RTÉ's 'Battle of Kinsale' comes under fire . . .
The battle fought at Kinsale in the December of 1601 is unquestionably one of the most significant events in Irish history. Whether the general public is aware of this or not is another matter entirely, as both the primary school and junior certificate courses more or less gloss over the nine years war. In fact, the primary course goes into it in as much if not more detail as the junior certificate course. In many schools the nine years war will not be mentioned in the leaving certificate cycle as the c.1870 to 1970 course is by far the most popular for those studying history. As the public broadcaster then, RTE has a certain duty to educate the people about the importance of this battle. It also has, to my mind, a greater duty to make the battle and the events surrounding it entertaining so as to interest the average person watching.
The historian, however, must be aware that not everyone wants to listen to the labyrinthine moves and manoeuvres made by the war’s protagonists. The programme makers, for their part, must realise that one is rarely blessed with such potential for drama as Kinsale, when O’Neill and O’Donnell attempted to link up with 4,000 Spanish troops commanded by an aristocrat disdainful of the enterprise, and destroy a force under the command of a somewhat foppish but decidedly competent English lord.
RTE did, indeed, rise to the occasion and produced a documentary to mark the 400th anniversary of Kinsale. The questions for me are: Did it entertain? Did it educate? And was it accurate? Unfortunately, of the three questions I could only answer yes to one, and that yes would be a qualified yes.
The documentary itself runs approximately 50 minutes. It is interesting to note that the Spanish do not even “arrive” at Kinsale until about the 30th minute and that the battle does not begin until the 39th. It is slightly misleading, then, to say that this documentary is one about the battle of Kinsale, though it is supposed to be.
The great bulk of the programme deals with the events of the Nine Years' War which led to the battle. These events are glossed over and no attempt is ever made to explain why the Irish lords in question rebelled. After an early appeal c. 1596 to Spain is mentioned, the programme turns to Irish treatment of Armada survivors. We are told that O’Neill, like other chiefs, killed the Spaniards washed up on the Irish coast in a show of loyalty to the crown. While this is true, the programme makes no mention of the fact the not all Armada survivors received this summary treatment from O’Neill. Indeed, the last letter the chief wrote before his death in 1616 was one seeking to gain Pedro Blanco a position from Philip III of Spain. Blanco had found a position in O’Neill’s service after having survived the Armada wreck and fought alongside him through the Nine Years' War. Twenty-eight years after first meeting, O’Neill was still making efforts on behalf of an Armada survivor.
The documentary moves on, lightly touching the Yellow Ford and the growth in Irish power, noting the diminishing strength of the English colonial rule, and then the arrival of the 2nd Earl of Essex with a particularly large force in an effort to reverse the situation. Essex’s campaign, however, was not to have the wished for impact as he soon lost three-quarters of his men to “desertion and disease” and the war had become, for the Irish, a Catholic crusade.
The programme states that Spain in 1599 promised to have an army in Ireland within 3 months. Dr. John J. Silke, the leading authority on the Spanish intervention in Ireland, has written that Philip III was not in 1599 planning any attack on Ireland. Silke writes that historians have been misled to this conclusion by the strength of recorded contemporary opinion that this attack was indeed going to take place. (Silke 2000: 59) Dr. Silke notes, however, that Spain did indeed verbally encourage the northern lords that year and also provided them with 1,000 arquebuses, 1,000 pikes and ammunition. The following year Philip also sent support in the form of war materials. The Beatha Aodh Ruadh Uí Domhnaill records the anger and disappointment of O’Neill and O’Donnell upon receiving the sum of only 6,000 pounds in monetary support that same year. The documentary makes no mention of these Spanish shipments of money and weapons to the confederates.
The programme turns to the religious dimension of the war. Describing O’Neill’s making religion a sticking point in the negotiations with the English after Essex had departed with his tail between his legs. O’Neill linked nationalism and religion, seeking to make it the duty of Catholics to oppose the Protestant English. The programme notes that O’Neill desperately needed the support of the Anglo-Irish for his war to properly succeed. In order to gain this support he sought a bull from the Papacy to excommunicated those Catholics who would not take arms against Elizabeth. This he could not gain, however. The programme does not mention though that he did succeed in getting indulgences for those who did take part, and that his war received designation as a Holy crusade. Instead, they state too simply that “O’Neill’s Catholic crusade would get no help from Rome.”
The documentary moves into 1600 and O’Neill is under strain as he tries to deal with the new lord deputy, Mountjoy. There is no definite sign of a Spanish force and a garrison has been established in O’Neill’s rear at Lough Foyle.
However, the time is suddenly right for Spain. England finds itself isolated in Europe and Philip III is determined for his enterprise against the aged Elizabeth to succeed. A fleet for Ireland is preparing in Lisbon.
We are not informed of the number or composition of the fleet or of the wrangling that took place over a landing site. We are merely told that O’Neill and his allies were desirous that the fleet should land anywhere on the west coast so that a link-up could be effected but that it was too late for this information to reach the Spaniards. By the envoy’s return the fleet had departed. In actuality, the royal council had already been informed that only a force of 6,000 or more should land in Cork, one of 4,000 should make for Limerick, and if smaller than 3,000 it should land in a northern port such as Killybegs. O’Neill had to consider that a large enough force could take the offensive against the English without confederate help, while at the same time it would be very difficult for the Ulster lords to provide adequate provisions for a large force if it were to land in the North.
It’s not that the programme makers are misinforming the viewers, it’s just that they aren’t telling them very much. They spend so much time superficially re-counting events from the nine years war that there isn’t any time left over to actually do Kinsale justice. There is no mention of Del Aguilla’s belief that the fleet should make for the North, nor of the arguments between the various Spanish officers as to what they should do once Ireland was sighted. Indeed, the fleet’s admiral, Don Diego de Brochero does not even get his name mentioned.
We are told that once the Spaniards did land in Kinsale that they received no help from the Gaelic chiefs of Munster. This is simply not the case. Shortly after the landfall, Daniel O’Sullivan Beare arrived and on behalf of his fellow chiefs offered Del Aguilla 2,000 men (1,000 armed and 1,000 to be armed by the Spanish) to be used to bar the way of any English force before the arrival of the confederate army. Don Juan rejected this offer of help as he had no word from O’Neill as to whether he could trust these lords or not. After O’Neill arrived, O’Sullivan did come with men but the chance to get the jump on Mountjoy had long since vanished.
The programme mentions the fall of some of the forts surrounding Kinsale to the English once they arrived and laid siege. It neglects to mention, however, the nightly fighting between the Spanish and the besiegers, the sallying forth and the attacking of English trenches and Spanish bastions. A whole story in itself is ignored.
Finally, the programme comes to the battle of Kinsale and does with it in a few minutes. It is almost bizarre that a documentary entitled “The Battle of Kinsale” doesn’t actually describe the battle. We are not told that the Irish adopted a formation of 3 great unwieldy tericos. Nor that one was commanded by O’Neill another by O’Donnell and the third by Captain Tyrell. Poor Captain Tyrell doesn’t get a mention in the whole programme.
The superiority of the English horse is emphasised, as is the inadequacy of the Irish horse to deal with it, but we are not told that Mountjoy was one day away from sending his cavalry to Cork due to a lack of victuals.
We do not hear of the complicated plans for Tyrell to link up with the Spaniards, nor of the small Spanish division fighting with O’Neill, and it’s commander Alonso de Ocampo’s urging of O’Neill to try and cut his way through to Aguilla. The small tactical successes of the Irish are not mentioned either. No word of the initial stand of the Irish cavalry, or of Tyrell’s battalion holding firm until relatively late in the day.
We are not told that after Aguilla retreated behind Kinsale’s walls, following this belated sally forth, that up to 300 Irish men were hung by Mountjoy in view of the town. All we are told is that Aguilla surrendered to Mountjoy. No word either that the Spanish were but days from being re-inforced.
Quickly then the programme is brought to a conclusion. O’Neill we are told after his “flight” died in Rome a broken man who “never gave up fighting”. Whether this means that it is left for the viewer to decide if he was broken or not, I don’t know. A fairly simple reading of the facts tells us that O’Neill, though he ended his days bitterly disappointed, never did give up. He spent the last eight years of his life unhappily fighting with pen instead of sword but fighting none the less as he sought opportunity after opportunity to return to Ireland, even if he was to return alone. The programme, though it stressed that many of the Anglo-Irish did not support O’Neill, fails to mention that the day was to come a few years after the flight when they wished for his return—the plantations and the religious persecution having begun.
We are told that none of O’Neill’s sons outlived him, but even a glance at the genealogical chart in Tyrone’s Rebellion[italic] by Hiram Morgan, who acted as historical consultant for this programme, would show that three of his sons outlived him.
Of course this programme educates, most of things it says are factually correct. I suspect, though, that this is because it doesn’t say very much. Why it fails for me is because it doesn’t say very much about its purpose for being—the battle of Kinsale. As I said earlier it is a colourful event in history, before the battle even began there was the landing, the myriad of rivalries amongst the Spanish, the failure of the commander by sea to keep them supplied, the rejection of O’Sullivan’s offer of help, and Aguilla’s brave defence of the town. When the battle does come it is barely described. Too many avenues are left unexplored, and unmentioned.
The contributions by Hiram Morgan, Fr. Thomas O’Connor, and Oscar Morales are all to the point but they are lost in a programme unsure of itself. Sometimes it is jokey and informal before returning to the dull recounting; Mountjoy, we are told was a “natty dresser”. The narration is delivered by a dull, slow, unexciting Ulster accent. There is no sense of what the programme really needed—urgency. It should have raced through the nine years war, giving itself time to tackle the events at Kinsale in some detail. It should have played up the excitement of the rivalries, the siege, and the bloody battle.
It meanders along with some things to enjoy on the way, such as the sixteenth century costumes created by Lynn Williams and worn in the “dramatisations”. It is a rare treat to see Irish dress of this era brought to life.
I could criticise the two playing O’Neill and O’Donnell in these background enactments but I won’t. I accept that this show didn’t have an unlimited budget and it is par for the course in such documentaries that the actors look nothing like those they are portraying. Suffice to say that each actor is about ten years too old, and a deal more than ten pounds too heavy. Indeed, O’Donnell has a very tight hair cut, a long way from the “drooping branched locks” desribed by the poet Giolla Brighde Ua hEóghusa.
All in all it was an opportunity lost. The programme to mark the 400th anniversary of the Battle of Kinsale was put into the hands of careless people and was unrewarding as a result. I will leave it to Fr. Thomas O’Connor to have the final word on the Spanish intervention at Kinsale, as it also goes some way to describing the show, “it came a little too late, it came to the wrong place and there wasn’t enough of it when it did come.”
© Mícheal O Chomain MMII
About the Author
Mícheal O Chomain is currently studying Anthropology at the Dublin Business School. His undergraduate thesis concentrates on aspects of Hugh O'Neill's career.