Guest Author - Tony King
The Spanish Armada has been intrinsically linked to Ireland by what we might call “urban legend” and anecdotal myth. A recent contributor to our forum wondered if there is any possibility that sailors from the doomed Armada settled in the West Coast and contributed part of the heritage which was subsequently spread throughout the entire country.
The Armada left Spain in the latter part of 1588 ,heading into the open seas towards England, on what was at the time applauded to be the all-conquering sea victory of naval history.
Catholic King Phillip II of Spain had been enraged by the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, who had died under the orders of the (Protestant) queen of England, Elizabeth 1.
In what must have been ( in the beginning) a magnificent display of sea-faring power and might, Phillip sent his 130 strong fleet first to Lisbon to pick up his “conquering” army. Then to execute his plan for revenge, the fleet was to sail to London via the English channel and the Thames estuary, and seize the capitol and the throne back from the ascent of Protestantism.
Unfortunately, the whole enterprise became a debacle from beginning to end. While the Spanish fleet maintained what was a customary crescent shape at sea ( which afforded greater protection from one ship to another and especially for the slower, heavier vessels in the middle ), once that crescent was ruptured, the whole fleet became open prey to the challenges of the English captains, especially a certain, Sir Francis Drake.
Phillip’s commander-at-sea, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, was a rank amateur when it came to sailing and he took the fleet, without proper provisions or preparations, on what any ordinary sailor would have known was going to be at best a treacherous journey.He tried to land the huge ships at Lisbon where there was no suitable harbor and having dispersed the “crescent”, he found himself and his ships at the mercy of the English marauders who had come searching for him.
In a vain attempt to recover both his leadership dignity and reputation, Sidonia continued the fleet further along the English channel, only to meet with fierce opposition from a much more experienced and wily enemy.
By now the Spanish fleet was in total disarray and the captain of each ship received word from their flagship commander that they were to try to escape as best they could by heading northwards towards Norway on the east, rounding the tip between Scotland and the Hebrides, heading west across the northern stretch of Ulster,turning sharply south to follow the West Irish coastline and then making a dash back to the safety of their home harbors in Spain.
Even though many of the ships had been damaged in the sea battles with the English, there may have been a chance for a reasonably successful retreat, had it not been for one thing ---the vagaries of the weather on the West Coast of Ireland. Once the struggling remnants of the fleet rounded the tip of Donegal and headed south, they were met with an onslaught of storms that had not been seen before in living memory. By the time the first set of gales subsided, there were only about 28 ships making their way along the Irish coast.
In Dublin, the English-appointed rulers became fearful that the Spanish would land en masse around Galway and, being joined by those rebellious Irish, would make another attempt to overrun the country and thereby establish a foothold back into England.
It was at this stage that decency and respect for human life were tossed aside due to fear and uncertainty and in many cases, greed and vengeance. As some of the Spanish ships put ashore to escape the ferocity of the storms and as others were wrecked on the reefs, the sailors stumbled onto dry land, only to find themselves facing angry mobs and in some cases, immediate execution and slaughter. Others surrendered,were promised safe-keeping and amnesty, but within twenty-four hours were summarily executed without trial or official sanction.
By the time the whole sorry episode came to its tragic end, somewhere between 18 and 25 ships were lost off the Irish Coast, with a subsequent total loss of over 5,000 men. Less than 100 sailors survived and remained in the country; a very small few of these returned to Spain later when their release was secured by a special envoy from Phillip.
The story of the Spanish Armada in Ireland is really a blight on the history of our humanity and righteousness. Murder, deceit, anger and in some cases, uncontrolled massacre, reinforce the truth that all of us have the capability to practice “man’s inhumanity to his fellow man”.
Ironically, Spain soon reasserted her dominance at sea and the Spanish royal treasury was quickly replenished with the wealth from the new world. Spain and England concluded a peace accord in 1604. Elizabeth I died and was replaced by James I who decided that the total subservience of Ireland was far more important to the English crown than all the gold and jewels of the new world.
Thus began the re-conquest of Ireland with the colonization of all its territories,including the legal theft of the lands which is told in the story of the “Flight of the Earls”.
But that tale will have to keep for another day ! The Spanish “influence” never really took a foothold in Ireland. The few sailors who stayed were swallowed up into the culture and history,and more than likely (like so many since) became as Irish as the Irish themselves, if not more so.