Washed Ashore – The Spanish Armada


Philip II

The remains of these ships have lain undisturbed on seabed of a small beach off coast of Sligo for 397 years. The final resting place of wrecks of ships La Lavia, La Juliana, and Santa Maria de Vision that were part of Philip II of Spain’s great fleet lie at bottom of sea in Streedagh Strand which is near village of Grange in County Sligo in north western coast of Ireland. In a landmark discovery wrecks were detected by members of Streedagh Armada Group in May, 1985. The search was led by Steven Birch, who, with his team of English divers made groundbreaking discovery of what remains of ships in Streedagh. Although fact had been known locally since time of wreckings, this was first search that verified existence of Armada ships in this area. Dr. Colin Martin, Armada historian and specialist underwater archaeologist officiated, and sites were recorded. Due to exposed nature of their location three cannons were removed for preservation and subsequently retrieved by Office of Public Works for safekeeping. They are now held in  Collins Barracks museum in Dublin where they are exhibited to public.

Letter of One who was with Armada of England and an Account of Expedition was written by de Cúellar in Antwerp in 1589. De Cúellar’s testimony provides us with evidence of what occurred, and is an important social and historical document detailing often horrific events he witnessed as he journeyed throughout areas of north Sligo, Leitrim and on Causeway coast of north Antrim. What happened that fateful day is documented in de Cúellar’s record. The three ships had become detached from their squadron, and drifted off coast of Streedagh. A westward wind was howling and ships had few anchors, having cut them at English fire ship attack near Calais. They were hit by Atlantic storm, and lifted as pounding waves on seaward side forced them over. Eventually vessels rapidly broke up.Since then issue of ownership of wrecks has been a subject of contentious dispute and complicated legalities. After much legal dispute it was finally ascertained that ownership of wrecks was to be designated to Irish State who now acts as a protector to these sites. There is also another important aspect to events of Streedagh in 1588. One of Spanish aboard La Lavia who escaped subsequent massacre ashore, lived to tell tale, outlining what happened in a letter. Francisco de Cúellar’s record of events when he was washed up, exhausted and broken, in Streedagh and his subsequent travels until he eventually got back to Spain survives. De Cúellar, a native of Castille-Y-Leon in Spain originally joined fleet as captain of galleon San Pedro which was part of squadron of Castille (he lost his rank and was transferred to La Lavia for disobeying orders).

There she drifted along, rolling over in different
directions with waves until she went ashore, where
she settled wrong side up…

It is estimated that from three vessels about 1,800 men drowned, rest came ashore at Streedagh. The English George Bingham’s army killed 140 Spanish at Streedagh. However, even before English forces arrived, surviving Spanish had to deal with Irish. Thousands of Irish natives gathered in sparsely populated Streedagh, beach now littered with bodies, flotsam and injured. Several Irish attacked (but contrary to popular view at time, did not kill) Spanish, instead they took their money, clothes, jewelry and whatever could be salvaged from ships. Having escaped, de Cúellar’s now famous testimony records his epic journey. He found refuge from friendly chieftains (O’Rourke and McClancy) in then English-garrisoned North County Sligo/Leitrim. De Cúellar also witnessed much cruelty, arriving at nearby Staid Abbey he found ‘twelve Spaniards hanging within church by act of Lutheran English.’ Later, after being forced to work as a blacksmith in Glenade valley de Cúellar fetches up at McClancy castle at Rossclogher, Lough Melvin, County Leitrim and spent his days telling fortunes to women.

After defending McClancy’s castle from English forces, de Cúellar was offered, as a token of gratitude, hand in marriage of McClancy’s sister. However, de Cúellar slipped away quietly, and resumed his journey home. Subsequently, Brian O’Rourke, Prince of Breffni and McClancy who had helped de Cúellar were both executed by English crown. The tragic events of September 1588 are commemorated every September in Grange, County Sligo by Grange Armada Development Association to pay homage to all who perished.

My thanks to Fergus O’Hagan of Moneygold, Grange, County Sligo for his help with writing this article.



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