A history of Ireland in 100 objects


Morion helmet, late 16th century

The exact provenance of this morion – which is to say a helmet without a protective visor or beaver – is not clear. But it was almost certainly made in Italy around 1580, and ended up in Ireland as a result of efforts by the papacy or Spain to support Catholic rebellions. The disastrous landing at Ard na Caithne, or Smerwick, in Co Kerry, that year, when papal troops were massacred after they had surrendered, was a prelude to a much more profound challenge to Tudor rule in Ireland. The Nine Years War of 1594 to 1603 was, for both sides, an existential struggle.

The galvanising figure on the Irish side was Hugh O’Neill, the second earl of Tyrone and, after 1595, a proclaimed traitor. Raised in English manners in the Pale, he could write both English and Latin fluently. He modernised Irish military tactics, training musketeers and introducing the Spanish “tercio” battle formation. He also fused religion and politics into a powerful ideology.

Previous Irish rebellions had appealed to a broad antipathy to both England and Protestantism. In 1579, James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald upped the sectarian ante when he returned from continental military service bearing a papal indulgence for his followers and declaring a holy war against Elizabeth I, who had been formally excommunicated seven years previously.

But O’Neill brought the idea of a specifically Catholic revolt to its fullest expression. As he wrote to the lords of Munster in 1596, the alliance he sought was for “Christ’s Catholic religion”. Especially as the prospects of military aid from Spain grew brighter, he adopted the language of a struggle for “the extirpation of heresy”.

He gradually fused this religious war, however, with an appeal for the “defence of the native soil”. O’Neill translated this embryonic Catholic nationalism into a political manifesto, contained in 22 articles, envisaging an early version of home rule in which the English could appoint a viceroy but all civil posts would be held by Irishmen.

This sophisticated political strategy was backed up with military muscle. O’Neill and his allies inflicted significant defeats on government forces at Clontibret and Carrickfergus. He followed up with a stunning victory at the Yellow Ford in August 1598, smashing an army of 5,000 men under Sir Henry Bagenal.

Despite these successes, O’Neill’s revolt was weakened by his failure to seduce or bully the Anglo-Irish of the towns. Diplomatically, he was limited by the relatively pacific policy of Pope Clement VIII. These problems meant that ultimate victory depended on support from Spain. It came on September 21st, 1601, when 3,300 troops landed at Kinsale – far from O’Neill’s Ulster stronghold and a dreadful site on which to withstand a siege. The English lord deputy, Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, almost immediately locked the Spanish into Kinsale, forcing O’Neill and his ally Hugh O’Donnell to undertake a long march south to relieve them. When battle was finally joined, on January 3rd, 1602, it lasted just two hours but delivered a blow from which the Gaelic aristocracy would never recover.

Kinsale was an epic disaster, with about 6,000 Irish and Spanish casualties. O’Donnell left for Spain and died within months. O’Neill retreated to Ulster and fought on for another 15 months. But something had ended, and it was not just a war.

Thanks to Lar Joye and Damian Shiels

Where to see itNational Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts History, Collins Barracks, Dublin, 01-6777444, museum.ie