An Irish Alamo: The Siege of Dunboy Castle: June 1602

08 September 2021
An assault on an Irish castle which could be considered to be an Irish Alamo

Words by Chris Swan Photos by Ian Colwill and The Editor

In my article on the Spanish raids on Cornwall in issue 448 of this Miniature Wargames Magazine, I mentioned that Spanish troops, having failed in their raid on Cornwall, went on to land in Ireland in an endeavour to aid those Irish warriors who were fighting the English forces. This indirectly led to the assault on an Irish castle which could be considered to be an Irish Alamo. It also makes for an interesting game.


“So obstinate and resolved a defence had not been seen within this kingdom”

In 1594 a coalition of Irish chieftains led by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, began what was to become known as the Nine Years War against the English. The war was caused by O’Neill’s decision to try and block English expansion of their rule from the Pale, the lands they controlled, to the rest of Ireland. (As the English considered the native Irish to be uncivilised and barbaric, the phrase “beyond the Pale” referred to those living outside of English rule but in time came to mean those whose behaviour was unacceptable). O’Neill also managed to rally many Irish Catholics to his cause who were opposed to the spread of Protestantism in Ireland. 

The war against O’Neill and his allies was the largest conflict fought by England during the Elizabethan era. At the height of the conflict more than 18,000 soldiers were fighting in the English army in Ireland. By contrast, the English army assisting the Dutch against Spain during the Eighty Years War fought in the Low Countries was never more than 12,000 strong at any one time. The war was fought across Ireland but mainly in the northern province of Ulster. Despite notable successes by Irish forces, such as in 1598 at the Battle of the Yellow Ford, the decisive English victory at Kinsale in 1602 paved the way for the overall English victory in 1603 which eventually led to the exile of many of the Irish chieftains to Spain and the occupation of their lands by the English and the settlers they brought across to Ireland.


Philip II of Spain, Queen Elizabeth’s implacable foe, had died in September 1598 but his son, Phillip III continued with his father’s quest to defeat England and chose to support the Irish. In 1601 the promised Spanish aid arrived when 3,500 soldiers with cannon and supplies landed at Kinsale, Cork on the southern tip of Ireland. Led by Juan Del Águila, who had led the raid on Cornwall, they occupied the town of Kinsale and sent garrisons to several castles. However, they were quickly besieged in Kinsale by an English army of around 11,000 men including 600 horsemen and several cannons under the command of Charles Blount, 8th Baron of Mountjoy and a small English fleet which blockaded the harbour.

O’Neill and his allies marched to their aid but were defeated at the Battle of Kinsale. For some reason Del Águila failed to lead his forces out of the town to support his Irish allies and subsequently surrendered to Mountjoy “with terms” after his ally’s defeat. These terms allowed him and his men to return to Spain with their colours and weapons in return for turning over the town and the castles he had garrisoned to the English forces. One of these was Dunboy Castle.


The Castle was the stronghold of Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare, who was part of the Irish alliance. It was a stone tower house with adjoining walls surrounding a courtyard and had been built to defend the harbour at Bearhaven. 

Despite the defeat at Kinsale, O’Sullivan intended to continue the struggle against the English and led his men to Dunboy intending to regain control of his castle. O’Sullivan was aware that under the terms of Del Aquila’s surrender the Spanish garrison at Dunboy led by a Captain Saavedra was preparing to hand the castle over to the English. He was denied admission by Saavedra when he arrived at the castle but, using his knowledge, he gained entry during the night by tunnelling under its walls. He and his men quickly overpowered and disarmed the Spanish garrison. Although the Spanish were released to return to Spain, it is reported that several Spanish gunners volunteered to remain to man the castle’s guns and fight the English. Having strengthened the castle in readiness for assault, he led most of his force away to another of his strongholds, Ardea Castle, on the northern coast of the Beara peninsula, with the intention of securing money and supplies that had just arrived from Spain. He left behind a garrison of around 150 men led by Captain Richard MacGeoghegan. The men’s spiritual welfare was cared for by Friar Dominic Collins.

Sir George Carew, Lord President of Munster, with an army of between 4000 and 5000 men set off the capture the castle. Carew had been told that the castle was impregnable due to its location on a headland and to reach it his forces would need to pass through hostile terrain with no roads. Despite this his force reached Dunboy on 5th June 1602 and set about building an artillery battery on a nearby mound from where it could batter its walls. Ships from the English fleet also arrived to blockade the harbour and prevent any escape by sea.


Carew began the siege on 7th June with an artillery bombardment by land and sea. One of O’Sullivan’s cousins who had allied himself with the English advised Carew of a weak point in the castle walls where it joined a stairwell to the tower. Carew directed the guns to fire on that part of the castle and the walls were eventually breached. By 17th June 1602 the castle walls were indefensible having been breached in a number of places. 

Captain MacGeoghegan then sent out an emissary to see what terms could be obtained. However, under the rules of warfare at that time, once a siege and assault had began only unconditional surrender was available. So in answer to MacGeoghegan’s offer Carew ordered the emissary to be hung in sight of the defenders.

The Irish defenders now knew that no quarter would be given and resolved to sell their lives dearly. Carew ordered an assault which was forced back. A second assault followed and this drove the defenders into the castle’s tower. The fight went from room to room until the defenders reached the undamaged eastern wing which could only be reached through a narrow passageway. The defenders then had the advantage resisting the attackers for nearly 1½ hours before the English found a second entrance to the tower which had been hidden under a mound of rubbish. This enabled them to attack the defenders from the rear. 

At this point around 40 of the defenders broke free and fled to the beach attempting to swim to the nearby Bere Island. However, they were all killed or captured in the water. Carew’s men then secured the upper floors of the castle whilst its remaining defenders barricaded themselves in the castle’s cellars.

On the eleventh day of the siege, 18th June 1602, the English finally broke into the cellars and amid vicious hand-to-hand fighting the defenders were finally overcome. Determined not to surrender Captain MacGeoghegan attempted to ignite the gunpowder stores and blow up the cellar but was seized by the English and killed before he could do so. 

Of the 58 defenders captured in the cellars and whilst trying to escape Carew only spared three men, including Friar Collins, ordering the rest to be hung. Carew then ordered that all of the powder found in the cellars be ignited and the castle was totally reduced to ruins leaving only two walls standing. Of the three men he spared, two were later hung when they refused to supply him with information about O’Sullivan. Friar Collins was offered the chance to convert to Protestantism but when he refused, he was taken to his home town of Youghal and hanged. 

Of the siege and assault Carew later wrote that: “No one man escaped but were slain, executed or buried in the ruins; and so obstinate and resolved a defence had not been seen within this kingdom.” 


O’Sullivan had also established a fort on the island of Dursey, about twelve miles away from Dunboy, built amongst the ruins of an old monastic church and its graveyard. Reportedly the fort held three cannon and a garrison of around 40 Irish soldiers and mercenaries. He had also hidden a group of around 250 civilians, including old men, women and children on the island to protect them. 

Whilst the siege at Dunboy was underway, Carew ordered the island to be captured. He sent a force of several hundred men and some cannons to capture it. Landing on the island from boats his men fought some skirmishes with the defenders of the fort before the garrison offered to surrender with the promise of their lives. However, the English soldiers reneged on the terms of surrender and killed everyone they found on the island including all of the civilians. This became known as the Dursey Massacre. 


During the six months after the fall of Dunboy Castle and the fort on Dursey, O’Sullivan led a campaign of guerrilla warfare in the region. However, faced with overwhelming odds and starvation, in December 1602 he set out with 1000 men, women and children to join his allies in the north of Ireland. By the time they reached their destination two weeks later only 35 remained, most having died in skirmishes or due to exposure and hunger, whilst others had settled in new homes along the route.

It was all too late. The English were determined to end the war and had begun a scorched earth policy laying waste to vast tracts of land and destroying crops, homesteads and live stock bringing famine to many parts of Ireland. In the face of such tactics O’Neill began to negotiate for terms. When Mountjoy learnt that Queen Elizabeth had died on 24th March 1603 he agreed to a peace treaty and O’Neill swore an oath of loyalty to the English crown and its new King James I.

Defiant to the end O’Sullivan refused to join O’Neill and sought exile in Spain, where he was later murdered. As for Carew, he found favour in the court of James 1st being rewarded with the title of Baron Carew of Clopton in 1605 and a number of official posts including Master of the Ordnance and Governor of Guernsey . He also became a privy councillor. After the accession of Charles 1st to the English throne he was given the title of Earl of Totnes. He died of natural causes in 1629 aged 74. 


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The English

The English army is probably better described as an Anglo – Irish army. Records show that the proportion of actual English troops in the army varied from as little as a third to a half. The rest were Irish enrolled in English companies or Anglo-Irish allies. The army consisted of four elements, Horse, Pike, Shot and allies fighting in their traditional manner.

The English cavalry were a significant weapon against the Irish as they used stirrups which most Irish horsemen did not, thus giving them a significant advantage in combat against both foot and horse. They came in two categories, Demi-Lances and Light horse. Demi-lances wore half harness or three quarter armour, an open burgonet, and rode unbarded horses. They carried a light lance and pistols. However, they only ever formed about one-fifth of the English cavalry, the remaining four-fifths being the light horse, often called ‘Northern spears’ or ‘Border horse’. These were armed with a light lance and one pistol, often carried a shield and wore an open helmet and either a mail shirt or jack. Many of these came from the Scottish border and were reputed to be able to spear salmon from the saddle!

By the period of O’Neill’s revolt the English Infantry were predominantly Pike and Shot although the proportions of each varied across time and across companies. One record from 1596 gives the numbers in a company as 50 pikemen, 12 musketeers, and 36 calivers, whilst another from 1599 quotes 30 pikemen, 10 ‘short weapons’, 30 muskets and 30 calivers. A record from 1600 gives the numbers in a company as “20 pikes, 10 halberds, 6 sword-and-buckler, 12 muskets with rests, 12 light muskets without rests and 40 calivers.” So this gives an average proportion of fire arms to Pikes or melee weapons of between a half and two-thirds. In terms of armour, helmets of a morion or burgonet type were worn by nearly all troops whilst pikemen would wear a corselet and often added pauldrons and arm-protection and sometimes tassets to cover the thighs. Shot might wear leather jerkins or jacks but many wore no armour at all.

The Irish

The Irish and native Anglo Irish had traditionally fought with three main types of warriors. 

The first was the fearsome Gallowglass. They were mercenaries but often gave special loyalty to a particular noble. They wore an iron helmet or bassinet, and either a mail shirt or a short cape of mail over a padded quilted coat called a cotun. Their main weapon was a two-handed axe which could sever an enemy’s head with a single blow. Each gallowglass was accompanied by two” boys” who carried his supplies, armour, and his secondary weapons, three light Irish javelins or ‘darts’. Traditionally these formed the solid core around which the rest of the army fought.

The bulk of the armies were made up by the Kerns who were either ‘bonnachts’, that is Irish mercenaries maintained by the various nobles, or were raised from peasants fighting for their chief. The bonnachts and peasants usually wore no armour wearing traditional Irish dress of a linen tunic with very wide sleeves, often dyed yellow with saffron, usually worn over tight trews of a plain colour, and sometimes covered with a coat of goat’s hair or a large mantle patterned with a long fringe of ‘an agreeable mixture of colours’. Their usual weapons were a handful of javelins or ‘darts’. In addition, some carried bows or swords or spears. Shields might be carried and these were oval and convex constructed from wood or basket-work. Traditionally skirmishers they could also charge in the right circumstances.

Finally there were the Cavalry who only ever formed a small proportion of Irish armies. Normally noblemen, they rode without stirrups and used a long spear over arm for stabbing or throwing. They wore a helmet with a strange turned-up nasal, a mail-shirt and carried a sword and shield.

As the 16th century progressed a new type of warrior was added. These were the ‘Redshanks”. Scots mercenaries they apparently gained their name from their choice to go about bare-legged. They were found in most Irish armies in the second half of the 16th Century and although they included some cavalry and ‘shot’ with firearms, pikemen and halberdiers, they were more often armed with more traditional Highland weapons including bows and two-handed claymores. 

However, by the later part of the 16th century many of these troop types were considered archaic and O’Neill set about creating a “modern” army, using Irish infantry he had offered to train for Queen Elizabeth and by officers who had served in the English or Spanish armies. He armed them with matchlock muskets and pikes and on average there were at least two musketeers to every pike man sometimes more. It had been assumed by many scholars that gallowglasses were trained to become pikemen whilst the kern became musketeers. This is now disputed as there is some evidence that gallowglasses were still fighting in the traditional manner in the 1590s and some certainly fought as axe men at the Battle of Kinsale. O’Neill also trained a band of horsemen equipped with stirrups to fight more like English border horse but, apparently, they were few in number. 



For He to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother: A tragedy in 3 Acts 

So how to fight such close quarter actions as those at Dunboy Castle? Given the small numbers and the personal nature of the fights, a one to one skirmish seems to be the best option. As such I have set up three scenarios or as I call them for dramatic purposes “Acts” set around the fictional Irish stronghold of Killiconkarny. Each follows on from the other and the outcomes of each influence the next game. I have also taken the liberty of naming the Acts using lines from a playwright of the period – no prizes for guessing who!

To play these games I have set out some generic characters for players to use based on the By Crom! Rules which can be found on this magazine’s web site but any good set of one to one skirmish rules which emphasises close combat with some missile fire can be used, such as Open Combat, the Tribal Rules with its supplement, Brutal, or En Grade. 


The Irish 

The English 



The English have brought up a large cannon to bombard the castle and have conscripted some local peasants to build an earthwork to protect it. The Irish defenders decide to sally out at dawn from the castle to try and destroy it.

The table should be 3 ft by 3ft but can be larger. A mound sits 12” in from one table edge in the middle of the table on which sits the cannon. Partially completed earthworks surround it and some tents are in the area behind it and on the table edge. Four Irish peasants are working on the earthworks with two guards chosen from the English list. The guards have just spotted the Irish coming through the early morning mist and have raised the alarm. Half of the remaining English characters or their allies (player choice) are in the tents behind the cannon together with two gunners. They must roll for their reaction to the alarm before they can act.

The English characters or their allies who are not deployed are in the main English Lines which are assumed to be off the table and so must be brought on. Roll for each character at the start of phase two and if they pass their reaction test they can then appear on the table edge behind the mound. Keep rolling each turn until they appear.

The area in front of the cannon up to the opposite table edge is clear of terrain except for a few scattered bushes. The Irish have entered from the table edge opposite the cannon and begin 6 inches in. However, due to the mist some may have got closer to the cannon before the alarm was raised. Roll 1D10 for each Character.


Conscripted Peasant Labourers

The English have conscripted four Irish peasants as labourers to build their earthworks for the cannon. As soon as the alarm is raised their reaction must be tested to see what they do - roll 1D10 for each peasant.

If any of the labourers decide to attack then use the following profile:


Destroying the Cannon

To destroy the cannon the Irish must get two characters to it who must then spend two uninterrupted turns attacking it. They are all carrying nails to spike it. Once they have spent the required turns roll 1D10:

Once the cannon has been damaged or destroyed or the attempt has failed the Irish can withdraw back to their table edge.


If the Irish won the first scenario then they have delayed the attack on the castle and all of their characters have healed their wounds and are fully fit to fight. The English and their allies must roll on the wound recovery system at the end of this article to see how their casualties faired.

If the English won the first scenario then they quickly begin to bombard the castle. They and their allies have fully recovered or have received reinforcements to replace those injured. The Irish must roll on the wound recovery system at the end of this article to see how their casualties faired.

For this scenario the table should be 3 ft by 3ft but can be larger. A wall sits 12” in from one table edge and stretches across the table from one side to the other. There are two breaches in the wall – divide the wall into 6 sections and roll 2D6 – the breaches are located in the section of the wall determined by each dice score and are 6 inches wide – if both dice score gives the same location then that breach is 12 inches wide. On the table edge behind the wall place a large building or tower to represent the tower house. The rest of the 12 inch zone can have scattered objects such as a wagon, barrels etc to represent debris in the castle court yard. These are there for purely scenic purposes. The area in front of the wall up to the opposite table edge is clear of terrain except for a few scattered bushes. The English and their allies have entered from the table edge opposite the breaches in the wall and begin 6 inches in.

The objective is for the English and their allies to get through the breaches and into the castle court yard, whilst the Irish defenders want to stop them.


The Breaches

The Irish have two choices for defending the breaches: 

Stand on top of the piles of rubble which fill them and gain a height advantage in close combat but no cover bonus or...

Stand behind the piles of rubble in which case they gain +1 to their defence from both close combat and shooting but do not have the height advantage in close combat

The piles of rubble in the breaches also affect movement as they are unstable and difficult to cross. When trying to cross the piles a character must roll their action dice and check on the movement table below:




If the Irish won the last scenario then they have successfully defended the breaches delaying the final assault on the castle and all of their characters have healed their wounds and are fully fit to fight. 

The English and their allies must roll on the wound recovery system at the end of this article to see how their casualties fared.

Now replay ACT 2 to see how the English fare this time.

If the English won the last scenario then they overran the breaches forcing the defenders back into the tower house – this means that the Irish have taken casualties and must roll on the wound recovery system at the end of this article to see how their casualties fared.

The English have fully recovered or received reinforcements to replace those injured.

For this scenario the table is now 2ft by 2 ft and represents one floor of the tower house. It can be represented by a simple floor plan or more elaborate scenery depending on what is available. The layout is shown below. If possible place furniture and other items in the rooms for scenic effect. Split the play area into two halves – great hall with gunpowder barrels in one half; the other split into three equally sized consecutive areas: a room in either corner split by an entrance way. Double doors 4 inches wide give access to the great hall from the entrance way, with a doorway 2 inches wide going from the entrance way into room 1 and another into room 2. A doorway 2 inches wide also gives entrance to the great hall from room 1 with a second doorway in room 2. The only way into these rooms is via the doorways.

The English and their allies all begin on the table edge of the entrance way having forced their way into the castle. The Irish may be distributed in room 1, room 2 and the great hall as their player decides. The objective is for the English and their allies to overrun the castle and kill or capture all of the defenders whilst the Irish defenders want to stop them.


The Doorways

The doorways are open and have no doors blocking them but the Irish defenders may have found enough objects to barricade them – roll 1D10 for each doorway and check the result

Secret Entrance

If Ronan O’Hagan is still alive then he knows of a secret entrance into the castle. The English player may keep him and his 2 kerns off the table and roll to see if they find a secret way into the castle. Roll 1D10:

A Desperate Move

If it is clear that the Irish have lost and the castle has been overrun and if Liam O’ Karny is still alive at this point he may try to ignite the barrels of gun powder in an attempt to kill as many English as possible, even at the extent of killing his friends and allies. If he can spend 1 uninterrupted turn at the barrels he may try to ignite them. Roll 1D10:

Recovery between Acts 

Between Acts 1 and 2 and between Acts 2 and 3 characters will recover from their wounds automatically if their side won. If their side lost then they must test to see what happened to them. 

Roll their action dice and check the outcome. Tough characters may reroll their dice but keep the second outcome. The outcome is determined by whether at the end the scenario the character was Wounded (i.e. had cards remaining at the end of the game) or was Out of It (had lost all of their cards)

If a character dies or is unable to play in the next adventure, the side which lost the character may recruit one minor character as a replacement for each card the missing character would have had –e.g. if it was a main character with 3 cards add in 3 temporary characters . These are inexperienced solders or Kerns. If the wounded character returns then the temporary character(s) leaves.



Although I set the Acts in early 17th century Ireland in line with the siege of Dunboy, they could easily be applied to a range of periods from ancient to the age of black powder. You could use them for a siege by Alexander’s men against a Persian stronghold, or Romans attacking a Carthaginian fortress, or medieval attackers against a wide range of defenders – just substitute a siege engine for the cannon and slings, bows, longbows or crossbows for the firearms. In such cases the barrels of gunpowder found in Act 3 could instead be filled with combustibles or napha or liquid Greek Fire! Or you could transfer the scenarios to the Renaissance with troops from one Italian city attacking an outpost held by a rival city or have Ottoman Turks attacking a citadel held by Christians. Rearm those darts equipped Kerns with bows or crossbows.

Then again, you could simply transfer their location to the English/Scottish borders during the same time period with troops under a Warden or Deputy Warden attacking a stronghold of a Reiver family. Simply re-equip those Kerns armed with darts with bows or firearms. Finally – and if you change the time period to the 19th century – you could run a Napoleonic siege against a fort defending a harbour or an attack on a strong hold held by the enemy, such as in the Northwest Frontier with East India Company troops against local native forces. In such cases those characters armed with only melee or throwing weapons gain firearms. 

The possibilities are endless providing players with opportunities to follow an interesting and exciting mini campaign using whatever figures they have.



So what miniatures to use for these scenarios? I know that there are many companies which produce suitable figures in 15mm for the late 1500s and so the siege and assault could easily be played using these. However, I will restrict my comments to 28mm as these are what we used for the games.

The best figures for the English are those produced by Wargames Foundry which has an extensive range of Swashbucklers and adventurers for the Elizabethan period, all very colourful figures on foot. The Assault Group also has an English Renaissance range as does Redoubt Enterprises, now owned by Grubby Tanks whilst Warlord Games’ Wars of Religion range have some suitable figures as do D’arlo Figures sold via Colonel Bill’s Wargames Depot in their Border Reivers range.

Irish warriors including Gallowglass, Kerns and kerns armed with Harquebus can be purchased from Hoka Hey Wargaming marketed as Timeline Miniatures. Antediluvian Miniatures also produces a set of four Irish warriors based on the Albrecht Durer drawings of the 1520s which can be used. Redoubt Enterprises has both Irish Kerns and Gallowglass figures, whilst Perry Miniatures and Crusader Miniatures have Kerns in their Wars of the Roses and Medieval ranges. Of course you could use substitute figures, say from the English Civil War for the English and Scots highlanders for the Irish

Some players may opt to refight these actions in 54mm, in which case I recommend that they look at the Weston Toy Soldiers (try the web site). There you will find a wealth of 54mm figures including the Chintoy Landsknechts and Swiss figures sets which would be great for games like these.

So, will the English and their Irish allies succeed in capturing Killiconkarny Castle or will the Irish defeat them? Only you and the Gods of the Dice will decide! Happy Gaming. 


This article originally appeared in issue 460 of Miniature Wargames. You can pick up your issue of the magazine here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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