history – an epic confrontation that deserves to rank alongside The Alamo and Rorke’s Drift.

The Spanish troops held out for 100 days – enduring a crippling siege, ravaged by hunger and dysentery, and shivering through the harshest winter in living memory – before sailing home undefeated.

This fascinating story is told in The Last Armada (O’Brien Press), a true-life history book from Des Ekin, author of The Stolen Village.

In this extract, English commander Charles Blount moves to seize the crucial subsidiary fort of Castle Park (now James Fort), that controls the entrance to Kinsale Harbour.

When Blount discovers there are only 34 Spanish soldiers defending Castle Park, he thinks that victory will be, almost literally, a walk in the park. He is seriously mistaken…

Source: The Battle of Gravelines: The Vanguard engages two Spanish galleons

***

33 men and a boy. That was the total force charged with the defence of Castle Park. It seemed a pushover for Blount with his heavy artillery and his thousands of fresh troops: so much so, that he decided to postpone the attack until November 17, Coronation Day, and present his victory, neatly wrapped, as a gift to Queen Elizabeth I.

It was a rare misjudgement for Blount, who already knew how doggedly the Spaniards could fight when cornered. But then, no-one could have foreseen the determination and sheer heroism that spurred 34 defenders to keep his 10,000-strong army at bay for four days, against near-impossible odds.

Despite its grand title, ‘Castle’ Park was really just a small square building with a 16ft-high stone wall, two towers and an external defensive ring. The English began with a naval barrage, but a howling storm blew the ships’ cannonballs up into the turrets.

Determined to have his Coronation Day victory, Blount despatched 400 infantry to hack a breach in the wall with pickaxes. To protect them he employed a curiously medieval device known as a siege engine. Nicknamed ‘the sow’, this was a portable house designed to protect workmen from attack from above.

Picture a wheeled wooden hut, roofed by stout beams protected by metal and calfskin. It is ridiculously heavy. It’s hauled by oxen, or by men inside who crank the wheels with crowbars. Once at the wall, the pickaxe workers are protected by a projecting balcony roof – a piglike ‘snout’ which explains the nickname.

The Spanish sergeant commanding Castle Park didn’t panic as the sow lumbered forward. It was an unsophisticated device, and the defence was equally crude – you bombed it with heavy objects.

Heaving giant boulders over the battlements, the Spaniards heard the satisfying sound of splintering timber and the muffled curses of their enemies.

Inside the sow, there was consternation as the boulders fell and the timbers splintered. And then, as the roof gave way completely, the rocks were crashing down on human skulls. Two English soldiers lay dead before the attackers scrambled out and ran for their lives. To the watching garrison, the exodus resembled a real mother-pig giving birth to piglets. ‘The English sow has farrowed,’ was a common taunt.

The attack squad had outnumbered the defenders by twelve to one – and yet the victory on Coronation Day had gone to the 33 men and a boy.

Execution_TCDArtCollection Detail from 'The Battle of Kinsale', 1601, artist unknown shows the English and pro-Queen cavalrymen pursuing O'Neill's red-coated troops after the rout at Kinsale. The execution continued a mile and a half, until the horses were out of breath and horsemen wearied with killing. Source: Trinity College Dublin Art Collections via Board of Trinity College Dublin

***

The Spaniards had no time to celebrate. Throughout November 19, a newly installed English cannon relentlessly pounded through the stonework of Castle Park. As soon as the defenders plugged one gap, the cannon shifted aim and opened up another.

Masonry exploded in showers of spearlike splinters. By day’s end, several defenders lay dead. The grey dawn of November 20 revealed a dispiriting sight. During the night, the English had mounted a second cannon. Firing in combination, the two guns unleashed a pitiless, unremitting assault.

Soon they had hammered open a wide opening in the wall. But when 100 English infantry stormed forward to enter the gap (outnumbering the defenders by five to one) they were driven back. The redoubtable Spaniards had already sealed it up.

However, it was the final straw for the Spanish sergeant. Half his tiny force lay dead, and the survivors were exhausted after four days without sleep. Castle Park was doomed to fall, and it was pointless to sacrifice 16 brave men to a lost cause. He reluctantly agreed to yield the fort, provided the survivors’ lives were spared.

History does not reveal whether there was applause, or even a respectful silence, from the English as the 16 pale and bloodied defenders filed out of Castle Park to become prisoners of war. But the sergeant who led the heroic defence was given special treatment as the English officers’ guest of honour.

The 17 Spaniards who died were interred in alien earth – in soil that was granite-hard with frost. Buried beside them, in their unmarked grave, was the boy.

Map_kinsale This remarkable map from Pacata Hibernia depicts the Kinsale siege with all events taking place simultaneously. Top, pointing south, it shows Kinsale harbour and town, Rincorran and Castle Park (top left); the English main camp and the Oysterhaven (to left of centre); the battle itself (right of centre) and the rout of the Irish troops and the last stand of Ocampo's 200 Spanish (bottom right). Source: Pacata Hibernia: Submission of O'Neill via George Carleton's A Thankful Remembrance of God's Mercy (Mylbourne & Robinson)

Read: The unknown story of the Irish who risked their lives to build the New York underground

Read: The forgotten women of Irish history might finally be remembered

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Des Ekin

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