Washed Ashore – The Spanish Armada

It is well-known in Ireland that dark features of those from west coastal counties are attributed to bloodlines who survived Spanish Armada’s untimely shipwrecks. Here, Leonie O’Hara takes a closer look at tragic events of 16th century disasters and their present-day evidence along stormy Sligo coast.


The historical events of Spanish Armada of 1588, Spain’s great naval effort to conquer Protestant England, and devastating consequences off Irish coast have been well documented. In Armada’s attempt to return home through North Atlantic they were driven off-course by bad weather and close on 24 ships were wrecked off Irish coast from Antrim in north to Kerry in south. About 5,000 men in total perished in Ireland. Many were put to death by Elizabeth’s army and rest escaped to Scotland. The Spanish Armada was largest naval invasion fleet ever known at time, consisting of 130 ships and 29,450 men of various nationalities, including soldiers, sailors, a large number of priests and servants, all under command of Duke of Medina Sidonia, who ruled with an iron fist. Several events prior to sailing of Armada led to Philip II of Spain’s decision to take action against England.

Relations between England ruled by Protestant Elizabeth I and Catholic Spain were becoming increasingly strained and a potential war threatened for some time. Elizabeth had impeded in war in Spanish-held Netherlands (at time Spain controlled what was called Spanish Netherlands – modern day Holland and Belgium). Also, Philip believed he had a claim to English throne having been consort to Mary (Mary Tudor) who was reigning Queen of England from 1554- 1558. When Mary was executed by Elizabeth in February, 1587, and in same year Sir Francis Drake attacked Spanish post of Cadiz, Philip’s decision was set. Preparations for Armada were long and tedious, however by May 1588 fleet set sail from mouth of Tagus in Spanish-held Lisbon, Portugal in what was to become known as ‘Enterprise of England’.

The purpose of Spanish Armada was to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I, restore England to Catholicism, and quash threat of an English war on Spain and her colonies. The proposed plan devised by Philip, Marquis of Santa Cruz and Duke of Parma, was that fleet carrying 19,000 troops and equipment was to sail up English Channel. Their orders were that if Queen’s ships attacked them they were, if possible, to destroy them. It was thought that their sheer weight of numbers and arms would secure them control of Channel. Following this, Armada was to make its way to Flanders to rendezvous with Duke of Parma’s forces and escort Parma’s army to attack England. Reports of preparation of Spanish Armada filtered through to English-occupied Ireland, mainly from crews of trading ships from Spain and France. For Irish rebels abroad, many of whom joined fleet, prospect of Armada’s invasion of England was good news.

West Coast of Ireland

The last Desmond rebellion had been crushed around 1583, by Elizabeth’s army and their lands confiscated. The defeated chieftains of Munster, and their compatriots went into exile in Spain, many working in navy and army. These Irish exiles hoped that a Spanish victory might restore their lands. While in English Channel, Armada moved in a tight crescent shape to ensure protection from attack. At first this confused English who were at a loss as to how to assail enemy. However, eventually they successfully broke crescent formation by sending in fire ships by night. This caused panic on Spanish fleet and subsequent attack, which became known as The Battle of Gravelines, resulted in a critical loss of men and ships for Spanish. The English fleet, however, remained virtually unscathed. When ammunition stocks were almost exhausted and wind changed drastically, Sidonia ordered fleet to sail north around Scotland, and along coast of Ireland. However, violent storms meant some ships detached from fleet and crashed along Irish coastlines. The scattered ships of Armada began to be seen off west coast of Ireland in September 1588.

In Dublin, Elizabeth’s government issued dire warnings about how Spanish were to be dealt with, along with any Irish who attempted to aid them immediate death. Philip’s Spanish Armada was unsuccessful. From outset, fleet was beleaguered with misfortune. Inclement weather hampered progress and commanding officer of entire fleet, Sidonia, although an outstanding general, had never been to sea before and spent much of voyage seasick. Another possible contributor to Spanish failure is that English ships were better made. Food which was kept in unseasoned casks at sea in summer was open to decay, filth, weevils, maggots and water logging. By time some of fleet’s ships were wrecked off coast of Ireland provisions were low and crew were weak with sickness, malnutrition and exhaustion. In County Sligo, where three ships of fleet sunk off coast in a treacherous gale on September 25th 1588, a recent exciting discovery has confirmed their existence.

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