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
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
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
Now to get back to the point of our story, the great fire
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
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
In this case it was a demonstration of mans kindness to
Courtesy of Willie Whyte and the Carlow Nationalist