The call of St James was heard once more...

Seventy years after Margaret Athy’s generous patronage of the Augustine abbey and buildings on Fort Hill (originally St Augustine’s Hill ), with its commanding view of the port and the town, the place was turned into a butcher’s block. Approximately 300 survivors of the ill-fated Armada were beheaded there.

A short time before this nightmare scene, the monks and nuns were turned out. The abbey became a fort, and today it is a graveyard. We can appreciate its strategic importance to any military mind who wished to keep an eye on approaching ships, and trouble in the town.

This dramatic turn of events was the result of the ill-fated attempted invasion of England by Spain. In May 1588 130 ships sailed from A Coruna, the same port where Galway pilgrims landed on their way to the shrine of St James. The Spanish plan was to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I, and her promotion of Protestantism; to revenge her interference in Spanish affairs in the Netherlands, and to end her encouragement of privateering of Spanish ships returning from the Americas laden with Inca gold.

The attempted invasion, however, was a total disaster. Violent storms, and persistent English naval action, scattered the Spanish fleet, forcing many to sail around Scotland, and down the west coast of Ireland. Further storms compelled ships to seek shelter, while others were wrecked on rocky headlands.

Survivors might have expected shelter and comfort from the native Irish chieftains, but this was not to be. Rewards were offered for the delivery to the authorities of any Spanish or Portuguese found on the shore line. If the survivors had been given shelter those who gave it had to pay fines, were forced to surrender hostages, and were in danger of losing their lands. The viceroy, Sir William Fitzwilliam, came to Galway to oversee the executions, and to seize whatever Spanish property and spoils were washed ashore.*

Legend tells us that while the Augustinian friars gave what comfort they could to the condemned, a group of women from the town ‘piously prepared winding sheets for the corpses’, and saw to their burial. ‘At least two of the Spanish sailors escaped death by lurking a long time in Galway, and afterwards getting back to their own country.’ It is further said that up to the middle of the last century, Spanish sailors, who docked at Galway, visited Forthill to pray for the lost Armada generation.

Diluted story

The Armada disaster had an impact on the popularity of the pilgrimage to Santiago, at least from among the influential families. Bernadette Cunningham** observes that while the pilgrimage may well have continued overland unabated, records now become scarce. Up to this point the urban pilgrims to Santiago, who can be identified by name, were generally part of the wealthy elite of coastal towns, often connected with civic office, whose movements were recorded.

The virtual loss of her entire navy prompted Spain to rebuild its sea power. She was keen to attract skilled Irish seamen to places such as Ferrol, A Coruna, and elsewhere on its north coast. Irish soldiers and their families also settled in Spain, to serve in Spanish armies. Other Irish people became political exiles or economic migrants.

‘As a result of the more permanent movement of people from Ireland to Galicia in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the pilgrim story becomes diluted with other endeavours.’

Call of the fiddle

In Galway, the decline of the pilgrimage can be seen in the sad dereliction, and disappearance, of the little chapel dedicated to St James at Newcastle. Located ‘by Galway river near the town,’ so Roderick O’Flaherty wrote in 1684, ‘which was wont to be visited on St James’ Eve and Day (July 25 ) by the people of Galway for devotion.’

However, in 1838 Thomas O’Connor, a member of the Ordnance Survey topographical department, engaged in collecting information on place names and antiquities, observed that the ‘chapel of St James remains as yet entire, in its walls and roof…. the chapel has been converted into a stall for feeding cows in it….the roof is a slated one, which threatens to fall into ruin in a short time.’

For nearly two centuries it appears that the once great devotion to St James, and the ‘way’ to Santiago was unrecorded, perhaps seldom made. And there it rested until the 1930s, when the sweet, head-turning sounds of the fiddle was heard from that wandering, and carefree professor from Trinity, Walter Starkie. His books and stories re-awoke the call of St James to Ireland,**** and opened once more the door to the hardships and rewards of the camino along that magical ‘Field of Stars’.

NOTES: *A pamphlet of 1588 in Marsh’s Library, Dublin, gives a list of the ships of the Spanish Armada lost off the western coast as: ‘In Sligo Haven, 3 great ships, 1,500 men. In Clare Island , 1 ship, 300 men. In Finglasse, 1 ship, 200 men. In O’Flartie, 1 ship 200 men. In Irrise, 2 ships and in Galway Bay, 1 ship and 70 men.’

** Her recently published book Medieval Irish Pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela, published by Four Courts Press, on sale €20.

*** Paul Walsh, Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society 1989/90.

**** Spanish Raggle Taggle, published 1934, The Road to Santiago, published 1957.

My thanks to Mary Qualter, Galway Co Library, for her help in this series.

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