Spanish Armada in Ireland
Following its defeat at the naval battle of Gravelines the Armada had attempted to return home through the North Atlantic, when it was driven from its course by violent storms and toward the west coast of Ireland. The prospect of a Spanish landing alarmed the Dublin government of Queen Elizabeth I, and harsh measures were prescribed for both the Spanish invaders and any Irish who might assist them.
Up to 24 ships of the Armada were wrecked on a rocky coastline spanning 500 km, from Antrim in the north to Kerry in the south, and the threat to Crown authority was readily defeated. Many of the survivors of the multiple wrecks were put to death, and the remainder fled across the sea to Scotland. It is estimated that 5,000 members of the fleet perished in Ireland.
The Spanish Armada was a fleet of 130 ships that sailed from A Coruña in August 1588 under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia with the purpose of escorting an army from Flanders to invade England. It met with armed resistance in the English Channel, when a fireship attack off Calais broke its formation, and was driven into the North Sea after the Battle of Gravelines.
When the fleet entered the North Sea 110 ships remained under Medina Sidonia's command. Many were damaged by gunfire or were running low on supplies, making them unfit for service in the Atlantic Ocean. Some had cut their anchors in the flight from the fireships, which severely diminished their ability to navigate close to shore. Also, the Armada commanders made a large navigational error that brought the fleet too close to the dangerous Atlantic coasts of Scotland and Ireland.
The course home
The plotted course
A meeting of Armada commanders was held on the flagship. Some proposed a course for Norway, others for Ireland. Medina Sidonia made his choice, and orders were issued to the fleet:
The course that is first to be held is to the north/north-east until you be found under 61 degrees and a half; and then to take great heed lest you fall upon the Island of Ireland for fear of the harm that may happen unto you upon that coast. Then, parting from those islands and doubling the Cape in 61 degrees and a half, you shall run west/south-west until you be found under 58 degrees; and from thence to the south-west to the height of 53 degrees; and then to the south/south-west, making to the Cape Finisterre, and so to procure your entrance into The Groyne A Coruña or to Ferrol, or to any other port of coast of Galicia.
The fleet was to approach the coast of Norway, before steering to the meridian of the Shetland Islands and on to Rockall. This allowed passage outside the northern tip of Shetland, clearing the coast of Scotland at a distance of 100 miles. Once out in the broad Atlantic, the ships were to steer to a point 400 miles beyond the Shannon estuary on the west coast of Ireland, giving themselves a clear run to northern Spain.
The course taken
The Armada's sailing orders were almost impossible to follow. The weather was difficult. The poor condition of many of the crews and their ships caused great distress. The pilots did not have the benefit of the charts of Lucas Wagenaer and Mercator (published soon after the expedition with a much improved picture of the waters of the north Atlantic). And their best training and experience in the navigational techniques of dead reckoning and latitude sailing fell far short of what was needed to bring the fleet safely home.
The Armada failed to keep its course around the north of Shetland at 611⁄2'N. Instead, on August 20, it passed safely to the south, between Orkney and Fair Isle, and was carried into the Atlantic at about 591⁄2'N. From there it was due to sail from north Uist in the Hebrides Islands until it caught sight of the distant islet of Rockall, but failed again. Southerly winds blew from August 21 to September 3, caused by an anticyclone over Scandinavia, which prevented the fleet from running west-south-west as ordered. One report reflects the frustration of the fleet's pilots: "We sailed without knowing whither through constant fogs, storms and squalls".
During this period the sailing orders were rendered useless, and the pilots made a great miscalculation of their position, most likely because they were unaware of the effect of the eastward flowing Gulf Stream, which must have hindered the fleet's progress - perhaps by as much as 20 miles a day. The paymaster of the San Juan Bautista, Marcos de Aramburu, recorded a log of his progress from late August onwards, when the rest of the fleet was within sight. The inference from his observations is that the ship's estimated position as it turned for home was entirely wrong, some 300 miles to the west: its real position lay in the east, perilously close to the coasts of Scotland and Ireland. This single deficiency, "made the difference between safety and disaster".
After seven weeks at sea the opportunity to make landfall and take on supplies and effect repairs must have been welcome, but navigation in these waters demanded intimate knowledge. The experience of Spanish mariners in the intricacies of north Atlantic conditions was largely confined to trading voyages to the south and south-west of Ireland, and it is likely that the fleet's pilots preferred to maintain Medina Sidonia's course, despite the hardships on board their ships. Most of the remaining fleet – 84 ships – avoided land, and most of those made it home, although in varying degrees of distress.
One commander, Juan Martínez de Recalde, did have experience of the Irish coast: in 1580 he had landed a Papal invasion force in the Dingle peninsula, in the run up to the Siege of Smerwick, and had managed to evade an English squadron of warships. In the Armada he was given command of the galleon San Juan de Portugal of the Biscayan squadron, which engaged with the English fleet in the Channel and held off Francis Drake in the Revenge, John Hawkins in the Victory, and Martin Frobisher in the Triumph. After the defeat at Gravelines he led his squadron into the North Sea in formation with the rest of the fleet.
In the Atlantic, Recalde's squadron was forced from the appointed course and toward the coast of Ireland along with many other ships – in total, perhaps 28. There were several galleons, but most of the ships were merchantmen, which had been converted for battle and were now leaking heavily, and making sail with severely damaged masts and rigging and with most of their anchors missing. The ships seem to have maintained contact until the beginning of September, when they were scattered by a south-west gale (described in the contemporary account of an Irish government official as one, "the like whereof hath not been seen or heard for a long time"). Within days, this lost fleet had made landfall in Ireland.
The head of the English Crown administration at Dublin was Lord Deputy William Fitzwilliam, who had succeeded John Perrot in that office in 1587. In August 1588 he was presented with credible intelligence that the battle in the English Channel had been won by the Spanish and that the invasion of England was set to be completed. Then it was understood that the Spanish were in the Atlantic and the entire fleet was about to fall on the coast of Ireland. The degree of alarm among the English at Dublin was extreme, and Fitzwilliam put out false reports that reinforcements from England were due to arrive there with 10,000 troops.
The English feared that the Spanish would land in disciplined formations, with the Irish rising out to join them from territories that were almost beyond the control of the government. But reliable intelligence was soon received at Waterford and Dublin that the ships were fetching up in a chaotic manner at disparate locations in the provinces of Ulster, Connacht and Munster, along a coastline spanning 300 miles (480 km). The order went out from Fitzwilliam for the apprehension and summary execution of all Spaniards; the use of torture was sanctioned in pursuit of the survivors, and those aiding them were to be charged as traitors to the Crown.
The first landfall of the Armada ships was in the southern province of Ireland, which had lately been colonised by the English in the Plantation of Munster following the suppression of the last of the Desmond Rebellions in 1583. Fitzwilliam received orders from London to lead an expedition there, and intelligence from the governor of Connacht, Richard Bingham, soon confirmed that further landfalls were being made throughout the west and north of the country.
Thomond: Many ships were sighted off the coast of County Clare: four at Loop Head, two of which were wrecked, including the San Esteban (700 tons, 264 men) at Doonbeg, and probably the heavily damaged San Marcos (790 tons, squadron of Portugal, 409 men, 33 guns) at Spanish Point inside Mutton Island. All survivors were put to death by the sheriff of Clare, Boetius MacClancy (some, according to tradition, at Gallows Hill).
Seven ships anchored at Scattery Roads, and it is probable they enjoyed the services of a pilot who knew the coast. An attempt to land was repulsed, although certain supplies were secured while repairs were undertaken. One galleon, the Annunciada (703 tons, 24 guns, 275 men), was fired and scuttled off Kilrush on September 12, with the crew transferring to the Barco de Danzig, which made it safely to Spain after the squadron departed the Shannon estuary on 11 September.
Blasket Islands: Recalde's squadron consisted of three ships: the San Juan de Portugal (1,150 tons, 500 men, 50 guns), the San Juan de Bautista (750 tons, 243 men), and another small vessel — almost certainly a Scottish fishing smack that had been seized to assist with navigation and inshore work. As the ships made their way through a storm to the coast of Kerry, the lookouts sighted Mount Brandon on the Dingle peninsula and to the west the lofty Blasket Islands, a complex archipelago studded with reefs.
Recalde steered toward the Blaskets in search of shelter, and chose to ride on a swell through a tight gap at the eastern tip of the Great Blasket Island. His galleon made it through to calm water and dropped anchor over a sandy bottom beneath sheer cliffs. The Bautista and the smack soon followed. Such was the difficulty of this manoeuvre that it could only have been contemplated with prior knowledge of the coastline. The anchorage ensured that the only wind that might drive the ships off would bring them clear to the open sea.
The ships remained within their shelter for several days, and a crown force led by Thomas Norris (brother of the soldier, John Norris) and Edward Denny (husband of Lady Denny) arrived in Dingle to guard against a landing. Recalde sent a reconnaissance party ashore, but all eight members were captured. At one stage a westerly gale caused the Portugal to collide with the Bautista, and when the wind died down another ship, the Santa Maria de la Rosa (900 tons, 297 men: Guipuzcoa squadron), entered the sound from the north and fired off a gun by way of distress signal.
As the tide ebbed, Recalde's ships held their anchorage in the more sheltered part of the sound, while the Rosa drifted and then simply sank — perhaps on striking Stromboli Rock — leaving one survivor for the English to interrogate. The survivor's information was that the captain of the Rosa had called the pilot a traitor and run him through with a sword just as the ship began to sink; he also asserted that the Prince of Ascoli, son of the king of Spain, had gone down with the ship — this information was false, but proved useful propaganda for the English.
Two more ships entered the sound — the San Juan de Ragusa (650 tons, 285 men), the other unidentified. The Ragusa was in distress and sank — perhaps on striking Dunbinna reef. The Bautista attempted to take advantage of an ebb tide and sail south out of the sound, but ended up tacking about on the flood tide to avoid the numerous reefs, before sailing through the north-west passage. After a difficult night, the crew were dismayed to find themselves at the mouth of the sound once more. But the wind blew from the south-east, and the Bautista finally escaped on 25 September and made it home to Spain through a terrible storm.
Three days later Recalde led the remaining ships out of the sound and brought them to Spain, where he instantly died. Those survivors who had fallen into Denny's custody were put to death at Dingle.
Fenit: The sloop Nuestra Senora del Socorro (75 tons) anchored at Fenit, in Tralee Bay on the coast of Kerry, where it was surrendered to crown officers. The 24 men on board were taken into custody and marched to Tralee castle. On the orders of Lady Margaret Denny, they were all hanged from a gibbet.
Valentia Island: The Trinidad (800 tons, 302 men) was wrecked on "the coast of Desmond" — probably at Valentia Island, off the coast of south Kerry — although there are no details of this event.
At Liscannor the oar-powered galleass Zuñiga (290, Naples) anchored off-shore with a broken rudder, having found a gap in the Cliffs of Moher, which rise sheer from the sea over 220 metres. The ship came under surveillance by the sheriff of Clare and, when a cock-boat was sent ashore in search of supplies, the Spanish were attacked by crown forces and had to withdraw to their ship. One captive was taken and sent for interrogation. The Zuñiga escaped the coast with favourable winds, put in at Le Havre, and finally made it back to Naples in the following year.
Donegal: La Trinidad Valencera (1,000 tons, Levant squadron, 360 men, 42 guns) had taken on more water than could be pumped out. Yet as it approached the coast it managed to take on board 264 men from the Barca de Amburgo, another ship swamped in the heavy seas. The Trinidad anchored in Glenagivney Bay, where she listed to such a degree that the order was given to abandon ship. Some locals were paid for the use of a small boat, and over the course of two days all 560 men were ferried to shore.
During a seven-day march inland, the column of survivors met a force of cavalry under the command of Richard Hovenden and Henry Hovenden foster-brothers of Hugh O'Neill, 3rd Earl of Tyrone. Upon pledges of safe conduct for their delivery into the custody of Fitzwilliam — given in the presence of the Earl of Tyrconnell — the Spanish laid down their arms. The noblemen and officers were separated out, and 300 of the ordinary men were massacred. The surviving 150 fled through the bog, ending up either with Sorley Boy MacDonnell at Dunluce or at the house of Redmond O'Gallagher, the bishop of Derry, and were sent to Scotland. The 45 noblemen and officers were marched to Dublin, but only 30 survived to reach the capital, where they were dispatched to London for ransom.
Two further ships — unidentified — were wrecked on the Donegal coast, one at Mullaghderg, the other at Rinn a' Chaislean.
Antrim: The greatest loss of life in the 24 Armada shipwrecks in Ireland occurred on the sinking of the galleass La Girona, which had docked for repairs to her rudder at Killybegs, Donegal. About 800 survivors from two other Spanish shipwrecks were taken aboard there, from La Rata Santa Maria Encoronada (see also Connacht, below) and the Duquesa Santa Ana, which went aground at Loughros Mor Bay, Donegal. La Girona set sail for Scotland, but on 26 October 1588, her rudder broke and she was wrecked off Lacada Point, County Antrim. Of the estimated 1300 people on board, only nine survived.
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The Governor of Connacht, Richard Bingham, sought reinforcements from Dublin but his request was denied by Fitzwilliam, who had few resources at his disposal. A proclamation made it treason on pain of death for any man to help Spaniards.
Many survivors were delivered to Galway from all over the province. In the first wave of seizures, 40 noblemen were reserved for ransom, and 300 men were put to death. Later, on the orders of Fitzwilliam, all the unarmed noblemen except two were also executed, along with six Dutch boys who had fallen into custody afterward. In all, 12 ships were wrecked on the coast of Connacht, and 1,100 survivors were put to death.
Galway: The Falco Blanco (300 tons, 103 men, 16 guns) and the Concepcion of Biscay (225 men, 18 guns) and another unknown ship entered Galway Bay. The Falco Blanco was grounded at Barna, five km west of Galway city, and most of those on board made it to shore. The Concepcion was grounded at Carna 30 km further west, having been lured to shore by the bonfires of a party of wreckers from the O'Flaherty clan.
Sligo: Three ships were wrecked on the coast of Sligo, with 1,800 men drowned and perhaps 100 coming ashore. Among the survivors was Captain Francisco de Cuellar, who gave a remarkable account of his experiences in the fleet and on the run in Ireland (see his article for more details of the Sligo wrecks).
Mayo: In September a galleon was wrecked at Tyrawley (modern County Mayo). Tradition has it that another ship was wrecked in the vicinity, near Kid Island, but no record remains of this event. Also, the Gran Grin was wrecked at the mouth of Clew Bay.
Aran Islands: Two ships were sighted off the Aran Islands: one failed to land a party in hard weather, and it is not known what became of them.
The Girona: The single greatest loss of life occurred upon the wreck of the galleass Girona on the coast of Antrim after she had taken on board many survivors from other ships wrecked on the coast of Connacht (see Ulster, above).
Among those ships wrecked in Connacht was the merchant carrack La Rata Santa Maria Encoronada (419 men, 35 guns), which had run for the Irish coast in desperate need of repair, along with four other ships of the Levant squadron and four galleons. The Rata carried an unusually large number of noblemen from the most ancient families of Spain — chief among them Don Alonso Martinez de Leyva — as well as the son of the Irish rebel, James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald.
The Rata was skillfully handled along the northern coast of Mayo, but could not clear the Mullet Peninsula, and so anchored in Blacksod Bay on the 7th of September. The wind got up and the anchors dragged, until the ship was driven on to Ballycroy strand. All the crew got to shore under the leadership of de Leyva, and two castles were seized and fortified with munitions and stores from the beached ship, which was then torched. The rebel's son, Maurice Fitzmaurice, had died on board, and was cast into the sea in a cypress chest.
The Spanish soon moved on to another castle, where they were met by a host of fellow survivors, approaching from the wreck in Broadhaven of another ship, which had entered that bay without masts. De Leyva's host now numbered 600, and the governor of Connacht, Richard Bingham, chose not to confront them. After some days two ships of the Armada entered Blacksod Bay — the merchantman Nuestra Señora de Begoña (750 tons, 297 men) and the transport Duquesa Santa Ana (900 tons, 23 guns, 357 men). De Leyva and his 600 men boarded the Duquesa. The Nuestra Señora sailed straight for Santander, Spain arriving some time later; the Duquesa however was somewhat damaged, and it was decided to sail north for Scotland. Stormy weather soon hit the Duquesa and she was grounded in Loughros Bay in Donegal, with all aboard reaching shore in what was friendly territory.
De Leyva, who had been seriously injured by a capstan, pitched camp on the shore of the bay for nine days, until news came of another ship of the fleet, the galleass Girona, which had anchored in Killybegs harbour while two other ships had been lost on attempting to enter the harbour. With the assistance of an Irish chieftain, MacSweeney Bannagh, the Girona was repaired and set sail in mid-October with 1,300 men on board, including de Leyva. Lough Foyle was cleared, but then a gale struck and the Girona was driven ashore at Dunluce in modern County Antrim. There were nine survivors, who were sent on to Scotland by Sorley Boy MacDonnell; 260 bodies were washed ashore.
Between 17 and 24 ships of the Grand Armada were lost on the Irish coast, accounting for about one-third of the fleet's total loss of 63, with the loss of about 5,000 men.
By the end of September 1588 the queen's deputy, Fitzwilliam, was able to report to her secretary, Lord Burghley, that the Armada alarm was over. Soon after, he reckoned that only about 100 survivors remained in the country. In 1596, an envoy of Philip II arrived in Ireland to make inquiries of survivors and was successful in only eight cases.
Following the defeat of the Armada the English sent their own armada against the Iberian peninsula, but failed to press home their advantage. Before the end of the Anglo-Spanish War the Spanish landed 3,500 troops in the south of Ireland, during the autumn of 1601 (Battle of Kinsale 1601), to assist the Ulster rebel leader Hugh O'Neill at the height of the Nine Years' War (1594–1603). This expedition failed, and Spain and England concluded a peace in 1604.
By the time of the peace, the Spanish had gradually reasserted their dominance at sea, and treasure from the New World was flowing in to their Royal Treasury at an increased rate. Elizabeth's successor James I neglected his fleet and chose to secure crown influence in Ireland. In 1607 the Irish Princes fled from Ireland, and the English conquest of the country was completed by the seizure and colonisation of their territories in the Plantation of Ulster in 1610.
The first salvage attempts were made within months, on the coast of County Clare by George Carew, who complained at the expense "of sustaining the divers with copious draughts of usequebaugh" [Uisce Beatha - Irish for whiskey].
Sorley Boy MacDonnell recovered three brass cannon and two chests of treasure from the wreck of the Girona.
In 1797 a quantity of lead and some brass guns were raised from the wreck of an unknown Armada ship at Mullaghderg in County Donegal. Two miles further south, in 1853, an anchor was recovered from another unknown Armada wreck.
The Spanish Armada in art
The Grainuaile Suite (1985), a classical treatment of the life of the Irish sea-queen Gráinne O'Malley by Irish composer Shaun Davey, contains a lament on the Spanish landings in Ireland, sung by Rita Connolly.
The wrecking of La Girona was commemorated in illustrations of the Armada and the Antrim coast which appear on the reverse side of sterling banknotes issued by the First Trust Bank in Northern Ireland.
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- Translation quoted at p. 163 Cyril Falls Elizabeth's Irish Wars (1950; reprint London, 1996). ISBN 0-09-477220-7.
- "An Armada Shipwreck La Trinidad Valencera". derrycity.gov.uk. Retrieved 3 January 2013.
- Colby, colonel (1837). Ordnance Survey of the County of Londonderry. Dublin: Hodges and Smith. p. 235.
- "La Girona" (PDF). # Annual Report of the Advisory Committee on Historic Wrecks, 2005. Advisory Committee on Historic Wreck Sites. p. 35. Retrieved 2008-11-01.
- .p.37 The London Magazine 1904 picture of "Armada" Anchor
- T.P. Kilfeather Ireland: Graveyard of the Spanish Armada (Anvil Books Ltd, 1967)
- Ken Douglas Navigation: the key to the Armada disaster (Journal for Maritime Research, Issue: August 2003). ISSN: 1469-1957
- Cyril Falls Elizabeth's Irish Wars (1950; reprint London, 1996). ISBN 0-09-477220-7.
- de Cuellar, Francisco. "Account of his service in the Armada and on the run in Ireland".
- Large selection of illustrations and lists at British Battles
- Girona Tribute
- Hardiman's History of Galway, Chapter 4 describing the 1588 Galway encounter
- The Straight Dope: Do some Irish names come from Spanish Armada survivors? trivia-master Cecils Adam debunks the myth. Interesting illustration.
Spanish Armada in Sligo; Account of Francesco de Cuellar: http://www.sligoheritage.com/heritage.htm