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The Spanish Armada and the fate of some of its ships off the west Clare coast

Throughout 1587 and early 1588, rumours that Philip of Spain was assembling a massive fleet to conquer England and Ireland were spreading like wildfire. Reports came to Ireland mainly from the crews of trading ships returning from the ports of Spain and France. English intelligence sources confirmed these rumours but Elizabeth evidently believed that a war situation could be avoided, even up to early 1588, when the massive fleet was nearing readiness to sail from Lisbon. From the outset, the fleet seemed destined for bad luck. After a month at sea, little progress had been made due to unfavourable winds. Food which was badly packed had already gone rotten and drinking water had gone stagnant. Scarcely had the major part of the fleet reached the shelter of Corunna, in the North West of Spain, than a fierce gale arose in the Bay of Biscay, scattering the remaining ships. By the time these had made their way back to Corunna and were ready to sail again with fresh provisions, it was July 12th. Morale was much higher as the fleet of over 130 vessels, galleons, galleys, merchantmen, galleasses, supply ships and pataches, carrying almost 30,000 men, hoisted sails for the English channel.

The purpose of the Armada was firstly to enable the huge army of the Duke of Parma to cross in safety from France to England, and having accomplished this, its second objective was to wipe out the English fleet. From the mouth of the channel the Armada moved in a tight crescent-shaped formation, defying and puzzling the English. However, the English succeeded in breaking the formation by sending in fireships by night, causing panic among the Spaniards. In the subsequent sea battle of Gravelines, grave losses of ships and men were incurred by the Spanish fleet while the English fleet came through unscathed. The battle ended when ammunition stocks were almost exhausted. The wind changed to south south-west and the commander of the Armada, the Duke of Medina Sidonia ordered that the fleet should sail North, around Scotland and wide around Ireland and back to Spain.

When Boetius Clancy, High Sheriff of Clare, looked out from the Cliffs of Moher at the two large ships lurking off the Aran Islands on September 16th he was a rather worried man. News of the sighting of ships was coming from all along the western coast of Ireland, and the English authorities, with a lack of supplies and manpower, were greatly concerned. The fact that the English fleet had been victorious and that the Spanish fleet had been badly battered, was not generally known. Indeed, rumours to the contrary were prevalent and it is only natural that the possibility of an invasion of Ireland by an army of such power and reputed ferocity, would frighten the English authorities. This must be borne in mind when one reads the following extract from an order signed by William Fitzwilliam, the Lord Deputy, but in no way excuses the ruthless barbarity with which the order was carried out.

"… we authorise you to make inquiry by all good means, both by oath and otherwise, to take all the hulls of ships, stores, treasures, etc. into your hands and to apprehend and execute all Spaniards found there of what quality so ever. Torture may be used in prosecuting this inquiry.

On the same day, another Spanish ship, the Zuniga, appeared off Liscannor. This was one of the four galleasses which sailed with the Armada, a long narrow ship, powered both by oars and a large square sail. It had seen a lot of action and distress, and supplies on board were severely rationed. Clancy reported to Bingham, Governor of Connaught, that some Spaniards had attempted a landing but had failed due to the terrible gales which swept the west coast for most of that month. It would appear that the Spaniards did succeed in landing and in getting some provisions and on one of these expeditions, the ship's purser, Pietro Baptista of Naples was captured by the English and he told them of the true state of the fleet. The Zuniga left the bay and eventually reached Le Havre.
Meanwhile at the other end of the county seven ships were sighted by Nicolas Cahane, an agent of the High Sheriff. These anchored off Kilrush and some heavily armed soldiers came ashore to barter for food and water, but they were given nothing.
Before they set sail, one of the ships which was irreparably damaged, the Annunciada of the Levant Squadron from the Adriatic was stripped of everything of value by its crew and set alight.

The winds which enabled the six ships to sail from Kilrush were not so kind to two other vessels, and scarcely had calm been restored at Kilrush, than news of disasters further north along the coast brought Nicholas Cahane rushing to the scene. On reaching the White Strand, north of Doonbeg he writes as follows:

"God hath cast to the shore a great ship from San Sebastian wherein were 300 men all drowned but three score or thereabout.

Another ship is cast in at I Brickane and lost, they had both men and munitions from Flanders."

Both of these ships were lost on September 20th. The San Esteban from the Guipuzcoa Squadron went down off the White Strand. It was a vessel of 736 tons and carried 246 men and 26 guns from the port of Corunna. The other ship seems to have been the San Marcos, a Portugese galleon of 790 tons. When it sailed from Corunna, it carried 33 guns and 409 men, 292 soldiers and 117 sailors. In addition there were servants so it is probable that over 450 lives were lost when this massive galleon broke up on the reef between Mutton Island and Lurga point.

Only four survivors were taken from the San Marcos, and these, together with the survivors from the San Esteban were held prisoners by Clancy at his castle near Spanish Point. Evidently some had been killed on the shore by both the English and the natives but all those who were taken, were hanged on Cnoc na Crocaire near Spanish Point. This mass execution was presided over by Clancy, Turlough O'Brien of Tromra Castle, George Cusack, Captain Mordaunt and a Mr. Morton. The bodies were buried in a mass grave known to this day as Tuama na Spaineach.

A galleass
A galleass. The Zuniga was one of four galleasses in the Armada
Armada Ship Door
This Door is reputed to have been washed ashore at Spanish Point from an Armada Ship

The Other Clare, vol. 3 (1979)

Fallon, Niall, The Armada in Ireland. London, Stanford Maritime, 1978.
Flanagan, Laurence, Ireland's Armada legacy. Dublin, Gill & Macmillan, 1988.
Flanagan, Laurence, Irish wrecks of the Spanish Armada. Dublin, Country House, 1995.
Kilfeather, T.P., Ireland: Graveyard of the Spanish Armada. Dublin: Anvil Books, 1967.

Clare County Library wishes to thank Clare Local Studies Project
for preparation of raw text for this publication.



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