The March to Kinsale - 23rd June 1945


The March to Kinsale – Text Version

June 23, 1945


' …..In you we greet the successor of our rightful princes, and in your accession to office we hail the closing of the breach that has existed since the undoing of our nation at Kinsale.'

With these words An Taoiseach addressed our first President seven years ago. In the hour of triumph he reminded us of 'the undoing of our nation at Kinsale,' for it was at Kinsale that the most disastrous battle in Irish history was fought.

The year was 1601. The Nine Years War was drawing to an end. The Northern princes, O'Neill and O'Donnell, were masters of almost all Ireland. Munster alone lay prostrate, but already the winds of freedom blowing from the North were giving her fresh life and hope. Spanish ale was on the way, and in all, things looked well for Irish arms as the year hastened to its close. But before the winter of that year had passed all was changed; the Spaniards had landed at Kinsale in the war-ravaged south, and the whole length of Ireland lay between them and the Ulster Princes. The English marched against them and Don Juan Del Aquila, the Spanish commander sent an urgent message to O'Neill to come to his aid.


O'Neill was faced with a terrible problem. To march south to the other end of Ireland through hostile territory and in mid-winter meant almost certain destruction. It would also leave the north unguarded. But to leave the Spaniards to their fate was unthinkable. Honour outweighed caution. Encouraged by Red Hugh O'Donnell he decided to risk all and march south to give battle to the English, now sitting down around beleagured Kinsale. On the outcome of that battle would depend his fate and the fate of the Gaelic nation for all time.

The die was cast and so they marched south, those men from the north, victors of a hundred fights, the heroes of Clontibret and Tyrell's Pass, the Curlews and the Yellow Ford. Young Red Hugh brave and impetuous as ever, was the first away. The last great champion of Gaelic Ireland, he came out of the north leading the princes of that unconquered land. Deep in his heart must have rankled the memories of the wrongs and indignities he had suffered in the long years of his captivity in Dublin Castle.

'Lo! those are they that year by year

Roll'd back the tide of England's war,

Rejoice, Kinsale! Thy help is near,

That wond'rous winter march is o'er.'


O'Neill followed a little later and with him came MacDonnell, MacGennis and MacMahon. It was the last great effort of the old Gaelic world to hurl the Sasanach from her shores. Through the length of Ireland they marched in the depth of winter those men who held a nation's destiny in their hands.

O'Donnell reached Holy Cross in Tipperary. The English general Carew was lying in wait for him ready to intercept him and prevent his getting to Kinsale. To O'Donnell's right lay the impassable boglands of the Slieve Phelim range, to the left lay hostile territory. Before him the English were making ready to pounce upon him. It was one of the rare occasions when the weather favoured the Irish. That night there was an unusually severe frost and the way by Slieve Phelim was frozen over and became passable. Red Hugh immediately availed himself of this piece of good luck and set out across the frozen marches in one of the greatest night marches in history. By noon next day he had reached Croom in Co. Limerick, a distance of forty miles. Carew when he heard from his spies of O'Donnell's movements sent his men out to cut him off, but O'Donnell eluded him and the baffled English gave up the vain chase on reaching Cappamore.

'O'er many a river bridg'd with ice,

Through many a vale with snowdrifts dumb,

Past quaking fen and precipice

The Princes of the North are come.


The weary men trudged along the last few miles of the way to Kinsale. In ten days they had covered the length of Ireland. The last of the Irish chivalry was there – O'Doherty, O'Boyle, O'Rourke, Maguire, MacDonnell, MacSweeney Tuath, MacDermott, MacGennis, MacMahon, O'Connor Roe and O'Kelly. Never again would such a host be gathered on Irish soil. Ahead of them all marched Red Hugh. The distance between them and the southern port narrowed down.

'And up the sea-salt slopes they wound,

And airs once more of ocean quaff'd

Those frosty woods the blue waves bound

As though May touched them waved and laugh'd.

And thus they sang: 'Tomorrow morn

Our eyes at last shall see the foe

Roll on swift night in silence borne,

And blow thou breeze of sunrise blow,

Lo! those are they that year by year

Roll'd back the tide of England's war,

Rejoice Kinsale! thy help is near,

That wond'rous winter march is o'er.'

They crested the last hill. The great 300 mile march was over. Behind them lay all of Gaelic Ireland, before them Kinsale and disaster.

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