In 1588, England came close to a military disaster that was almost without equal. After decades of incidents, competition in the New World, piracy and religious clashes, Elizabeth’s realm found itself in a battle of survival with the Catholic Kingdom of Spain, under Philip II.
Philip’s grand plan, the force that has become one of the most famous in history, was the construction of a gigantic armada of ships, which would sail to the English Channel, defeat Elizabeth’s navy and land thousands of Spanish troops in England itself, whose job it would be to overthrow the monarchy and install someone a bit more Catholic.
The fortunes of the Armada in its primary goal are recounted in greater detail here. In brief, the navy suffered numerous disasters of both an environmental and military nature, eventually suffering a crucial defeat at the Battle of Gravelines in August 1588. Suffering badly from enemy ships and lack of supplies, somewhat scattered and with the winds not in their favour, the leaders of the Armada elected to pursue a dangerous and lengthy trip around the north of the British Isles before heading south to Spain. They numbered 110 ships of various sizes.
The route was not designed as such, but it eventually saw a sizable proportion of this fleet sail close to the shores of Ireland, making England’s western colony centre stage in the later parts of this military campaign.
The route that the Armada leaders wanted to follow – swinging around Scotland close to Norway, and turning south only once they were near the small islet of Rockall – was nearly impossible for many of the boats to follow. The weather was atrocious, many ships were in poor condition (some even missing their anchors) and the crews lacked basic charts to steer their course in the unfamiliar seas.
After several weeks of drift and directionless sailing, the fleet was broken up. The majority would struggle on an make it home, in varying degrees of disrepair, but 28 or so were driven eastward by the Gulf Stream. In the early days of September, they arrived off the western coastline of Ireland.
The main officer of this lost fleet (though, so separated as they were, his command was extremely limited) was Juan Martinez de Recalde. It was he who had commanded the Papal Fleet that had delivered the troops that were butchered at Smerwick several years before. Thus, he had some experience of the Irish coastline, which could be treacherous and deadly for those with little knowledge of its hidden dangers. Many of the Spanish vessels, like the converted merchantmen ships that were suffering worse than others, were in dire need of repair, resupply and shelter.
The English had not been simply waiting. The dramatic victory over the Armada was considered nothing less than a miracle by some, and it took a while for confirmation that England had not been invaded to reach the Pale administration.
That administration was now headed, for the second time, by a Parliament member named William Fitzwilliam, last in the office during the time of Edward Fitton. Fitzwilliam initially received bad intelligence about the Armada, that claimed it was about to complete the invasion of England. This led to a minor panic, “the Armada alarm”, engulfing the Pale for a short time, with Fitzwilliam dramatically claiming for public consumption that 10’000 troops were on their way to Ireland from England to defend the island against any Spanish landing. As the weeks passed by and it became clear that England itself was no longer in any danger, the attention fell on Ireland.
The threat was a real one. The fear was that the Spanish would be able to land organised military units on Ireland, raise local areas in their favour and launch an assault on an ill-prepared English position within the island. The memory of the Desmond Rebellions and all of the foreign help they had received was not far off. The fear of seditious elements in the west and the north was not unwarranted, elements that would have loved for such a Spanish army to arrive on the island.
But it was not to be. When more reliable reports of the Armada were put together, the picture they painted was of a rag-tag, disparate group of ships appearing at random places all over the coastline, in no organised fashion. With the realisation that the Spanish, in the state that they were then in, could not become a dire military threat, Fitzwilliam’s policy changed.
The reaction to the Armada now become one of containment and neutralisation, rather than of defence and speedy reaction. It was no longer really a military issue, it was a law enforcement one. The orders went out to the western governors, loyal Irish and nobles: The Spanish were to be prevented from landing if possible, captured and executed if they did, and any locals who helped them were to share the same fate.
Those ships that approached the Irish coastline did not have a good time. The lucky ones were able to sail off and make it home eventually. Many simply sank in waters their commanders were unused to, wrecked off hidden rocks and reefs. Others, leaking and lacking basic sustenance for crews, were scuttled, the survivors usually killed by waiting crown forces. Of all the ships that found themselves off the coast that month, only a few are worth mentioning here in greater detail.
Recalde personally led three ships – his own, the San Juan de Portugal, San Juan de Bautista and an unnamed smaller vessel – to the coast of Kerry through a rough storm, eventually finding themselves within sight of Dingle and Mt Brandon. Recalde knew this part of the coast better than any other point, so his squadron winding up there was hardly a complete accident.
Recalde led his small fleet through narrow gap between the Great Blaskett Island and a few smaller rocks to anchor in the sound between those islands and the Dingle coast. Recalde was seeking a respite from the poor weather, and found that, but hopes of anything else were dashed by the presence of English troops on the Dingle peninsula. Aside from a small reconnaissance party, all of whom were captured, the Spanish were unable to effect a landing.
Several other ships joined Recalde over the next few days, but in the end only his ship and the Bautista made it out, the others hitting rocks in the sound and sinking with the loss of nearly all aboard. Recalde got his ship and the Bautista home, but the crews were in a miserable state. Recalde himself died shortly after reaching Spain.
In Donegal, the La Trinidad Valencera anchored in Kinnagoe Bay, with its crew abandoning ship as she listed dangerously. 560 men came ashore and marched inland. They were probably seeking, as many of the Armada survivors did, successfully and unsuccessfully, the relative refuge of the Scottish holdings in Antrim. Upon being confronted by a force of English cavalry, the Spanish surrendered on alleged promises of good conduct. After this, 300 of the ordinary sailors were massacred, with around half that number fleeing into the countryside. Some of them managed to reach the land of Sorley Boy MacDonnell or other sympathisers and from there to Scotland. The officers who were captured were marched to Dublin, then London, for ransom purposes. This episode illustrates the deadly earnest of the English response who were assisted in their task in this example by local forces of Tyrconnell and Tyrone, the leaders of whom were temporarily working with the English. Both of those men, who will be getting plenty of attention later in this series, would probably have liked a proper Spanish invasion, but in the circumstances of the Armada’s chaotic arrival, it was better to be on the winning side.
In Connacht, still under the control of Richard Bingham, survivors landed in dribs and drabs, nearly all captured, with only officers having any chance of survival. Hundreds of ordinary seamen were killed on Bingham’s orders, perhaps as many as 1100 from over 12 ships that were wrecked off its coast.
One of those was the San Juan de Sicilia, a galleon, which anchored off Streedagh Strand in County Mayo with two other ships. After several days of bad weather, the three ships were blown and wrecked with only 300 of the thousand men onboard reaching the shore alive.
One of them was an officer named Francisco de Cueller, and it is from him that we have received one of the most remarkable first-hand accounts of the Armada survivors in Ireland. Cueller claims to have witnessed local Irish attacking and robbing the shipwrecked survivors on the beach before cavalry troops killed many others, the few prisoners taken executed later. Cueller travelled slowly eastward, attacked and robbed at several points along the way, eventually making it to the territory of Sir Brian O’Rourke in County Leitrim. O’Rourke was a sympathiser and sheltered many other Armada survivors.
Cueller claims to have moved on to the territory of the McClancy clan in North Leitrim, at the castle of Rosclogher, south of Loch Melvin. There, he took part in a siege defence when an English force arrived. After two weeks of a stand-off, where the local bogland eliminated the usefulness of English artillery and the weather gradually worsened, the besiegers withdrew having made no attempt to assault the castle.
Eventually, Cueller and his companions headed further north into Ulster and then to Scotland. He made it home to Spain in a few years and his text remains a rather interesting read, not just for the military details, but also for his commentary on Irish life and society.
The La Rata Santa Maria Encoronada, a converted merchant carrack, failed to clear the Mullet peninsula, and wound up anchored in Blacksod Bay, Mayo. Driven onto a strand by continuing rough seas, the ship was lost though most of the crew managed to make it to shore alive, where they fortified two small abandoned castle structures nearby. One of those who failed to make it to Ireland from that ship was Maurice Fitzgerald, son of James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald.
The Rata survivors, led by Don Alonso Martinez de Leyva, were soon joined by more and more shipwrecked Spaniards from different points up and down the coast, eventually numbering somewhere in the region of 600 men, well armed with muskets and cannon. Such was the strength of this host that Richard Bingham decided not to confront them head on. After a few days of waiting in their makeshift defences, two more ships arrived the area, which Leyva’s men embarked upon. One of those ships did make it back to Spain, but the other, carrying Levya, was in too bad a state for such a voyage and turned north for Scotland.
It only got as far as Donegal before it had to be beached, with the survivors marching further north to Killybegs upon hearing word of another vessel anchored there. With the help of local Irish, they mostly made it, but the tragedy was just delayed. The Girona took them all onboard, along with the crews of several other wrecked ships, before heading towards Scotland, only to lose her rudder and sink off the coast of Antrim. 1300 men went down with her. Only nine made it ashore alive, into the safety of the MacDonnell lands.
The problems they experienced were repeated up and down the Irish coast to varying degrees. In Fenit, Kerry, the Nuestra Senora de Socorro surrendered. Its 24 remaining crew members were all hanged in Tralee castle. At Liscannor, Clare, the Zuniga sent a small search party ashore to seek supplies but were driven off almost immediately by watchful crown soldiers. The oar powered galleass eventually made it home after a detour to Le Harve. The San Esteban and the San Marcos were wrecked off Loop Head, Clare, with all survivors immediately executed by the local sheriff.
The Spanish ships and their crews were simply too disorganised, too exhausted from their voyage and too inexperienced with Ireland to make any kind of dangerous move inland. Even the very best of them, those of the Rata, could only ward off an English attack long enough for escape to become possible. The “Armada alarm” became just a mopping up operation for the English in the end, a series of brutal put downs and ruthless executions of prisoners.
Due to deficiencies in the recordings of the time, it is unknown just how many ships of the Spanish Armada came to rest at the bottom of the sea around the western coast of Ireland. There are plenty of sightings of ships whose names and crew numbers were never confirmed that sank in the Atlantic close to Ireland at this time. Somewhere between 17 and 24 ships is the most reasonable approximation, a full third of the Armada’s total losses, with a total death toll that could possibly be as high as 5’000 men. In Irish terms, they were gigantic numbers.
The Spanish would be back in Ireland, in time. The Armada and its dire fortunes off the coast of Ireland remain a singular event in the military history of the island, commemorated in place names like Spanish Point in County Clare. It is a thin link to an extraordinary few days, when the dreary remnants of one of the greatest navies the world has ever seen came to a sorry end off our own coast.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.