Don Alonso and the Devil’s Hook 4/4


By the afternoon of 23 September 1588, Tullaghan Bay was quiet again. The remains of the Rata Santa Maria Encoronada lay smouldering on its side by the shore. Don Alonso and his men had boarded the Duquesa, taking with them plate, money, armour and personal weapons. They’d been forced to leave behind their victuals and heavy ordnance; but no doubt the Devil’s Hook found a use for these things.

Bursting at the seams with men and baggage – her own complement of about 250 crew and soldiers, the 400 from the Rata and some survivors from another ship that had foundered nearby – the Duquesa set sail on the morning tide, bound for home. English soldiers watched from a distance as Don Alonso boarded her, but outnumbered and surrounded by hostile locals, they were powerless to stop him.

The Duquesa didn’t get very far. A combination of calms and stormy weather meant that four days later she was back where she started at the entrance to Blacksod Bay, and it was only through fine seamanship that she wasn’t lost among the islands. Sir Richard Bingham assumed Don Alonso and his men must be cast away. It was not possible he could escape, he reported to Dublin, ‘except his ship were most strong and good, for he was marvellously pestered with such numbers of men’.

The Duquesa set out again, this time heading north for Scotland. She had crossed Donegal Bay and made about seventy miles when storms forced her towards the shore. Although she dropped her anchors, her cables broke and on 29 September she was driven aground at Tramore Beach in Donegal.

The Spaniards disembarked, carrying Don Alonso, whose leg had been injured in an accident with the capstan during the storm, so that he could neither walk nor ride. They set up camp by the ship, fortified their positions, and pondered their next move. One of the guns transferred to land from the Duquesa was still there, half-buried in the sands, in the 1960s.

But Don Alonso’s luck held. Again, he and his men had been wrecked in a part of Ireland that preferred Spain to England: the local chieftain, McSweeny Na Doe, was happy to help them, and through an interpreter, an Irish monk who was travelling with Don Alonso, he told them that an Armada ship, the Girona, lay at anchor nineteen miles away in the harbour at Killybegs. She was battered, but she could be repaired.

In early October the Spaniards from the Duquesa set off for Killybegs. Don Alonso, still suffering from his injuries, was carried on a litter between four men. There were persistent rumours that English soldiers were on their way, and as soon as Don Alonso arrived he set about getting the Girona fit for the sea. His plan was still to get across to Scotland, a voyage of between 150 and 200 miles.

On 26 October 1588, after giving the MacSweenys and their friends some wine and a quantity of firearms, Don Alonso set sail, ‘having for his pilots three Irishmen and a Scot’. The Girona was massively overladen: there were about 1300 men aboard, and even then some were left behind to find their own way home, chiefly galley slaves and pressed men.

And now, finally, Don Alonso’s luck ran out. On the night of 28 October the Girona foundered on rocks near the Giant’s Causeway. There were a handful of survivors, all Italians. Everyone else was drowned.

Back in Erris, the rebels who had helped Don Alonso and the other Spaniards were facing retribution from Sir Richard Bingham and the English garrison. Bingham had William Burke, the Blind Abbot, arrested and imprisoned; he was freed three months later after agreeing to provide his son as a pledge. Justin MacDonnell, ‘a notable ringleader of mischief’, was charged with treason under martial law. For giving food to the Spaniards and denying it to the English soldiers who were hunting them, for whipping up his people ‘in a very disorderly sort of way by mutiny’, and because ‘he was but a loose man’, he was hanged.

The Devil’s Hook had with him a number of Spaniards whom he had picked up along the way, and he refused to hand them over to Bingham. He knew what their fate would be if the English had them, and he knew too that they would make excellent fighters, since they faced certain death if they were captured. He retreated with them and his own clan deep into Erris, where for months the English hunted him through the bogs and out into the islands, never quite catching him, until he simply vanished into the past, a barely-remembered footnote to a barely-remembered history.

The Rata Santa Maria Encoronada, or what’s left of her, is still there beneath the sands of Tullaghan Bay. Once, I thought I saw the shadow of a ship out there.

It was just clouds scudding across the sun.


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1 Response to Don Alonso and the Devil’s Hook 4/4

  1. I really enjoyed that little serial. Well done Ade, you brought the history, the landscape and all the participants to life.

    Liked by 1 person

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