G.M. Trevelyan maintained that the poetry of history lies in the fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone.
They’re still here. That’s the thing that haunts me.
Once, more than 400 years ago, other men looked out on the scene that I’m looking out on now from the window. They saw the same mountains, the same jagged coast with the sea snaking round the sand bars.
But they saw something else.
A huge sailing ship, taller than anything Erris had seen, lay in the bay. Its sails, emblazoned with red crosses, were in tatters. Some of its timbers were broken; others showed signs of makeshift repairs.
The ship was stranded. It had run aground on the Tullaghan Bar, a long spit of sand which projects out into the bay. But it hadn’t been abandoned. Instead it swarmed with figures, hundreds of them, bringing down the rigging, clambering over the decks, hoisting cannon and provisions over the gunwales. Overseeing operations from the sand was a tall, fair-skinned man in his thirties, ‘a whitely man with an Abraham beard’. His name was Don Alonso Martinez de Leyva, and he was one of the leaders of the Spanish Armada.
Don Alonso’s ship, the 35-gun Rata Santa Maria Encoronada, was a converted Genoese merchantman crammed with soldiers, sailors and servants. She had been in the thick of the fighting with the English fleet, the first Spanish ship to exchange shots with the English when the two fleets closed in the Channel in July 1588. After the Battle of Gravelines and Lord Howard of Effingham’s pursuit of the Armada into the North Sea, Don Alonso and the other survivors, 120 ships in all, set a course for Spain which took them around the coast of Scotland and out into the Atlantic. But like his comrades, Don Alonso had turned south too soon and been driven onto the west coast of Ireland.
He was lucky. He had Irishmen aboard who knew Erris. They guided his ship into the safe haven of Blacksod Bay, where he could take on fresh water, make repairs, perhaps join up with other members of his scattered squadron. But the Rata had cut most of its anchor cables off Calais in order to escape when the English sent in fireships, and the anchors that remained weren’t strong enough to prevent the ship from drifting eastwards towards the shore. Eventually she ran aground on the Tullaghan Bar off Doona Castle.
Which is why on 15 September 1588 the villagers of Tullaghanbaun found themselves spectators at a small invasion. Before the Rata dragged its anchors Don Alonso sent fourteen sailors, all Italians, ashore in the ship’s longboat to reconnoitre. They were led by the ship’s master, Giovanni Avanici, and as soon as they landed they abandoned the boat and deserted. That left Don Alonso in an awkward position. The Rata was too far out for his men, some four hundred of them, to wade ashore; but with the longboat gone they couldn’t row themselves to safety, either. So he sent a second group ashore floating on empty casks; they retrieved the longboat and the task of ferrying his small army to land began.
His objective was Doona Castle, and whether he knew it or not, he was making a wise move when he chose a fortress for his camp. At least twenty-four Spanish ships were lost on the Irish coast that September. Survivors were stripped and robbed by native Irish, sometimes killed by them: Melaghlin McCabb claimed to have personally killed eighty Spaniards with his own axe as they struggled ashore. English soldiers in the service of Sir Richard Bingham, governor of Connacht and a veteran of the wars in the Low Countries, killed any Spaniards they found. Bingham’s brother George, who served under him as governor of Sligo, found 140 weak and injured Spaniards who had managed to reach the beach in Sligo Bay: he killed them all. Sir Richard himself went down to Galway, ordered local Irish chieftains to bring in any of the enemy they found, and executed them all. ‘Having made a clear despatch of them, both within the town and in the country, he rested Sunday all day, giving thanks to Almighty God for Her Majesty’s most happy success in that action, and our deliverance from such dangerous enemies.’
British and Irish historians have each tried to excuse their own nation’s behaviour to the Armada survivors in the autumn of 1588, the Brits by claiming that Bingham believed he was facing a Spanish invasion, and the Irish maintaining that most natives confined themselves to robbing and stripping naked the Spaniards they found, and that because they often stopped short of murdering them, that gave them the moral high ground. At the time, the English in Mayo and Sligo were delighted when the native Irish took their axes to the Spaniards, believing it showed a growing allegiance to the English Crown and a disinclination to ally themselves with England’s enemies. ‘The blood which the Irish have drawn upon them, Sir George Carew, master-general of the ordnance in Dublin, told Lord Burghley, ‘doth assure Her Majesty of better obedience to come, for that friendship being broken, they have no other stranger to trust to… The ancient love between Ireland and Spain is broken.’
Not quite. Don Alonso was fortunate in his shipwreck. It was gentle, and it left him in the heart of Erris. And Erris hated the English.