The Spanish Armada – According to the Irish

Armada map
Map of the Spanish Armada shipwrecks in Ireland

Along with every other English schoolchild I learned the story of the Spanish Armada. In 1588 Philip II of Spain sent the largest fleet ever seen to conquer England, depose the heretic Queen Elizabeth I, and restore the Catholic faith. But luckily a storm blew up driving the Spanish ships off course. Trying to make their way back to Spain many were shipwrecked on the west coast of Ireland. Good Queen Bess was triumphant and England saved. End of story. Later, when I studied history for my degree, I learned the more nuanced version, setting the Armada story in the full context of sixteenth century European power struggles and religious conflicts. The story ended the same way though, with English triumph and Spanish shipwrecks. Not a word or a thought to what happened to the Spaniards who washed up on Irish shores. But I discovered in Ireland that the end of the English Armada story is where the Irish story begins. A story of endurance and survival that seems ready made for a Hollywood adventure movie.

Streedagh Strand

One bright, sunny afternoon we stood on Streedagh Strand north of Sligo in the west of Ireland. If not for the chill wind we could have imagined ourselves on any idyllic sandy beach resort in the world. But this beach was deserted, no sunbathers or bright umbrellas. We hunkered into our windbreakers as we listened to our guide, a rumpled twinkly-eyed Irishman, explain that it was off this beach in 1588 that three of the Armada ships were wrecked and over a thousand Spaniards drowned. The wrecks of La Lavia, La Juliana, and the Santa Maria de Vision still lie submerged in the waters off the beach. Streedagh Strand was our first stop on the Armada Trail, a journey following in the footsteps of Captain Francisco de Cuellar, one of the very few Spaniards who would survive to tell the tale.


We know De Cuellar’s story from a letter he wrote once he reached safety in Flanders, then part of the Spanish Netherlands. His account of the shipwreck is harrowing:

“On the fifth day there sprang up so great a storm on our beam, with a sea up to the heavens, so that the cables could not hold nor the sails serve us, and we were driven ashore with all three ships upon a beach, covered with very fine sand, shut in on one side and the other by great rocks…within the space of an hour all three ships were broken in pieces…and more than one thousand were drowned, among them many persons of importance, captains, gentlemen, and other officials…Many were drowning within the ships; others, casting themselves into the water, sank to the bottom without returning to the surface; others on rafts and barrels, and gentlemen on pieces of timber, others cried aloud in the ships, calling upon God; captains threw their chains and crown-pieces into the sea; the waves swept others away, washing them out of the ships. While I was regarding this solemn scene, I did not know what to do, nor what means to adopt, as I did not know how to swim, and the waves and storm were very great.”

Eventually de Cuellar managed to cling onto a hatchway cover with another man, but a huge wave crashed over them sweeping the other man to his death. Then a piece of timber from the ship fell on him crushing his legs. Somehow he was cast up on the shore “where I emerged, unable to stand, all covered with blood, and very much injured.” News of the shipwrecks soon spread through the surrounding countryside and local Irish gathered at the scene to scavenge any gold and treasure that swept up on the beach. They stripped the living and the dead alike of their clothes and valuables. But some of the Irish treated the Spanish with compassion; at one point two treasure-hunters stopped to cover the naked shivering men with rushes before they

“betook themselves to the shore to plunder and break open money-chests and whatever they might find, at which work more than two thousand savages and Englishmen, who were stationed in garrisons near there, took part.”

There followed a months long sojourn in Ireland in which de Cuellar evaded capture and death over and over again. One feels he must have tapped into some of the proverbial luck of the Irish so many were his hair’s breadth escapes. One advantage he had was that the Catholic Irish were naturally more inclined to side with the Catholic enemies of Queen Elizabeth than with the English soldiers occupying their land. George Bingham, commander of the local Sligo garrison, was under orders from Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Deputy in Ireland to have his soldiers kill all the Spanish survivors they could find. They carried out their duty with ferocity, slaughtering about 140 Spaniards on the beach and in the surrounding countryside. De Cuellar, still naked but for some rushes wrapped around himself and dragging his badly injured leg managed to evade them, first making his way to a nearby monastery for help. But Staad Abbey was deserted save for twelve dead Spaniards hanging in the church. We see just one wall of the building still standing today as we continue on the Armada trail, the peaceful scene among green fields making it hard to imagine the violence perpetrated here over 400 years ago.

The remains of Staad Abbey

We head next, as de Cuellar did, through the village of Grange towards the Dartry Mountains. His goal was to reach the territory of Brian O’Rourke, a chieftain at war with the English. Along the way he met with assorted locals, some of whom fed him, gave him clothes, and tended his wounds while others robbed and attacked him. Communication with the locals was often by sign language, but sometimes he met people who spoke Latin, the common language of the Catholic Church. At one point he acquired a horse and a guide but lost both to “Lutheran savages” and ended up naked again. Sheltering in a storage hut he was startled by three other Spaniards hiding there. The group managed to make their way to O’Rourke’s castle together. The castle is long gone now, but is thought to have been near Castletown between the Glencar and Glenade valleys. We stop at the lovely Glencar waterfall and once again have trouble reconciling the peaceful scene with the desperation of naked and starving men, one with a crippled leg, struggling through the mountains like hunted beasts. They must have been a sorry sight when they finally reached the castle. De Cuellar describes himself as

“enveloped in straw and swathed around the body with a piece of matting, in such a plight that no one could see me without being moved to great compassion. Some of the savages gave me a bad old blanket, full of vermin, with which I covered myself, and somewhat improved matters.”

Although O’Rourke himself was away fighting the English, they were given refuge in company with about twenty other Spaniards who were there already.

Good news reached O’Rourke’s castle. A Spanish ship was in the port of Killybegs to the north ready to take any Spanish refugees who could reach it home. La Girona was another ship of the Armada, badly battered by the storms and undergoing repairs. The Spaniards at the castle, including de Cuellar, set off as quickly as possible for this chance of deliverance. But with his injured leg still hindering him, de Cuellar was unable to keep up. He missed the ship, which turned out to be a mercy. Shortly after leaving port La Girona’s poorly repaired rudder broke apart and the ship wrecked on the reef of Lacada Point in County Antrim with the loss of almost all on board. De Cuellar reflected on his unexpected turn of good fortune:

“More than two hundred persons were drowned, and those who reached the shore by swimming were taken by the English and all put to death. It pleased God that I alone remained of the twenty who went in search of her, for I did not suffer like the others.”

The Armada Trail

Now our own journey on the Armada Trail took an unexpected turn. Our guide pulled up to an ordinary looking house with an ordinary looking garage beside it. A car was parked inside but our guide advised us to ignore it and imagine what this building was like hundreds of years ago when it was a blacksmith’s forge. After meeting a clergyman on the road, who gave him directions to another chieftain’s stronghold, de Cuellar was taken prisoner by a blacksmith and forced to work in his forge as a slave. This went on for over a week, but then fortune smiled on de Cuellar once again. The same clergyman passed by the forge, rescued him, and accompanied him to McClancy’s Rossclogher Castle on Lough Melvin. De Cuellar lived here for about three months and, apart from an English siege of the castle, which ultimately failed, it turned out to be quite a pleasant sojourn. De Cuellar was particularly taken with the Irish women.

“The wife of my master was very beautiful in the extreme, and showed me much kindness. One day we were sitting in the sun with some of her female friends and relatives, and they asked me about Spanish matters and of other parts, and in the end it came to be suggested that I should examine their hands and tell them their fortunes. Giving thanks to God that it had not gone even worse with me than to be gipsy among the savages, I began to look at the hands of each, and to say to them a hundred thousand absurdities, which pleased them so much that there was no other Spaniard better than I, or that was in greater favour with them.”

McClancy was so grateful for de Cuellar’s help in defending the castle during the siege that he offered him his sister’s hand in marriage. Perhaps he was reluctant to marry a “savage” however beautiful, perhaps he was tired of being pestered to read fortunes, or perhaps it was the warning that McClancy aimed to keep the Spaniards until the King of Spain sent troops to help him fight the English, but de Cuellar decided it was time to move on.

“I dressed myself as best I could, and took to the road, with the four soldiers, one morning ten days after the Nativity, in the year 88. I travelled by the mountains and desolate places, enduring much hardship, as God knows.”

 De Cuellar reached the territory of another chieftain, O’Kane, who was trying to keep peace with the English and refused to help the Spaniards. Once again he fell in with some sympathetic women who hid him in their mountain village and treated his leg wound. While enjoying the female company, “there were some very beautiful girls, with whom I was very friendly, and went into their houses occasionally for society and conversation,” he was almost arrested by some English soldiers who showed up in the village, but thanks to his healed leg he was able to run away and hide in some thick brambles on the hillside. Finally, with the aid of a bishop he called Don Reimundo Termi, he managed to find a boat to take him and seventeen others to Scotland. De Cuellar’s adventures in Ireland were over, but he left us with an indelible portrait of the Irish people of those times:

“The custom of these savages is to live as the brute beasts among the mountains, which are very rugged in that part of Ireland where we lost ourselves. They live in huts made of straw. The men are all large bodied, and of handsome features and limbs; and as active as the roe-deer. They do not eat oftener than once a day, and this is at night; and that which they usually eat is butter with oaten bread. They drink sour milk, for they have no other drink; they don’t drink water, although it is the best in the world. On feast days they eat some flesh half-cooked, without bread or salt, as that is their custom. They clothe themselves, according to their habit, with tight trousers and short loose coats of very coarse goat’s hair. They cover themselves with blankets, and wear their hair down to their eyes. They are great walkers, and inured to toil. They carry on perpetual war with the English, who here keep garrison for the Queen… They sleep upon the ground, on rushes, newly cut and full of water and ice. The most of the women are very beautiful, but badly dressed. They do not wear more than a chemise, and a blanket, with which they cover themselves, and a linen cloth, much doubled, over the head, and tied in front. They are great workers and housekeepers, after their fashion. These people call themselves Christians. Mass is said among them, and regulated according to the orders of the Church of Rome. The great majority of their churches, monasteries, and hermitages, have been demolished by the hands of the English…”

 De Cuellar wrote much less about his time in Scotland, though he made clear that he despised the Scots and their King. He would have one more close call with death before making it into Spanish territory in Flanders. The ships transporting him and other Spaniards from Scotland were attacked by the Dutch and sank off Dunkirk. Incredibly, De Cuellar was one of only three survivors from his ship to wash up on the beach. But even now his life was not secure.

From Antwerp on the 4th October 1589 he wrote the letter he hoped would save his life. Perhaps the account of his tribulations would cancel the death sentence that had been hanging over his head all these months. The Commander of the Armada, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, passed the sentence on him for breaking away from the defensive formation of the fleet after the Battle of Gravelines, just before storms swept the Armada off course. De Cuellar’s sorry excuse was that he was asleep in his cabin recovering from the battle at the time. Historians are still poring over the voluminous papers of Philip II’s reign to find some trace of de Cuellar after Antwerp.

Spanish Armada Memorial, Streedagh. Photo courtesy of Seatrails, guided walks at heritage sites on the Wild Atlantic Way.

Whatever his fate in life, in death de Cuellar has achieved a measure of celebrity in Ireland and Spain. One stop on the Armada Trail is the Memorial erected at Streedagh in 1988 by the Sligo City Council. Our little group stands solemnly on the prow-shaped structure, shivering in the chill wind off the sea where so long ago over a thousand men drowned far from home. We also remember the Irish chieftains who gave refuge to the survivors. Queen Elizabeth ordered that any Irish who aided the Spaniards be put to death. McClancy was shot and beheaded at Lough Melvin in 1589. Brian O’Rourke was found guilty of treason for aiding the fugitives and was executed at Tyburn in London in 1591.

Memorial plague in the village of Kinlough

I want to thank Eddie O’Gorman, Armada history expert, who shared his knowledge and enthusiasm for this story while guiding us on the Armada Trail. If I have made any errors above I am sure he will let me know! He is a founding member of The Grange and Armada Development Association, dedicated to the protection and preservation of the Armada shipwreck sites at Streedagh and the promotion of scholarly research. The Association plans to open an Armada Interpretive Center in the old Grange Courthouse and will hold the first International Armada Conference in Sligo in September 2017.

To visit places like this check out Wild West Irish Tours.

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