Spanish Armada in Ireland

Spanish Armada in Ireland

The Spanish Armada in Ireland refers to the landfall made upon the coast of Ireland in September 1588 of a large portion of the 130 strong fleet sent by Philip II for the invasion of England.

Following its defeat at the Battle of Gravelines, the Armada had attempted to return home through the North Atlantic, when it was driven from its course by violent storms and toward the west coast of Ireland. The prospect of a Spanish landing alarmed the Dublin government of Queen Elizabeth I, and harsh measures were proscribed for both the Spanish invaders and any Irish who might assist them.

In the event, up to 24 Spanish ships were wrecked on a rocky coastline spanning 500 km, from Antrim in the north to Kerry in the south, and the threat to Crown authority was readily defeated. Most of the survivors of the multiple wrecks were put to death, and the remainder fled across the sea to Scotland. It is estimated that 5,000 members of the fleet perished in Ireland.


The Spanish Armada was a fleet of about 130 ships that sailed from Lisbon in August 1588 under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia with the purpose of escorting an army from Flanders to invade England. It met with armed resistance in the English Channel, when a fireship attack off Calais drove it from its task, and was then scattered in to the North Sea after the Battle of Gravelines.

On entering the North Sea, 110 ships remained in formation under Medina Sidonia. Many had been damaged by gunfire, although their seaworthiness was generally determined more by the fitness of their design for Atlantic conditions, with a large portion of the fleet having seen their only service in the Mediterranean sea. Another factor that was to prove crucial to survival in the coming Atlantic storms was the loss of anchors in the Armada's flight from the fireships.

The course home

A meeting of Armada commanders was held on the flagship, with some proposing a course for Norway, others for Ireland. Medina Sidonia made his choice, and instructions were issued to the fleet:

"The course that is first to be held is to the north/north-east until you be found under 61 degrees and a half; and then to take great heed lest you fall upon the Island of Ireland for fear of the harm that may happen unto you upon that coast. Then, parting from those islands and doubling the Cape in 61 degrees and a half, you shall run west/south-west until you be found under 58 degrees; and from thence to the south-west to the height of 53 degrees; and then to the south/south-west, making to the Cape Finisterre, and so to procure your entrance into the Groin or to Ferrol, or to any other port of coast of Galicia."
[translation quoted at p.163 Cyril Falls "Elizabeth's Irish Wars" (1950; reprint London, 1996). ISBN 0-09-477220-7]

According to these instructions, the ships were to approach the coast of Norway, before steering to the meridian of the Shetland Islands and on to Rockall Island. This allowed safe passage inside the southern tip of the Shetlands, with the fleet clearing the coast of Scotland at a distance of 100 miles. Once out in the broad Atlantic, the commanders were to steer to a point 400 miles beyond the mouth of the river Shannon on the west coast of Ireland, leaving a clear run to northern Spain.

The courses taken

The Armada followed the appointed course, clearing the North Sea and sailing into the Atlantic from north Uist in the Hebrides Islands, until it found itself off Rockall (believed to be the most isolated sea-rock in the world). Existing log-books show that the fleet accurately estimated its distance from the Irish coast at this point as 95 leagues. Some Armada pilots may have used a map of Ireland published by Mercator ten years previously, which charted the east Atlantic with a fair degree of accuracy. But navigation of the western seaboard of the island demanded intimate knowledge, and the experience of Spanish mariners in the intricacies of the Irish coast and weather conditions was largely confined to trading voyages to the south and south-west of the country.

At Rockall a portion of the fleet deviated from Medina Sidonia's instructions - whether by choice or out of necessity is not known. It is possible that the formation of the fleet was broken in heavy weather or fog, but after seven weeks at sea the proximity of the Irish coast made landfall there attractive for the purpose of taking on supplies and effecting repairs. In the event, only 84 ships followed Medina Sidonia's flagship on the appointed course. Most of these made it home, although in varying states of distress.

One Armada commander, Juan Martinez de Recalde, did possess the experience. In 1580, he had landed a Papal invasion force in the Dingle peninsula, in the lead up to the Siege of Smerwick. During that operation, he had managed to evade an English squadron that included the "Revenge". In the Armada, Recalde was given command of the galleon "San Juan de Portugal" of the Biscayan squadron, which engaged with the English fleet in the Channel and managed to hold off Francis Drake in the "Revenge", John Hawkins in the "Victory", and Martin Frobisher in the "Triumph".

The portion of the fleet that descended upon the Irish coast in 1588 - perhaps 28 in number - seems to have maintained some contact with the squadron of Recalde, although weather conditions made communication chaotic. There were several galleons, but most of the ships were merchantmen, which had been converted for battle and were now leaking heavily, with most of their anchors missing and making sail with severely damaged masts and rigging. At the beginning of September, they lost contact with Recalde in a south-west gale (described in the contemporary account of an Irish government official as one, "the like whereof hath not been seen or heard for a long time"). Within days, this lost fleet had made landfall in Ireland.

Government preparations

The head of the Irish crown government at Dublin was Lord Deputy William Fitzwilliam, who had succeeded John Perrot in that office in 1587. In August of 1588 Fitzwilliam was presented with credible intelligence that the battle in the English Channel had been won by the Spanish and that the invasion of England was set to be completed. Then it was understood that the Spanish were in the Atlantic and the entire fleet was about to fall on the coast of Ireland. The degree of alarm at Dublin was extreme, and Fitzwilliam put out false reports that English reinforcements were due to arrive there with 10,000 troops.

It was feared that the Spanish would land in disciplined formations, with the Irish rising out to join them in territories that were almost beyond the control of the crown government. But reliable intelligence was soon received at Waterford and Dublin, that the ships were fetching up in a chaotic manner at disparate locations in the provinces of Ulster, Connacht and Munster, along a coastline spanning 500 km. The order went out from Fitzwilliam for the apprehension and execution of all Spaniards; the use of torture was sanctioned in pursuit of the survivors, and those aiding them were to be charged as traitors.



The first landfall of the Armada ships was in the southern province of Ireland, which had lately been colonised by the English in the Plantation of Munster following the suppression of the last of the Desmond Rebellions in 1583. Fitzwilliam received orders from London to lead an expedition there, and intelligence from the governor of Connacht, Richard Bingham, soon confirmed that further landfalls were being made throughout the west and north of the country. Seven ships anchored safely at Scattery Roads, and it is probable they enjoyed the services of a pilot who knew the coast. An attempt to land was repulsed, although certain supplies were secured while repairs were undertaken. One of the ships, the "Annunciada", was scuttled, with the crew transferring to the "Barco de Danzig", which made it safely to Spain after the squadron departed the Shannon estuary on 11th September.

Blasket Islands: Recalde's squadron consisted of three ships: the "San Juan de Portugal" (1,150 tons/500 men/20 guns), the "San Juan de Bautista" (750 tons/243 men), and another small vessel - almost certainly a Scottish fishing smack that had been seized to assist with navigation and inshore work. As the ships made their way through a storm to the coast of Kerry, the lookouts sighted Mount Brandon on the Dingle peninsula and to the west the lofty Blasket Islands, a complex archipelago studded with reefs.

Recalde steered toward the Blaskets in search of shelter, and chose to ride on a swell through a tight gap at the eastern tip of the Great Blasket Island. His galleon made it through to calm water and dropped anchor over a sandy bottom beneath sheer cliffs. The "Bautista" and the smack soon followed. Such was the difficulty of this manoeuvre that it could only have been contemplated with intimate knowledge of the coastline, and the anchorage ensured that the only wind that might drive the ships off would bring them clear to the open sea.The ships remained within their shelter for several days, and a crown force led by Thomas Norris (brother of the soldier, John Norris) and Edward Denny (husband of Lady Denny) arrived in Dingle to guard against a landing. Recalde sent a reconnaissance party ashore, but all eight members were captured. At one stage a westerly gale caused the "Portugal" to collide with the "Bautista", and when the wind died down another ship, the "Santa Maria de la Rosa" (900 tons/297 men/Guipuzcoa squadron), entered the sound from the north and fired off a gun by way of distress signal.

As the tide ebbed, Recalde's ships held their anchorage in the more sheltered part of the sound, while the "Rosa" drifted and then simply sank - perhaps on striking Stromboli Rock - leaving one survivor for the English to interrogate. The survivor's information was that the captain of the Rosa had called the pilot a traitor and run him through with a sword just as the ship began to sink; he also asserted that the Prince of Ascoli, son of the king of Spain, had gone down with the ship - this information was false, but proved useful propaganda for the English.

Two more ships entered the sound - the "San Juan de Ragusa" (650 tons/285 men), the other unidentified. The "Ragusa" was in distress and sank - perhaps on striking Dunbinna reef. The "Bautista" attempted to take advantage of an ebb tide and sail south out of the sound, but ended up tacking about on the flood tide to avoid the numerous reefs, before sailing through the north-west passage. After a difficult night, the crew were dismayed to find themselves at the mouth of the sound once more. But the wind blew from the south-east, and the "Bautista" finally escaped on the 25th of September and made it home to Spain through a terrible storm.

Three days later Recalde led the remaining ships out of the sound and brought them to Spain, where he instantly died. Those survivors who had fallen into Denny's custody were put to death at Dingle.

Fenit: The sloop "Nuestra Senora del Socorro" (75 tons) anchored at Fenit, in Tralee Bay on the coast of Kerry, where it was surrendered to crown officers. The 24 men on board were taken into custody and marched to Tralee castle. On the orders of Lady Margaret Denny, they were all hanged from a gibbet.Valentia Island: The "Trinidad" (800 tons/302 men) was wrecked on "the coast of Desmond" - probably at Valentia Island, off the coast of south Kerry - although there are no details of this event.

Clare: Off the coast of County Clare numerous ships of the fleet were sighted. Four were reported at Loop Head, two of which were wrecked, including the "San Esteban" (700 tons/264 men) at Doonbeg, and probably the heavily damaged "San Marcos" (790 tons/squadron of Portugal/409 men/33 guns) at Spanish Point inside Mutton Island. All survivors were put to death by the sheriff of Clare, Boetius MacClancy (some, according to tradition, at Gallows Hill - in Irish, "Cnoc na Crochaire").At Liscannor the oar-powered galleass "Zuñiga" (290/Naples) anchored off-shore with a broken rudder, having found a gap in the Cliffs of Moher, which rise sheer from the sea over 220 metres. The ship came under surveillance by the sheriff of Clare and, when a cock-boat was sent ashore in search of supplies, the Spanish were attacked by crown forces and had to withdraw to their ship. One captive was taken and sent for interrogation. The "Zuñiga" escaped the coast with favourable winds, put in at le Havre, and finally made it home to Naples in the following year.


Donegal: "La Trinidad Valencera" (1,000 tons/Levant squadron/360 men/42 guns) was taking on more water than could be pumped out as it approached the coast. Nevertheless the 264 men in the "Barca de Amburgo", another ship that was practically swamped in the heavy seas, were welcomed on board. The "Trinidad" anchored in Glenagivney Bay in modern County Donegal, where she listed to such a degree that the order was given to abandon ship. Some locals were paid for the use of a small boat, and over the course of two days all 560 men were ferried to shore. During a seven day march inland, the column of survivors met a force of crown cavalry under the command of the foster-brothers of Hugh O'Neill, 3rd Earl of Tyrone. Upon pledges of safe conduct for their delivery into the custody of Fitzwilliam - given in the presence of the Earl of Tyrconnell - the Spanish laid down their arms. The noblemen and officers were separated out, and 300 of the ordinary men were massacred. The surviving 150 fled through the bog, ending up either with Sorley Boy MacDonnell at Dunluce or at the house of Redmond O'Gallagher, the bishop of Derry, and were sent to Scotland. The 45 noblemen and officers were marched to Dublin, but only 30 survived to reach the capital, where they were dispatched to London for ransom. O'Neill rebuked Tyrconnell for his betrayal of the Spanish, and made efforts to aid all survivors within his territory.

Two further ships - unidentified - were wrecked on the Donegal coast, one at Mullaghderg, the other at Rinn a' Chaislean.


The governor of Connacht, Richard Bingham, sought reinforcements from Dublin, but his request was denied by Fitzwilliam, who had few resources at his disposal. A proclamation made it treason on pain of death for any man to help Spaniards.

Many survivors were delivered to Galway from all over the province. In the first wave of seizures, 40 noblemen were reserved for ransom, and 300 men were put to death. Later, on the orders of Fitzwilliam, all the noblemen except two were also executed, along with six Dutch boys who had fallen into custody afterward. In all, 12 ships were wrecked on the coast of Connacht, and 1,100 survivors were put to death.Galway: The "Falco Blanco" (300 tons/103 men/16 guns) and the "Concepcion" of Biscay (225 men/18 guns) and another unknown ship entered Galway Bay. The "Falco Blanco" was grounded at Barna, five km west of Galway city, and most of those on board made it to shore. The "Concepcion" was grounded at Carna 30 km further west, having been lured to shore by the bonfires of a party of wreckers from the O'Flaherty clan.

Sligo: Three ships were wrecked on the coast of Sligo, with 1,800 men drowned and perhaps 100 coming ashore. Among the survivors was Captain Francisco de Cuellar, who gave a remarkable account of his experiences in the fleet and on the run in Ireland (see his article for more details of the Sligo wrecks).

Mayo: In September a galleon was wrecked at Tyrawley (modern County Mayo), and of the men who came to shore 80 were killed on the beach by the axe of a single gallowglass warrior and 72 (along with a bishop) were taken into crown custody and put to death at Galway on Fitzwilliam's orders. Tradition has it that another ship was wrecked in the vicinity, near Kid Island, but no record remains of this event. Also, the "Gran Grin" was wrecked at the mouth of Clew Bay.Aran Islands: Two ships were sighted off the Aran Islands, with one failing to land a party in hard weather, and it is not known what became of them.

The Girona: The single greatest loss of life occurred upon the wreck of the galleass Girona, which had taken on board many survivors from other ships wrecked on the coast of Connacht.

Among these was the merchant carrack "La Rata Santa Maria Encoronada" (419 men/35 guns), which had run for the Irish coast in desperate need of repair, along with four other ships of the Levant squadron and four galleons. The "Rata" carried an unusually large number of noblemen from the most ancient families of Spain - chief among them Don Alonso Martinez de Leyva - as well as the son of the Irish rebel, James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald.

The "Rata" was skillfully handled along the northern coast of Mayo, but could not clear the Mullet Peninsula, and so anchored in Blacksod Bay on the 7th of September. The wind got up and the anchors dragged, until the ship was driven on to Ballycroy strand. All the crew got to shore under the leadership of de Leyva, and two castles were seized and fortified with munitions and stores from the beached ship, which was then torched. The rebel's son, Maurice Fitzmaurice, had died on board, and was cast into the sea in a cypress chest.

The Spanish soon moved on to another castle, where they were met by a host of fellow survivors, approaching from the wreck in Broadhaven of another ship, which had entered that bay without masts. De Leyva's host now numbered 600, and the governor of Connacht, Richard Bingham, chose not to confront them. After some days two ships of the Armada entered Blacksod Bay - the merchantman "Nuestra Senora de Begona" (750 tons/297 men) and the transport "Duquesa Santa Ana" (900 tons/23 guns/357 men). De Leyva and his 600 men boarded the "Duquesa". The "Nuestra Senora" sailed straight for Santander, Spain arriving some time later; the "Duquesa" however was somewhat damaged, and it was decided to sail north for Scotland. Stormy weather soon hit the "Duquesa" and she was grounded in Loughros Bay in Donegal, with all aboard reaching shore in what was friendly territory.

De Leyva, who had been seriously injured by a capstan, pitched camp on the shore of the bay for nine days, until news came of another ship of the fleet, the galleass Girona, which had anchored in Killybegs harbour while two other ships had been lost on attempting to enter the harbour. With the assistance of an Irish chieftain, MacSweeney Bannagh, the "Girona" was repaired and set sail in mid-October with 1,300 men on board, including de Leyva. Lough Foyle was cleared, but then a gale struck and the "Girona" was driven ashore at Dunluce in modern County Antrim. There were nine survivors, who were sent on to Scotland by Sorley Boy MacDonnell; 260 bodies were washed ashore.


Between 17 and 24 ships of the Armada were lost on the Irish coast - accounting for about one-third of the fleet's total loss of 63 - with the loss of about 5,000 men.

By the end of September 1588 the queen's deputy, Fitzwilliam, was able to report to her secretary, Lord Burghley, that the Armada alarm was over. Soon after, he reckoned that only about 100 survivors remained in the country. In 1596, an envoy of King Phillip II of Spain arrived in Ireland to make inquiries of survivors and was successful in only eight cases.

Following the defeat of the Armada, the English sent their own armada against the Iberian peninsula, but failed to press home their advantage. Before the end of the Anglo-Spanish War, Ireland was to feature in Spanish strategy, when 3,500 troops were landed in the south of the country in the autumn of 1601 to assist the Ulster rebel Hugh O'Neill at the height of the Nine Years War (1595-1603). This expedition also failed, and Spain and England concluded a peace in 1604.

The Spanish had gradually reasserted their dominance at sea, and treasure from the New World was flowing in to the royal treasury at an increased rate. Following the peace, Elizabeth's successor, James I, neglected his fleet and chose to secure crown influence in Ireland. In 1607 the chief rebels fled the northern province of Ireland, and the English reconquest of the country was completed with the seizure and colonisation of their territories in the Plantation of Ulster in 1610.


The first salvage attempts were made within months, on the coast of County Clare by George Carew, who complained at the expense "of sustaining the divers with copious draughts of usequebaugh [whiskey] ".

Sorley Boy MacDonnell recovered three brass cannon and two chests of treasure from the wreck of the Girona.

In 1797 a quantity of lead and some brass guns were raised from the wreck of an unknown Armada ship at Mullaghderg in County Donegal. Two miles further south, in 1853, an anchor was recovered from another unknown Armada wreck.

The Spanish Armada in art

"The Grainuaile Suite" (1985), a classical treatment of the life of the Irish sea-queen Grace O'Malley by Irish composer Shaun Davey, contains a lament on the Spanish landings in Ireland, sung by Rita Connolly.



*T.P. Kilfeather "Ireland: Graveyard of the Spanish Armada" (Anvil Books Ltd, 1967)
*Cyril Falls "Elizabeth's Irish Wars" (1950; reprint London, 1996). ISBN 0-09-477220-7.
*Online English translation of Francisco de Cuellar's account of his service in the Armada and on the run in Ireland:

See also

*Girona (ship)

External links

* [ Girona Tribute]
* [ Hardiman's History of Galway, Chapter 4] describing the 1588 Galway encounter

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