The bigger they come, the harder they fall

Biblio - A monthly review of Irish Books

DESPITE IT’S somewhat dramatic opening, “On 18 August 1588 a barque of Southampton was fishing about 36 miles southeast of Sumburgh Head, Shetland, when the crew sighted the Spanish Armada approaching from over the horizon to the south,” The Downfall of the Spanish Armada in Ireland by Ken Douglas, published by Gill & Macmillan, begins where the romance and the glory of that most colourful of invasions ended and the inevitably tragic and sordid debacle began.

The story opens with the remaining 120 vessels (of an original 130 ) of that extraordinary flotilla, left with the best part of 30,000 men on board trying to find their way back to Spain.

The pursuing English fleet had lost touch with them. This caused concern as the Armada was still a menace. The fact that the Southampton fishermen had spotted them confirmed they were heading home. However it took two weeks for that information to reach London so by the time it would have been acted on, the Armada could have been safely back to the Iberian peninsula.

This book describes how the lack of navigational knowledge and ignorance of the western seaboard of Ireland, helped by some freak weather, finished off what Drake and his fellow mariners began, and the story is a fascinating if somewhat tragic revelation of the realities of naval warfare in the 16th century.

In Part I, the author sets out the foundation for the story – the fateful decision of the Armada leadership taken in the North Sea on August 11 to return to Spain by sailing round the north of Scotland and down the west coast of Ireland. He then goes on to describe the influence the weather, 16th century navigational techniques, and ocean currents had on the Armada’s failure to follow the sailing instructions.

Part II sets down in great detail the Armada’s experience in Ireland from the beginning of September to mid November 1588. This section is full of fascinating local interest. There were reports of one ship that cast anchor close to Barna. Apparently 70 of her men came ashore looking for supplies. They were captured and the mayor of Galway was willing to spare their lives if they would yield up their goods and ship.

However, the captain, seeing how his men were being treated, took to the sea. The mayor reported that the ship was in such poor condition and the crew lacked victuals, that they would never made it back to Spain.

The records, or lack of them, would suggest he was wrong (The book does not tell us what befell the 70 captured men ). This section is by far the most interesting in the book, filled as it is with such fascinating stories and at the same time underlining the tragic end suffered by many of the survivors who were butchered by English and Irish alike.

In Part III, the author shifts the narrative to the 20th century and pays tribute to the work of the divers who found and excavated Armada wrecks off the Irish coast. He concludes the section with a guide to Armada sites in Ireland.

Part IV includes the diaries of two Armada survivors: Captain Cuellar who describes his escape and subsequent journey through Connacht and Ulster, and Marcos de Aramburu which is a record of the Armada’s voyage around the north coast of Scotland and into the Atlantic.

Despite the sporadic structure and the somewhat hesitant style of narration, this book is well worth reading, not only because it debunks the mythology that surrounds the Spanish Armada and gives an intriguing insight into the life of 16th century Ireland, but also because it underlines the tragedy and sordid futility of war, no matter when, why, or how it is waged.


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