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Ireland Road Trip – Kinsale and the Spanish Armada

by Suzanne Fluhr on October 24, 2012 · 18 comments

Ned Kelly's Bar in Kinsale, Ireland

If you like to travel in geographical or chronological order, click here to go back and check out Part One of our Irish road trip.

Ned Kelly's Bar in Kinsale, Ireland

Steve’s Iconic Irish Pub Photo, Kinsale

Like most travelers, I delight in seeing new places, meeting new people and, of course, eating. (People, seriously, why don’t we have clotted cream with our scones in the U.S.!?!) I am also fascinated by learning how the places I visit fit into history and the grand scheme of things in the world.  I get tingles when my brain registers a “Wow, I never knew that!”  One of those moments on our trip to Ireland occurred when we visited Kinsale, today a lovely southern coastal village in County Cork with a harbor that’s home to a small number of fishing boats and many pleasure craft.  However, the two massive 17th century star-shaped forts guarding either side of Kinsale harbor suggest there is much more to Kinsale’s story.

Kinsale (Ireland) Harbor at Low Tide

Kinsale Harbor at Low Tide — or Why Kinsale Is No Longer Considered the Best Deep Water Port in Ireland

Before it silted up and before modern era ships, Kinsale was considered Ireland’s best deep water harbor for sailing ships. It was also strategically situated as a base for any navy wanting to make life as difficult as possible for English shipping needing access to the Atlantic.  In 1601, it wasn’t just any navy. It was the Spanish navy. (Huh?)  At the beginning of the 16th Century, the Pope had divided the “New World” between Spain and Portugal. However, once Henry VIII fell out with the Pope over his insistence on divorcing Catherine of Aragon in 1525, the English decided the Pope wasn’t so infallible after all.

In high school history class, I learned that the Spanish Armada didn’t fare so well when it went to attack England in 1588. (When you mess up, blame everything on the weather). The peeved Spaniards and the downtrodden Irish Catholics decided to be BFF’s (best friends forever) and fight England together. Controlling the port of Kinsale was key, so in 1601, another Spanish armada dropped off 5,000 Spanish soldiers at Kinsale. This inspired Irish clans to make a beeline for Kinsale to join up with them to defeat England and drive the English from Ireland once and for all. Despite almost equal numbers of soldiers on both sides, the English army defeated the Spanish and the Irish, leaving England to control the port of Kinsale until Irish independence in 1922. Since this is a travel blog and not a military history blog, I won’t expound further on the superior English battle tactics. (Hint:  It’s always good to control the high ground!)

Another little known historical fact (by me anyway) was that the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania in 1915 by a German U-boat during World War I took place ten miles off Kinsale.  The Lusitania  left New York City and was nearing the end of its voyage to Liverpool when the attack occurred.  One of the earliest inquests into the sinking took place in Kinsale.

Harbor View from Woodlands House B&B, Kinsale, Ireland

Harbor View from Woodlands House B&B, Kinsale, Ireland

As is my custom, I booked us a B&B that was a pretty good hike, uphill out of town (15 minutes up hill and 10 minutes going down). Woodlands House was worth the climb and thanks to the extra calories you will burn walking back to Woodlands House from a day of sightseeing in Kinsale, you can dig in and enjoy the hearty Irish breakfast they provide.

Resting on the Way back up to Woodlands House B&B, Kinsale

Mrs. Excitement Resting on the Way back up to Woodlands House B&B, Kinsale

Because we only spent one night in Kinsale, we did not have time to walk the three kilometers out to the 17th century Charles Fort which was Britain’s largest star fort—an example of the kind of investment a country has to make when insisting on occupying a country where they are not wanted. We spent our afternoon wandering about the town and visiting Desmond Castle, an urban fortified tower constructed in 1500 that was first used as a customs house and later as a prison during Britain’s numerous conflicts, including for American sailors captured at sea during the Revolutionary War. Locally, Desmond Castle is known as “Frenchman’s Prison” as it “housed” its largest prison population during the Napoleonic Wars.  The building was again pressed into service as a “relief” workhouse during the Great Irish Famine of the 1840’s. Somewhat incongruously, Desmond Castle is now home to the two room International Museum of Wine.  Ireland does not exactly leap to mind when one is thinking about wine.  Indeed, one ought not be on the look-out for Irish wineries, but starting as early as 1412, Irish families did figure somewhat prominently in the European wine trade.

Desmond Castle, Kinsale, Ireland

Desmond Castle, Kinsale, Ireland (photo: Courtesy of Fergal of Claddagh)

Kinsale fancies itself an Irish fine dining pioneer and we were quite pleased with our meal at Hoby’s Restaurant. Even though we were not there during the high summer tourist season, reservations were recommended and we were glad we had them. By 7:00 P.M., all tables were filled and the restaurant was also expertly managing a hen party in a private room.

Before setting out for Kenmare and the Ring of Kerry, we spent our last morning in Kinsale on an interesting guided walking tour of  Kinsale—in the rain. (No biggie if one is properly attired.) Our tour reservations were made by our B&B. Kinsale lends itself to a walking tour and this perhaps should be one of your first activities to give you an overview and context for your visit.

Kinsale House Restoration

Restored House – Kinsale Walking Tour

Final answer:  Kinsale is a fine overnight stop between Dublin and the Ring of Kerry.  Indeed, one should take on the Ring of Kerry well rested, especially if like us, one is driving on the “wrong” side.

(This post is now part of a link up on Noel Morata’s  Travel Photo Discovery blog).

Have you had any “I Did Not Know That” historical revelations during your travels?

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Merrill October 25, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Suzanne, according to Irish husband, who is very well versed in Irish history and is very rarely wrong (darn!), most of the Spanish ships were wrecked off the coast of Ireland. He said there were Spanish sailors scattered from Donegal all the way down to Kerry, but that many of those who washed ashore alive were killed by the locals for their possessions. I think they were burnishing their history if you were told 5,000 men put ashore.


Just One Boomer October 26, 2012 at 5:47 am

Well, that would certainly be a repeat of what happened to the 1588 Spanish armada. I better go back and check my sources.


Just One Boomer October 27, 2012 at 4:12 am

Mystery maybe solved. Apparently, it was the 1588 Spanish Armada that had many ships wrecked on the Irish coast as they were trying to make their way back to the Atlantic to sail back to Spain after failing in their attempt to invade England because of a storm. However, I don’t see any evidence that this happened in 1601 when they managed to land 5,000 soldiers at Kinsale. Merrill, I know you’re a retired teacher and probably don’t approve of Wikipedia, but check out


Madaline Fluhr October 25, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Photos are lovely. I would love to stroll in Kinsale. Where can I try some clotted cream stateside?? Thank goodness they seem to have the sense not to tear down their historical buildings to build malls or developments! You look lovely leaning against the purple building. Purple is clearly one of your colors……


Just One Boomer October 26, 2012 at 5:52 am

That’s my point. Where is our clotted cream? I mean, we eat scones, why can’t we have clotted cream too. Although I must say, the Irish don’t seem to mess with their scones like we do. I’m looking at you Starbucks. Irish and British scones are not ginormous and they are quite plain—no flavors, no icing—–but what with the clotted cream and jam, you don’t need to muck about with the basic, genuine scone,


Jeremy October 27, 2012 at 4:55 am

That restored house pic looks really cool!


Roz Warren October 27, 2012 at 12:49 pm

LOVE the photos!
Travel writing isn’t my thing, so I visit this blog (faithfully) for the pictures. And they’re always wonderful.


Just One Boomer October 28, 2012 at 1:25 am

Thanks, Roz. Fortunately, my photos mostly take themselves since I am pretty clueless about how our camera works.


Steven Albelda October 29, 2012 at 5:50 pm

Since many tourists go from Dublin to the Ring of Kerry, your tips on Kinsale are great. This looks like an excellent place to stop halfway. Love the photos


Nancy November 12, 2012 at 5:43 am

Thanks for sharing about your trip. We were in Kinsale last year and loved it, but I haven’t had a chance to share about it on my blog yet.


donna November 13, 2012 at 7:51 pm

Which is the more impressive site… Kinsale or Ring of Kerry? We only have time for one. Which do you reccommend? Thank you!


Just One Boomer November 13, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Kinsale is a town. You could go on a walking tour, walk out to the Charles Fort, have dinner at a nice restaurant. The Ring of Kerry is an all day driving experience. If the weather is poor or you are stressed out by driving on the “wrong side”, then choose a day in Kinsale. If you like beautiful countryside and vistas and somewhat alarming narrow, curvy roads, then do the Ring of Kerry.Check out my post about our experience driving.


Mike August 8, 2013 at 2:05 pm

The first thing that popped into my mind to your question was learning that, on one of my trips there, Yellowstone was once a supervolcano. Your post is terrific and I said exactly that, “Wow, I never knew that!” regarding the Spanish Armada and the Irish in their triumphant naval war over the English. I was looking at your pic of the Harbor going back in time to “see” all of that occurring there in my mind. This was great! 🙂


Suzanne Fluhr August 9, 2013 at 7:24 pm

Thanks for your comment, Mike. When I saw that there is still a large shield volcano under Yellowstone and much of the mountain Midwest, it made me very anxious. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I love seeing beautiful scenery and interesting museums, but learning history that is new to me is also one of my favorite aspects off travel.


Kristin Henning November 17, 2013 at 3:35 pm

Hey, I’m glad you added this to the History link-up, Suzanne. I really enjoyed the story and the history of Kinsale. I’d almost forgotten that we saw the recovered wreck of the Trinidad Valencera in the Tower Museum of Derry, northern Ireland, just this past spring. In that case, as far as I know, the ships were sent by Phillip II to defend the Catholic Church in the wake of Henry VIII’s shenanigans. It was a cool exhibit, and here’s the link:


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