The great fire of Kinsale

No Irish were allowed inside the walls of Kinsale until the late 19th century.

“ORE many a river bridged with ice
Through many a vale with snowdrifts dumb
By quaking crag and precipice,
The Prince's of the north have come”

That was the first many a school-child heard of the battle of Kinsale.
The story of the march by Hugh O'Neill and Hugh O'Donnell, the Princes of the north, in their effort to relieve the garrison of the town besieged by the English.

Strange as it many seem, the majority of the defenders of the town were Spanish. This was the winter of 1601-2 and England and Spain were anything but friends.

The English armies of Mountjoy and Carew (think of how many other Irish places those names are associated with) were sweeping the south coast of Ireland and were encamped outside Kinsale.
It was at this time that a Spanish force sailed into the harbour, took possession of the town and held it against the English. It was also at this time that the Earls of Tyrone and Tirconnell were riding high in Ulster and decided to go to the relief of Kinsale.

That winter proved to be one of the worst in years. It is said that O'Neill and O'Donnell lost almost as many men on the forced march through the bogs and marshes of the midlands as they lost in the battle of Kinsale.

The sad part of the operation was the fact that their efforts were in vain. The Spanish surrendered and Kinsale was taken over by the English. As a matter of fact, no Irish were allowed to reside within the walls of the town until the end of the 19th century.

At this stage it is also interesting to note that William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania in the USA, was at one time clerk of the Admiralty Court in Kinsale. His father, Admiral Penn, was knighted and made Governor of the town.

Here we have a connection with Huntington Castle in Clonegal in County Carlow. The Durdan Robertson family of Huntington were connected by marriage to the Penn family.

Let us break for moment from the actual story of Kinsale while I let you into a secret. I have an obsession for visiting headlands and points of interest in our country, trying to locate and associate them with other points of interest along the coast.

It was on such a tour some years ago that I decided to commence my journey at Carnsore Point in Wexford and end it at the Old Head of Kinsale in Cork. In doing so, I realised that most of the early history of the coming of strangers to our shore, could be traced to that particular stretch of coastline.
Now to get back to the point of our story, the great fire of Kinsale.

We have all heard of the great fire of London and how it started and of the great fire of Chicago and how it started. Both simple, both accidents.

Remember the lamp turning over in the cow shed in Chicago and settling fire to the straw? Well, the fire we are about to talk about in Kinsale had much the same sort of beginning. It is supposed to have been started by the knocking over of a candle on to a straw strewn floor.
The history of Kinsale goes back to long before the Christian era and has as much places and persons of the past as any town in Ireland.

Part of its history was a prisoner of war camp in which Spanish, French and Portuguese prisoners, captured by the British during the wars of the 18th century, were kept.

They were allowed to carve or draw, or do other things, which they could sell to make some extra money to buy some articles that could give them a little comfort.

The story goes that on a stormy night in January 1741, two prisoners, a Frenchman and a Portuguese, got into an argument over a game of cards. In the resultant squabble a candle was knocked over and fell on the straw covered floor. In a few seconds the whole room was in flames.

Most of the prisoners were asleep when this happened and woke to find themselves surrounded by smoke and flames.

The room in which this occurred was on the second floor of the building. In their panic to get out, several jumped from the windows and were badly injured in their fall. Others were trampled to death in the rush. Others still were actually burned to death.

As the fire spread, it became evident that the whole street, and possibly the whole town, could be burned. It's believed that the wind changed direction and that is what saved the town.
Many in the town did not know until much later what had caused the fire. Some thought that it was an invasion.

Many prisoners were saved by the prompt action of the prison wardens who opened doors and allowed them to get on to the street.

The scene on the street the next morning was frightening People with broken legs, others burned beyond recognition, some burned so badly that they would have been better dead. Those who had escaped bore terrible scars which would disfigure them for life.

A report in a paper some days later stated that 54 prisoners had lost their lives, 25 others were in hospital with broken limbs and burns.

Before the fire the people of Kinsale had often spoke of the their fear of the prisoners escaping. Now they did all they could for the survivors. They gave them money and food, and showed nothing but pity for them.

The sequel of the tragic episode happened several weeks later when a letter, signed by the surviving prisoners, was given to members of the town board in appreciation of their kindness.
In this case it was a demonstration of mans kindness to man.

Courtesy of Willie Whyte and the Carlow Nationalist