Shipwrecked: The Spanish Armada

The 16th Century was a purple path for Spain. Gold from South America made the Spanish empire the richest on earth. So how did the empire’s finest fleet end up shipwrecked on the northern Irish coast?

Sailors of the Armada at the Tower Museum in Derry-Londonderry
Sailors of the Armada at the Tower Museum in Derry-Londonderry

History is our story. It’s how we got here. Events such as Derry-Londonderry City of Culture’s History of Derry in 100 Objects is one of the rare chances to engage with and discuss our past.

For many of us, it is maritime history – whether tragedy or triumph – that grips our imagination and won’t let go.

Over 100 years later, Titanic’s fate still fascinates. The stormy story behind Amazing Grace is the ultimate redemption tale of a wayward sailor, and the Dunbrody Famine Ship in Wexford ensures that we never forget Ireland’s most blighted patch of history.

Think the sea stories end there? They don’t. In a high stone tower in the walled city, there’s more.

Stormy weather

Beset by unfriendly weather and a fiercely resilient British Army lead by Admiral Drake, the Armada is scattered and bruised. A fleet of ships mastered by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, escapes its British aggressor and flees around the coast of Scotland heading unwittingly for Ireland’s west coast.

As Darren Anderson writes for Culture NI, “At this point the Armada entered Irish history in the most disastrous way”.

West coast wreck

It was thick fog that drove the Sidonia and the Spanish Armada into the Irish west coast. From counties Kerry, Clare, Sligo, Mayo and Donegal, ships were wrecked. It was on Kinnagoe Bay, on Donegal’s heavenly Inishowen Peninusla, that the Trinidad Valencera met its end.

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Within the stone cladding of Derry-Londonderry’s Tower Museum, the story is played out. Cannons fired by sailors, shoes worn by sailors and coins earned by sailors fill the room. From the depths of Donegal and Derry’s Atlantic coast, these artefacts are our keyhole view into one of the 16th Century’s bloodiest and most infamous maritime milestones.

As Darren Anderson points out, the Spanish Armada’s fate, from Kerry’s Blasket Island to Antrim’s Dunluce Castle (Cannon and bullion of the Girona can be found in Belfast’s Ulster Museum), changed the very course of Ireland’s history:

“Politically, the effect was monumental. Britain remained Protestant and, by default, Ireland remained under British control. Scotland would soon fall. The myth of British Imperial invincibility had been born and would grow with time.”

One Armada, one huge slice of history, one museum and one city.

Well played, Derry-Londonderry.

The History of Derry in 100 Objects exhibition – a City of Culture event – takes place in The Tower Museum from 31 Septemeber until 1 December 2013.

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