IN THE FALL OF 1601, Hugh O’Neill finally got what he had been praying for: a Spanish army landed in Ireland to support his rebellion. It turned out to be a classic example of the danger of answered prayers. Although there had been rumors of a Spanish invasion for years, when it came, it was as much a surprise to the rebels as it was to the English. They put ashore not in the north—as O’Neill and O’Donnell had hoped—but just outside the city of Cork, which was about as far south as they could get. This meant that with little preparation—and delaying only to burn a few villages near Dublin in a vain hope of diverting some English troops—the rebels had to dash down the entire length of the island to meet up with their new allies who had captured the walled village of Kinsale. It also meant that the Irish had to give up the guerrilla tactics that had so frustrated the English. Until Kinsale, O’Neill had rarely attacked a fort or a city. In this he resembled the fourth-century Goth general who explained why he did not lay siege to a Roman town by saying, “I do not war against walls.” O’Neill’s highly successful tactic—which he used at Clontibret, Yellow Ford, and numerous other engagements—was to lure an advancing enemy into a vulnerable position, then attack.

The English troops that had bottled up the invading Spaniards within the walls of Kinsale were under the command of Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy (1563-1606), the new lord deputy who replaced the disgraced Essex. Mountjoy reacted quickly to the invasion, arriving at Kinsale less than a week after the Spanish put ashore, and before long there were over 7,000 of his men surrounding the town.

Only about 3,500 Spaniards were involved in the invasion, a little more than half the number O’Neill had requested, and the decision to land in the south was not—for them—misguided. If the occupation was to be a long one, the fertile south was far better suited to feed an army than the rocky north. And if the point of the invasion was really to establish a staging area for a future invasion of England, what better place was there than the south coast? For as O’Neill was to learn, the Spanish were not there to support Irish—or Catholic—liberty but to confront an old enemy, England.

In the end, after a long siege through the beginnings of a dreadful Irish winter, there was a battle that lasted less than three hours. It would have been almost comic in its ineptness, if the results had not been so disastrous for the course of Irish history.

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