Inishowen Peninsula: Ireland and Spain
The beautiful peninsula of Inishowen sits at the very north of Ireland in the county of Donegal. Guarded by the Atlantic and nestling between Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle it has some of the most breathtaking views and its rugged beauty is famous worldwide. It has many historical monuments dating back to early settlements and also boasts Europe’s largest sand dunes that probably began to form about 5,000 years ago.
The peninsula has the most ancient Celtic Crosses of Ireland bearing witness to the once flourishing monastic communities. Among the many castle ruins are Carrickabraghey on the Isle of Doagh, Northburg at Greencastle and Inch, Buncrana and Elagh Castles. The traditional textile industry has declined and the population is principally rural with small sheep farms. Three Inishowen towns are Buncrana, Carndonagh and Moville.
At its apex is Malin Head, the most northerly point of Ireland. In 1870 the first weather reports were recorded, and in 1902 the first Marconi wireless message was sent from Malin Head to the ship S.S. Lake Ontario. The Banba Tower was built as a signal station that was a very important news link between America and Europe before modern communication technology made it redundant. Natural attractions along the cliff edge include a spectacular subterranean cavern known as “Hell’s Hole” and natural arch called the “Devil’s Bridge”. On a good day the Scottish coast line, Tory Island and nearby Inishtrahull Island are visible. Its golden sands and many quiet bays are popular family holiday resorts.
It was just off Inishowen’s Kinnagoe Bay in 1970-71 that divers from the City of Derry Sub-Aqua Club located the Spanish Armed Transporter, La Trinidad Valencera, a l,100 ton wooden ship which, badly damaged in a storm, ran ashore on 14 September 1588. It was a Venetian merchant ship being used as an invasion transport when it landed on the rocks and sunk some days later. Many artefacts have been recovered from the vessel and are on display in the Tower Museum of Derry, the regional capital.
With maps, written documents, pictorial and many artefacts the Armada exhibition tells the ship’s story and discovery of the wreck nearly four hundred years later by divers followed by fourteen years of archaeological excavation. A BBC TV documentary film highlights the scientific and detailed work undertaken to recover objects from the wreck of the Venetian merchant ship. They include many items of rigging, part of the planking, a range of the ship’s equipment and ordnance, including two large siege guns, two Venetian guns, a bronze swivel gun, gun carriages, gunnery and navigation equipment.
Ireland and Spain (1200-1700)
Ireland had established trading links with northern Spanish ports from the middle ages and Irish communities were established in Spanish territories, particularly Galicia, north-west Spain and the Spanish Netherlands. From the sixteenth century the Irish enjoyed the same rights as Spaniards in obtaining political and military appointments; they acquired properties in Spanish territories, and Irish officers were admitted into the sacred ranks of the military orders of Santiago, Alcantara and Calatrava. Thousands of Irishmen found employment with the armies of Spain. Following the collapse of the Confederate army, 22,531 soldiers left for Spain between 1641 and 1654.
In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries there were close political and cultural ties between Ireland and Spain. Under Philip II, Spain regarded itself as the defender of the Counter-Reformation in Europe, and successive Irish nobles, both native and Anglo-Irish, appealed to Spain for military help against the encroachment of English military authority. Spain offered asylum to Catholic recusants and political exiles from Ireland as well as from England and Scotland. Factions emerged with Ulstermen, Munstermen, Old English and native Irish all seeking support for their own causes. The political links between Ireland and Spain later declined with the emergence of French political domination in Europe.
Historians and scholars have revisited the Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604) to dispel the ‘myth and legend’ of the Spanish naval campaign in 1588, a watershed in European history. Books have been published and exhibitions and conferences in Spain and Ireland coincided with the 400th anniversary of the event. Maps, prints and archival sources have been scrutinised to establish the true facts of the Spanish attempt to invade England.
Philip II of Spain sent a great armada or fleet of 130 warships in May 1588 hoping to depose the Protestant Elizabeth I and restore the Catholic Church in England. The Armada’s commander, the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, was directed to sail to the Spanish Netherlands to take on board a Spanish army for the invasion. Using an ingenious crescent formation to defend itself, the Armada succeeded in sailing up the English Channel, despite the best efforts of the English Fleet, under the command of Lord Howard of Effingham, to prevent it. On 27 July the Armada docked at Calais. However, by sending eight fire-ships into the harbour, Lord Howard forced the vessels to leave Calais precipitately and in chaos.
Racked by storms and unable to restore its defensive formation the Armada was obliged to abandon its mission and head for home by a hazardous route around the north of Scotland and west of Ireland. However, fierce Atlantic storms caused more than twenty-five ships to founder on the north and west coast of Ireland. Thousands of Spaniards lost their lives though some who did land were aided by Irish lords in Ulster and north Connacht. The Ulster Museum in Belfast has an impressive display of artefacts from the Armada wrecks.
The event has inspired paintings, photography and other artistic interpretation. The Granuaile Suite (1985) by Irish composer Shaun Davey, a classical treatment of the life of Ireland’s pirate queen Grace O’Malley (c.1530-1603), contains a lament on the Spanish landings in Ireland. The wrecking of the Girona near the Giant’s Causeway, Co. Antrim has been illustrated on the reverse side of sterling bank notes issued by the First Trust Bank in Northern Ireland. Names such as Spanish Point are to be found in Ireland where vessels and men were sunk and lost in a list of shipwrecks off the Irish coast.
A vivid narrative in long letter form was written by Captain Francisco de Cuellar who was aboard the last group of Armada ships wrecked in Ireland on 25 September 1588. He came ashore at Streedagh Strand, north of Sligo Bay, in territory that was controlled by the O’Conors. He recounts the terrifying circumstances of his near drowning and his wanderings and adventures in Ireland while witnessing the inhuman treatment of the Spanish seamen. When he encountered women they were charitable providing nourishment and shelter. He spoke Latin in which he preferred to converse with some clerics and others. Written ‘with emotion recollected in tranquillity’, it chronicles his own suffering and eye witness account of Gaelic life, of savage plundering of ships and agonising of men stripped of clothes and possessions, a unique historical and graphic account of the Armada in Ireland.
Ita Marguet, September 2013
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in preparation of this text. It follows a visit to Inishowen Peninsula and exhibitions at the Maritime Heritage Museum, Greencastle, Co. Donegal and the Tower Museum, Derry, Northern Ireland (August, 2013).