A race against time to save Spanish Armada wrecks before they are lost forever

Historic wreckage on Sligo coast is in danger of being swept out to open sea

Something massive and urgent needs to be done to excavate and recover the Armada wrecks on Streedagh Strand, Co Sligo. If our State has any real interest in heritage and its tourist and wealth-generating potential, this is the key test.

Two summers ago a 7 metre-long portion of one of the rudders from Armada wrecks was washed up on the shore; now in the most recent storms in February this year more large pieces of wreckage have come ashore. The very latest is a small cannonball. The increasing force of the Atlantic storm surge and the resultant coastal erosion, both brought about by climate change, are clearly in the process of disturbing and possibly breaking up the underwater site.

The three wrecks in question are La Juliana (860 tonnes from Sicily), La Lavia (728 tonnes from Venice) and La Santa Maria de Visón (666 tonnes from Dubrovnik). As the great military historian Geoffrey Parker notes, such Mediterranean grain ships, which formed the Armada's Levant squadron, made "excellent bulk carriers but poor warships". As commandeered merchantmen, their task was to transport supplies and siege equipment for the use in the invasion of England but when that did not happen because of the August 1588 engagements in the Channel, they became a liability in the heavier waters of the North Sea and Atlantic. As a result, battle-scarred and leaking, these Levanters were among the first Armada ships to seek shelter on the Irish coast. In September they were anchored for four days off Sligo when a big storm hit. They tried in vain to exit Donegal Bay for the open sea but were instead driven onto the coast at Streedagh Strand. Over a thousand sailors and soldiers were drowned in the disaster. Queen Elizabeth's man on the spot, George Bingham, killed 140 of survivors – presumably men too weak or injured either to escape the beach or put up resistance. He reported on others who, although stripped of their clothes and valuables by opportunistic locals, had already got away to the safety of Leitrim where they were being protected by the chieftain, Brian O'Rourke.

One of them was Captain Francisco de Cuellar, the most famous of all Armada survivors, because of the long letter he wrote recounting his adventures. He was a prisoner on board La Lavia, having been cashiered from his command for not following orders after the Battle of Gravelines for which he narrowly avoided execution. The storm took less than an hour to break up it and the other two ships by crashing them against rocks and the fine sands. Sea conditions at Streedagh Strand – which even in fine weather is a very dangerous beach – were lethal in such circumstances and Cuellar’s description is a lasting testimony:


“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; and, on the other hand, the land and the shore were full of enemies, who went about jumping and dancing with delight at our misfortunes; and when any one of our people reached the beach, two hundred savages and other enemies fell upon him and stripped him of what he had on until he was left in his naked skin”.

Cuellar eventually managed to make it to shore clinging to a hatch cover, and despite sustaining a leg injury, reached the dunes thereby avoiding first the marauding locals and then the murdering soldiers. That was the beginning of his long and eventful journey across Ireland, escape by boat to neutral Scotland, followed by repatriation to the Spanish Netherlands where he arrived a year later. Cuellar was one of about 100 survivors from the Streedagh wrecks to make it home – though about half a dozen stayed behind, including Pedro Blanco who became footman and trusted servant to Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone. Even though the Armada had failed in the English Channel, its terrible end on the Irish coast had ironic consequences as it had destabilised the North-West and helped usher in the Nine Years War (1594-1603) during which the Irish leaders sought Spanish assistance against England.

Cuellar’s story is the centrepiece of local efforts – focused on the Grange and Armada Development Association – which has in recent years produced an annual conference, music and drama about the intrepid Spaniard and two visits from Spanish TV documentary makers. What would make the real difference though is a museum at Grange full of artefacts. Lord Deputy Fitzwilliam, who made a looping march through Connacht and Ulster in late 1588 said that he saw enough wreckage to build ‘five of the greatest ships that ever I saw’. Since his main interest was getting his grubby hands on Spanish gold, it was probably left to others to salvage the boats, cables, cordage and masts littering the shoreline. Yet it is plain from contemporary maps that parts of the ships remained visible out to sea for years until they eventually disappeared beneath the waves.

In 1985 divers discovered the wrecks lying in 20 metres of water about 500 metres from the shore. At the time they were brought up three small cannon but a lot of heavier artefacts remained on the seabed. These included a large cannon from Palermo, which caused the team to identify it as being from La Juliana, and a rudder presumably from the same vessel. The sands nestling and covering the rest of the wrecks plainly preserved hundreds of other objects out of sight. But do they still? Because it now appears, with the rudder and other things being washed up, that these are becoming unstable.

Obviously action is needed. Stuff could just as easily be swept away out to sea as thrown up on land, the more so because of Streedagh’s strong currents. In spite of the sterling community activism and engagement, such a recovery is well beyond the capabilities of citizen archaeologists. Their role at best is monitoring the site. In fact this is really a job the State needs to undertake but its archaeological capacity is in a weakened state. The National Monuments Service has a renowned Underwater Archaeology Unit. It is extraordinarily capable and professional but does not have adequate resources beyond electronic surveying of the site and testing and conserving what by fortune is cast up.

What we need at Streedagh is strategic government investment in a full-scale, technically advanced project aimed at recovery, conservation and ultimately display. This should be seen as an economic investment in a disadvantaged area. And almost certainly it would cost far less than what the IDA gives to foreign multinationals in start-up grants and tax breaks. Of course it could be declared an international European project and help sought from the EU and from the other countries whose ships were involved but that would be a sad cop-out.

If the Government is any way serious about the Wild Atlantic Way project, this exactly is the sort of thing that must be accomplished. The other big Armada discoveries, La Trinidad Valencera in Inishowen and La Girona in north Antrim – were also big Mediterranean vessels. They were stuffed full of artefacts and the results have been a new museum in Derry and the transformation of the Ulster Museum from a significant provincial repository into one of international importance because it now houses the Armada's gold. Those finds and their display are part of reason I became a historian of this period. At Streedagh we have three such ships to dig out and exhibit.

Hiram Morgan teaches history at University College Cork and is currently Visiting Scholar at St Catharine’s College Cambridge.