Road Trip: Ireland

In the Spanish Armada’s Wake, on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way

Every year off the coast of Spanish Point, a village in County Clare, high waves attract death-defying surfers from around the world. Little do those gleeful daredevils suspect that the watery depths shroud other stories of life and death, of battle and defeat.

Tomb of the Spaniards
Tomb of the Spaniards at Spanish Point, Co. Clare

The crippled ships of the Spanish Armada arrived here in September of 1588 following Spain’s failed seaborne invasion of its longtime rival England. As many as 9,000 Spanish crew and 27 Spanish ships may have been lost. Local legend has it that most of the sailors who made it to shore are buried under Spanish Point in a mass grave—Tuama Na Spainneach, or Tomb of the Spaniards. Two remnants of the fleet, the galleons San Marcos and San Esteban, are thought to lie beneath the surf near Clare’s Mutton Island and Doonbeg.

Medal commemorating the defeat of the Spanish Armada

How the Spaniards and their vessels came to be lost so long ago is debated to this day. The original English narrative told of Queen Elizabeth I’s victory over the ‘invincible Armada’ through a mixture of divine intervention and her navy’s ‘unprecedented’ deployment of fireships—vessels set alight with pitch and tar—against the Spanish fleet during the Battle of Gravelines.

In reality, flaming and incendiary weapons had been used in naval warfare centuries earlier by the Assyrians, Romans, and Greeks, to name a few; and the dent in the Armada’s famous crescent-shaped formation created only a minor setback, a loss of just five of 130 ships.

Map of the Spanish Armada Wrecks and Their Route
Map tracing the battles and wreckage of the Armada

Spain’s defeat (and England’s good luck) was probably caused by a combination of gale winds that crashed her retreating ships against the rocky Irish coast and Irish forces who—along with English soldiers led by Clare’s high sheriff, Boetius Clancy, a puppet of the British government—massacred the 300 or so Spaniards who hadn’t drowned. (Mass executions occurred all along Ireland’s western coast around this time.)

The San Marcos Project, an initiative launched by residents of Spanish Point and nearby towns Quilt, Miltown Malbay, and Mullagh, has been searching for the buried remains of the lost sailors of the San Marcos and San Esteban. In July of 2015, the group found geophysical evidence suggesting the presence of the Tomb of the Spaniards.

Thanks to Wynne McIntyre for her great research on this post! Featured Image: “Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada,” a painting often attributed to Nicholas Hilliard