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The Spanish Armada & Sligo - an untold tale


When Steven Spielberg sits down to plan his next blockbuster film project, he could do worse than consider the tale of a shipwrecked Spanish Armada captain who was washed up on a lonely beach in the north west of Ireland, escaped local savages and the clutches of the English soldiers sent to kill him, and ultimately, through an unbelievable sequence of events, returned home to the safety of his own country many months later.

That was the story of Captain Francisco de Cuellar, a captain on one of 3 Spanish Armada ships which sank during storms at Streedagh Beach in Sligo, as they retreated from an ill-fated invasion of England in 1588. At the time, King Phillip of Catholic Spain planned to dethrone Elizabeth, Queen of Protestant England, but his fleet of Armada ships which led the attack was rebuffed, first by the English Navy led by Francis Drake, and then by the Winter storms which led to perhaps 26 of the 130 Armada ships being wrecked off the Irish coastline.

Captain Francisco de Cuellar

De Cuellar recounted his experiences in a long letter penned to the King of Spain, in which he told of the huge loss of life after the ships were wrecked, through to his trials and tribulations as he tried to get safe passage back to Spain, despite being pursued by the English in a country about which he knew nothing before he was shipwrecked there. This story is one of adventure and escape, of hardship, close shaves and dire misfortune, but which is also interspersed with humour.

De Cuellar provides us with a colourful account, which most likely has more than a share of exaggeration, but it also provides us with a unique narrative of the history of this impoverished part of Ireland in the late 16th century.

Streedagh has a unique place in the Armada story in that it is the only place that we know of where 3 galleons were lost, a sequence of events which also led to the loss of over 1,100 lives. Just last year, 9 cannon from one of the ships, La Juliana, were recovered and are now being preserved by the Underwater Archaeology Unit of the Irish State in Dublin.

As part of the commemoration ceremonies which took place this year as part of the Celtic Fringe Festival, a Spanish Navy ship, the OPV Centinela, visited Sligo to mark the Armada tragedies, and a wreath was laid by the crew of the ship to commemorate the souls of their lost countrymen. This was also the first time since the Armada ships sank in 1588 that a Spanish military vessel had sailed into Sligo Bay. The video of the event shows an emotional and respectful remembrance ceremony which took place both at sea and on the very beach where the Spanish soldiers dies and where the ships were lost.

And as for de Cuellar, the original letter he wrote has found a home in the Spanish Naval Museum in Madrid (follow this link) . A translation of the original text can be found both as hard copies and in an online version at this link. He didn't stay long in Spain following on from his adventures in Ireland. He is believed to have voyaged to the Americas, where he lived out the remainder of his days.

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