In 1568 the great Irish landholders, led by Gerald Fitzgerald, the Earl of Desmond, revolted against the rule of Elizabethan1 England. English soldiers, who previously had rarely ventured further than the Pale2 now fanned out across the Irish countryside. The crown intended only a pacification of the rebels, a policing action to keep down the unrest of their 'barbaric' neighbours. What they got was a massive and extended civil war which would last until 1601 and result in the deaths of thousands on both sides, as well as almost completely dominating the English military’s resources for the period. The period is today known as the Desmond Wars.
Aid From Spain
In 1577 the Irish rebels, being hard-pressed, sent to the other Catholic nations of Europe asking for military aid. They particularly sought aid from Philip II of Spain, assuming (quite rightly) that he would seize on the opportunity to make up for the English aid being sent to the Protestant rebels in the Spanish Netherlands. The Dutch, largely because of their conversion to Lutheranism and the relatively absent rule of Philip, who lived in Madrid, had been in revolt since 1555. Fearing the rising power of the Hapsburgs and also in an act of Protestant co-operation, Britain had a longstanding policy of supporting the Dutch rebels. The exact number of men and ships Spain sent in response is not entirely known, but it must have been a substantial number since several English soldiers reported hearing cries of 'Santiago'3 from raiding parties during the night. Additionally, trade ships regularly passed from Galicia to Cork, trading grain for weapons and wine.
In 1580 Philip finally sent the long-awaited invasion force. Rumours of its arrival moved faster than the actual ships, and the newspapers in Dublin and London printed terrifying accounts of thousands of Spanish and papal soldiers retaking the countryside in the name of the Virgin and the Saints. About 1,000 Spanish soldiers under the command of the Bolognese Sebastiano di San Joseppi, with assorted other Catholic forces, landed near the town of Smerwick in Munster. Far from immediately setting forth in search of the enemy, they settled into the fort of Del Oro4 to await the arrival of the English. They built earthwork fortifications 350 feet (107m) wide and settled down to sit through the winter if need be. The Irish soldiers, seeing the flimsy nature of the breastworks and the already cramped space, declined to join their allies in Del Oro and instead camped out in the surrounding hills.
The naval blockade of Fort Del Oro began on 5 November under the command of Admiral William Winter. The next day, the army of General Arthur Grey, Baron de Wilton, of some 3,000 Englishmen arrived and began the first cautious skirmishes with the Catholic forces. Bombardment began on the 7 November, and within a day the entirety of the Spanish artillery was destroyed as well as long sections of earthen wall. Although Desmond was in the area with around 1,500 men, the speed and ferocity of the attack precluded him from coming to the aid of the fort.
In the end, negotiations over the terms of surrender ended up taking longer than the battle itself. As English generals had no obligation to recognise the sovereignty of the Pope - and Philip had specifically ordered that he was not to be implicated in the attack - the Catholic forces were considered to be bandits and therefore not deserving of the normal consideration for prisoners of war. On 9 November English soldiers were allowed to enter the fort in order to accept the surrender of their enemy. They proceeded to slaughter the exhausted and thirsty soldiers by sword and pike, each Englishman being responsible for three enemy soldiers.
The Legacy of Del Oro
The slaughter of Smerwick, as it came to be known, is still remembered with controversy in Irish history. The long-range consequences for the Spanish plans in the Netherlands and England were dire. Had the campaign been successful, or even had it been less of a failure, Ireland might have remained free to act in the interests of Catholicism and therefore been more able to lend aid to the Armada5. When thousands of Spanish soldiers washed up on the beaches of Munster exhausted and freezing in 1588 they were killed in large numbers by Irish peasants fearful of being accused of treason and executed by the English crown. A significant difference in their welcome by the locals, made possible by Catholic military dominance on the island, may have allowed the Spanish to regroup and pursue their aims against the vastly outnumbered English army.
For further reading
The majority of this information comes from: Berleth, Richard The Twilight Lords.