Shipwreck! The Story of the Girona
“…take great care lest you fall upon the Island of Ireland, for fear of the harm that may befall you on that coast”Fateful words spoken by the Commander of the Spanish Armada, Don Alonso Perez de Guzman in the year 1588
The Spanish Armada Defeated
The Spanish Armada sailed from Lisbon in 1588 to invade England. A fleet of English ships set sail from Plymouth to battle the Armada. The English ships, faster and more manoeuvrable than the larger Spanish galleons, were able to outgun the Spanish over a number of battles.
After that defeat, in October 1588, the mighty Spanish Armada fleet of 130 ships were scattered. Their only hope was to head north to sail around Scotland and then around the west coast of Ireland to reach home. However, the weather was against them and the Spaniards encountered ferocious storms and gales driving them on to coastal rock formations in Scotland and Ireland.
The Girona Arrives in Killybegs
La Girona, one of the four galleasses, limped into Killybegs harbour in Donegal with a damaged rudder.
A galleass is a merchant galley ship redesigned for military use. Their large size allowed them to hold extensive artillery and they were renowned for their speed and strength. They used both sails and oars. The rowers were captured slaves from the Spanish South American colonies.
The Girona was named after the Girones family, Spanish Dukes of Osuna and Viceroys of Naples.
At Killybegs, with the assistance of the Irish chieftain of the MacSweeny Bannagh clan, the great ship was repaired. The MacSweeny Bannagh’s were of Scottish origin but also claimed descent from the ui Neill dynasty. Based in Rahan Castle near Dunkineely they also ruled Killybegs.
Other Armada Survivors
The Girona had a crew of 121 sailors and 186 soldiers plus 22 officers including Captain Fabricio Spinola.
However, while in Donegal other Spanish survivors of shipwrecks assembled seeking passage. These were men off La Rata Santa Maria Encoronda and the Dunquesa Santa Ana.
The Rata had run aground during the storms on the beach of Blacksod Bay in County Mayo. These men marched 25 miles to where they knew the Santa Ana had anchored. They boarded this ship but unfortunately on 28th September the Santa Ana was wrecked in Loughros More Bay, in County Donegal.
The Escape Plan
The Spaniards were fearful for their lives as there were so many English soldiers stationed in Ireland. They felt that they would be safer in Catholic Scotland. The Spanish had an encampment on a small island in Kiltoorish Lake some miles to the north.
Led by the famous captain Don Alonso Martinez de Leyva, the surviving seamen made their way to Killybegs. De Leyva had been injured by a capstan on the Dunquessa Santa Ana and had to be carried in a litter as he could neither walk nor ride. The Girona would transport the survivors to Scotland.
The Final Voyage of the Girona
When the Girona left the Donegal port there were an estimated 1,300 people on board a ship designed for a crew of under 400.
The Girona sailed north and rounded Inishowen, but here again encountered terrible weather.
The fierce storm and gale force winds hurled the massive ship towards the coast. The sailors rowed frantically to try to keep the ship on course, but to no avail.
At midnight on 26th October the Girona smashed into the rocks at Lacada Point and sank. Of the 1,300 souls on board only 9 survived.
Lacada Point on the coast of north Antrim is a rugged, rocky promontory that juts into the Atlantic Ocean. It is situated just east of the Giant’s Causeway. Since that fateful night in 1588 it has been known locally as the Spanish Rocks.
Sorley Boy MacDonnell
Sorley Boy MacDonnell was the local chieftain at the time. He resided in the nearby coastal castle of Dunluce.
He aided the few survivors and when they were well enough arranged for their passage to Scotland. It is said that Sorley Boy also organised salvage missions to the sunken ship and that Spanish cannons were later mounted on the Dunluce Castle parapets. Sorley Boy was also not above misdirecting others who came in search of the wreck site.
The bodies of the drowned were either claimed by the sea or washed ashore at various locations along the Irish coastline. 260 are buried in the graveyard of St Cuthbert’s at Dunluce, where Sorley Boy ensured they received a Catholic burial. St Cuthbert’s served as a parish church up until 1821,
It was said to have a muniment chest (used for storing religious manuscripts) that originally belonged on the Girona.
In 2017 at a special service a wall plaque was placed in the graveyard commemorating the Spanish dead buried there.
The Spanish Tree
At least one other Armada sailor is said to have been buried in the cemetery at Cairncastle. The sailor’s body was washed ashore at Ballygally Bay and was buried in the nearby graveyard in the grounds of St Patrick’s Church of Ireland.
It is said the sailor had chestnuts in his pocket as chestnuts were thought to offer protection and ward off scurvy. The seeds sprouted in the soil and grew into a beautiful tree.
Amazingly the Spanish tree lasted for 432 years and finally fell over in 2020. The inhabitants of Cairncastle are planning to use the timber to commemorate the history of the sailors of the Armada and to tell the story of this remarkable tree.
“But there is no way we want to turn it into firewood, we’re much too fond of it for that. Once we examine the condition of the wood we’ll be looking into doing something with it. The trunk itself is quite a size and we want to use it to create something substantial for local people to remember it by. It deserves to be preserved”Rev Benson Newsletter 29th June 2020
Other Armada Survivors
There is also the commonly told story that survivors from other Armada ships that were wrecked along the rocky coastline stayed in Ireland.
These men married into local Irish families and this explains the dark features of some Irish people living along the western coast. Those to whom the Spanish bloodline is attributed were often described as “Black Irish“.
La Girona Discovered
La Girona and its treasure lay hidden and undisturbed on the seabed until 1967. Then it was discovered by Belgian Robert Stenuit and a team of divers.
Stenuit had made a career as a nautical archaeologist searching for shipwrecks and diving for treasure. He was especially interested in the Girona and the tales of the fabulous fortune she was carrying.
From studying Ordnance Survey Maps, both old and recent, he was intrigued by references to Port na Spaniagh, the Spanish Rocks and the Spanish Cave near Portballintrae. After numerous unsuccessful dives, on 27th June 1967 Stenuit found lead ingots bearing the Cross of Jerusalem, a common sign on Spanish ships, next a gun and then several cannon balls. At this he knew the famous ship had been discovered!
Stenuit kept the amazing find a secret until he returned the following year having secured the legal rights to the diving site. His wait was not in vain.
The subsequent 3 year long salvage project, involving 6,000 hours of diving, recovered a hoard of treasure beyond anyone’s imaginings. Nearly 2,000 items were recovered from the sunken vessel including – gold coins, silver candlesticks, gold rings and chains, pendants and crosses, buttons, silver-gilt tableware and scent bottles.
Treasures of the Girona
The intricate and lavish jewellery in particular, shows the wealthy lifestyle of these high-ranking captains and officers. An example of this are the 11 lapis lazuli cameos of the Roman emperors. Lapis lazuli stones are celestial blue and remain a symbol of royalty and honor, gods and power, spirit and vision. A twelfth stone to complete the set was found by a local diver in 1998. The cameos are set in ornate gold surrounds decorated with pearls.
The Golden Salamander
Another striking discovery is a small gold pendant shaped like a salamander. It is beautifully carved and set with rubies. When analysed it was discovered that the gold came from South America and the rubies from Burma reflecting Spain’s extensive empire at the time.
Sailors are reputed to be very superstitious and the salamander is supposed to have power over fire. So this piece of exquisite jewellery was probably considered a good luck charm.
One of the most poignant items to be recovered is a gold ring inscribed:
‘No Tengo mas que dar te’ – I have nothing more to give you.
This is thought to be a love token given to one of the young noblemen before he left Spain.
Another ring inscribed IHS is thought to belong to a member of clergy on board. The letters are an abbreviation of the word Jesus in Greek. This is the holy monogram of the Jesuit Order.
Agnus Dei Reliquary
A beautifully wrought Agnus Dei Reliquary was also recovered from the seabed. This is a small gold box shaped like a book .
When opened it contained little compartments each holding a tiny tablet of wax impressed with The Lamb of God motif.
On the cover is a depiction of St John the Baptist. This reliquary was designed to be worn on a chain.
Other special finds were the gold cross of the Knights of Malta belonging to Captain Spinola and Don Alonso’s Cross of Santiago.
“The jewellery from the Girona – the personal possessions of the hapless souls who perished – constituted an invaluable hoard of Renaissance jeweller’s craft”.Laurence Flanagan, Girona, 1974
Although of less value in monetary terms, the kitchenalia (kitchenware) recovered from the Girona gives us an interesting insight into life at the Captain’s table. Silver candlesticks graced the table alongside beautifully decorated plates and jugs. The four and five pronged forks had engraved handles and a miniature carved dolphin is thought to have been the handle of a tankard.
“The fragments of table ware recovered give a fascinating glimpse of the quite sumptuous life-style of the Spanish Officers and nobility, even on board a fighting ship”Laurence Flanagan, Girona, 1974
The ordinary sailor would have dined off pottery plates with wooden bowls and cutlery. We know the Girona carried provisions of hard tack [a type of long-lasting biscuit], cheese, lard, tuna fish, sardines, rice, beans, sugar, raisins and wine.
Other recovered artefacts include cannons with iron and stone cannon balls, navigational aids, ballasts, goatskin wrappings and an insole from a shoe. The iron cannon balls were used to punch a hole through anything they hit – piercing hulls of ships, bringing down masts and generally obliterating anything in their path. The stone cannon balls were no less deadly – capable of piercing wood but likely to disintegrate on hitting metal (eg other cannons) scattering bullet-like shrapnel in all directions – maiming any unfortunates in the vicinity.
The Girona Trasures at The Ulster Museum
In 1972 the Ulster Museum issued a public appeal asking for donations to buy the Girona hoard for permanent public display in Ireland. The treasure trove was purchased for £132,000
“A world-wide appeal fund to keep the fabulous Girona treasure in Ulster was launched yesterday. For the glittering collection – salvaged by a team of divers – from the Spanish Armada vessel which was wrecked off the Giant’s Causeway in 1588 is in danger of being split up and auctioned to museums throughout Europe, unless £50,000 can be found”Newsletter 14th June 1972
In February 1977 the Provincial Bank, part of the Allied Irish Bank, issued banknotes depicting images of the Girona. This commemorated a decade since its discovery.
The Girona site is now protected by an Act of Parliament – The Protection of Wrecks Act which it was granted on 22nd April 1993
The fate of the Spanish Armada is a sad tale in terms of lives lost. Of the mighty fleet only half returned to their homeland.
It is thought at least 24 vessels met their end on Ireland’s shores with 5,000 lives lost.
The Girona display in the Ulster Museum is both awe-inspiring and heart-wrenching. The videos, inter-active exhibits and informative and friendly staff really bring the story alive as if it were only yesterday.
Contact: Ulster Museum, Botanic Gardens, Belfast, BT9 5AB – Tel 028 90440000
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