ON SEPTEMBER 21 1588, a violent storm of tornado strength broke up three ships of the Spanish Armada and ran them aground on Streedagh Beach in County Sligo.
The Adventures Of The Wet Señor by Donal O’Kelly is a new play based on the experiences of a survivor of that fateful evening - Captain Francisco De Cuellar of the barque San Pedro of the Levant squadron.
The play, which draws on an account of his experiences which De Cuellar wrote after he reached safety, also features live music from Kíla. It plays at the Town Hall Theatre on Wednesday November 10 and Thursday 11 at 8pm.
Francisco De Cuellar had escaped a death sentence at the hands of the notorious Spanish disciplinary commander Bobadilla in the North Sea. His ship San Pedro was found to have drifted out of the Armada’s strict crescent formation. The penalty was death by hanging from the yardarm, but Francisco pleaded his case, and was supported by Don Aranda, attorney general of the Armada.
A stay of execution was arranged so when he was washed ashore in Ireland, he did so stripped of his captaincy, still under a sentence of death, but alive, and what a survivor he proved to be.
For the next year, De Cuellar struggled through the most amazing adventures as he sought a way to get home. He was wounded, stripped, robbed, and beaten. He was enslaved by a blacksmith, he defended an island fort for the McClancy clan in Lough Melvin, made his way to the Giant’s Causeway, holed up with some women in an Antrim mountain hideaway, and finally made his way to Spanish Flanders, where he survived another shipwreck before reaching safety.
His Irish baptism of fire propels him from soldier of fortune to “gypsy among savages”, and gives this born survivor a glimpse of something more precious than conquistadors’ gold.
Having previously authored compelling maritime dramas like The Catalpa and The Cambria, Donal O’Kelly is the perfect candidate to bring De Cuellar’s remarkable story to the stage. Ahead of the show’s Galway visit, he explained what initially drew him to the story.
“I moved up to Manorhamilton from Dublin a few years ago and one of the first things I noticed were these roadsigns for the De Cuellar Trail,” he says. “Then I heard various stories about him and how he had written this letter describing his experiences in Ireland.
“So myself and Sorcha Fox, who I’ve worked with a lot, and Dee Armstrong and Rossa O’Snodaigh from Kíla - who also live in Manorhamilton - all got together and decided we would make a piece of music theatre out of this story so that’s how it all started.”
O’Kelly recounts how lucky De Cuellar was to survive the shipwreck.
“Most of the Spaniards that got ashore were killed by those loyal to the English garrison in Sligo. Also, the local Irish stripped them of their clothes because the Spaniards were paid in gold which they often stitched into their clothing for safe keeping. A few of the Spaniards did manage to get away though, including our friend De Cuellar.”
On finally reaching safety in Spanish Flanders in 1589, De Cuellar set down his experiences in a letter to one of his patrons in Spain. O’Kelly describes this account, which is the chief inspiration behind his play.
“His letter is a mixture of despair and colour,” O’Kelly says. “He gives quite colourful descriptions of his escapades. One of the things that interested me was what agenda did he have for writing the letter. The reality was that at the time of his shipwreck De Cuellar was actually under sentence of death, so I think he had an objective of emphasising his travails in the letter and the things he had suffered for king and country; I think it’s always worthwhile taking people’s agendas into account!”
O’Kelly expands upon The Wet Señor’s thematic concerns. “Our show poses the idea that if you don’t challenge things, business as normal will continue. When he was in Ireland De Cuellar went through experiences that gave him the power to challenge business-as-usual.”
Aside from his remarkable letter, O’Kelly reveals there are two historical sources that mention De Cuellar.
“He served as a captain in Latin America and he’s recorded as being involved in a battle with a couple of English ships in the Caribbean in the early 1580s,” says O’Kelly. “Professor Ciaran Brady of Trinity told me he came across him again about 10 years later in the Azores so his letter worked to the extent that he avoided execution and continued his career as a captain.”
What of O’Kelly’s collaboration with Kíla in the creation of The Wet Señor?
“The whole thing was a co-operative venture from the start,” he reveals. “We built it up gradually; sometimes it would be text-led and the music would feed into the text and sometimes it would be music-led and I would write text to go with that. It was a way of working that we would all like to continue and we hope this could be the start of something new.”
Combining the live music passion of Kíla, the powerful storytelling skills of Donal O’Kelly, and high octane performances from Carrie Crowley, Jaimie Carswell, and Sorcha Fox, The Adventures Of The Wet Señor breaks exciting new ground in music-theatre.
The result is much more than a play: electrifying music, stunning visuals, superb physical performances, and a rollicking story.
“We’re trying to present an epic story that is set in recognisable locations in Ireland in a way that is both familiar and universal,” says O’Kelly. “You get the visceral satisfaction of a great music gig combined with the impact of a highly dramatic story.”
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777.