The Irish coast is famous for its rough, wild coastline and we have even tied a nice ribbon around it and marketed it to sell its appeal.
However, it is an infamously inhospitable environment, too, with thousands of shipwrecks over the centuries. A glance at the shipwreck database of the National Monuments Service reveals a human tragedy on a vast scale off our coast.
In its map, the entire coast is a mass of red dots each one representing a sunken vessel. Some sinkings did not involve fatalities but many did. One of the worst places for a ship to get into difficulties is the coastline at Streedagh Point in Co Sligo, about 10km up the road towards Co Donegal.
A labyrinthine palisade of sunken reefs with jagged teeth and merciless granitic defences awaits the unfortunate mariner who goes astray there. One ugly-looking brute is even named Carricknaspania. A ship that negotiates this Scylla then faces the Charybdis of oceanic currents that would make Homer’s whirlpools look like an eddy in a bath.
Into these unknown waters without GPS, sonar or radar but nevertheless equipped with the best technology of the time, sailed the unfortunately vincible sailors of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
The seas would have been akin to the furious tempest of Storm Atiyah that pummelled our coast two weeks ago. Their mission had been to unseat Queen Elizabeth but a disastrous campaign saw the fleet diverted north, then south around Ireland.
Three Spanish ships foundered at Streedagh Point next to Conor’s Island amid a massive storm as men’s shouts and splintering wood were drowned out by the tempest while masts and sails tumbled into the fury. La Lavia was the vice flagship of the fleet and had 71 sailors and 271 soldiers on board.
Also aboard was the commander Francisco de Cuellar. Second was La Juliana, which had 65 sailors and 290 soldiers. Third was the Santa Maria de Vision with 38 sailors and 183 soldiers. The galleons were unable to resist the storm and were dashed to pieces on the rocks. Of the 900-plus men on board the ships, 300 survived.
Many of the survivors went on the run from English forces, with many hanged.
What happened next to de Cuellarre presents one of the most extraordinary stories in Irish history. He managed to evade detection and drifted ashore, where he was initially helped before being stabbed by bandits.
He made his way to Leitrim and the protection of a chieftain. He missed a connection with a rescue vessel which sank off Antrim with the loss of 1,300 men. He somehow managed to reach Scotland, where he eventually boarded a vessel for Flanders which was at the time under Spanish jurisdiction.
The incredible adventure has the makings of an incredible movie. A superb documentary on the story is on the TG4 player. The salient points of the remarkable story of survival can today be followed in the de Cuellar Trail. Annual events commemorate the tragic tale of the Armada with regular Spanish involvement.
The wrecks lay buried under the sand until many items, including cannon and other artefacts, were thrown to the surface after a huge storm in 2014. Cannonballs from the ships apparently decorate the gardens of local houses. The nearby village of Grange has a small museum to learn more. The Armada story even inspired a symphony by harpist Michael Rooney.
In the 1837 OS map, Conor’s Island was a distinctive island in its own right about the same size as the neighbouring Dernish. It had a cluster of houses and even its own pier. The population peaked at 17 in the 1880s before it was abandoned in the 1960s. Over time, the sweep of Donegal Bayfilled in the shoreline between the island and Streedagh Point.
Today, it is a very popular nature walk for locals and visitors alike.How to get there: Streedagh Point is 10km north of Sligo town. Conor’s Island is inprivate ownership.Other: The Spanish Armada 1588: The Journey of Francisco de Cuellar: JimStapleton and Francisco de Cuellar; www.spanisharmadaireland.com; www.sligoheritage.com/ArchSpanishArmada.htm; www.archaeology.ie/underwater-archaeology/wreck-viewer