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discoveries in the deep

New sonar searches for Spanish Armada wreckage to take place in Co Sligo

We talked to an archaeologist who’s been working on uncovering some of the shipwrecks.

IN 1588, OVER 1000 Spanish sailors died on the coast of Streedagh, Co Sligo.

They were on board three ships belonging to the huge Spanish Armada, on their way under the orders of the King of Spain, Philip II, to invade England. But they hit stormy weather when they reached Ireland’s west and north coasts, and over 20 were wrecked.

Just 300 survived of the men who were on the three ships. Some of the survivors were killed by English officers.

At the time, Spain was a huge power in Europe – and invading England would only enhance the country’s control. It had already claimed a stake of central and South America, as well as Mexico.

One survivor, Francisco de Cuellar, wrote a letter about his experience after surviving his ship crumbling in the bad weather (which can be read here). He had some choice words about the Irish people he encountered.

He said that though he had escaped, he:

experienced great misfortunes: naked and shoeless all the winter: passing more than seven months among mountains and woods with savages, which they all are in those parts of Ireland where we were shipwrecked.

Fionnbarr Moore is a senior archaeologist on the Underwater Archaeology Unit of the National Monuments Service, which was set up in 2000 and is working on a project to uncover items from the wreckage at the Streedagh site.

It has also worked to recover items from another Spanish Armada wreck, La Trinidad Valencera, in Co Donegal, the probable remains of an Armada wreck off Rutland Island, and an early-medieval bridge at Clonmacnoise in Co Offaly.

Moore explained that wrecks over 100 years old, and archaeological objects found underwater, are protected under the National Monuments (Amendment) Acts 1987 and 1994.

The unit’s staff have been monitoring the Streedagh site for a number of years, with their greatest discoveries coming in 2015. Bronze cannon, carriage wheels and a cauldron were among the items pulled from the site – items that weren’t visible until a storm disturbed the area where they had lain for hundreds of years.

Moore told that this summer a sonar survey will take place on the area, to see if more items can be recovered from the wreckage. Only a handful of Spanish Armada wrecks have been identified from those which sank on the Irish coast – so surveys like this help to shed more light on this period of history.

La Juliana

The three ships that went down in Streedagh were La Lavia, La Juliana, and the Santa Maria de Visón.

As the archaeologists wrote in an issue of Archaeology Ireland, in its winter 2015 issue:

The duke of Parma, with his land forces in the Spanish Netherlands, was meant to rendezvous with the Armada off the Flanders coast, but was hindered by the combined efforts of an English and Dutch blockade. Upon reaching the Scilly Isles (29 July) and Cornwall (30 July), the Spanish fleet engaged the English fleet, but by 7 August the Spanish had been scattered off Calais, owing in no small part to the tactical use of fire-ships by the English. Following a more decisive battle off the coast of Gravelines, the Spanish fleet was driven north by adverse winds. Rather than attempting to turn and head directly for home, the disastrous decision was taken to keep going north along the east coast of England.

The finds from the 2015 excavation confirmed that the wreck they came from was undoubtedly that of La Juliana, the Catalan merchant vessel commandeered by Philip II in 1588 to form part of his Armada’s Levant squadron.

It weighed 860 tons, had a crew of 70, and carried 32 huge guns.

Why it is believed that all of the items recovered in 2015 came from La Juliana is because some of the cannon had the date 1570 on them. The Juliana was built in Barcelona in 1570.

The cannon guns also showed the importance of religion to the Spanish – one of the guns features a depiction of St Matrona, a saint venerated by the people of Catalonia and Barcelona, while there were various saints on the other cannon.

“There was an extraordinary range of saints depicted on them, presumably to give them support in their campaigns and obviously they weren’t able to deal with the weather and elements off the west coast of Ireland in 1588 when the ships went down,” said Moore.

“[La Juliana] was also in the Azores at the Battle of Terceira in 1583,” added Moore, a fight in which the Spanish were victorious. Every item found by him and his fellow archaeologists brings us closer to history.

The story of the wreck is the story of Europe. It brings you right in touch with events… You can see the wreckage broken up on the seabed. You are back at that moment in time when you see something like that. It just gives you that tangible connection with events at the time. When you see the scale of some of the carriage wheels you can imagine the guns that they were carrying and the campaign that was being waged. It was a serious attempt by Philip II to take England, a major military campaign.

Micheál Ó Domhnaill / YouTube

But the story of the Streedagh discoveries began 30 years earlier, when a crew of English divers recovered three cannon from one of the wreck sites in 1985. This led to a court battle over the ownership of the site.

For three decades after this, little was found at the site – but then a storm disturbed the seas along Streedagh, and the ocean began unveiling what was buried beneath it.

A routine inspection was carried out before a dive to see what was visible – and out came a number of cannon, gun carriage wheels, and part of the wreck itself, says Moore.

They also spotted “anchors, cannonballs and a range of material scattered across the sea bed”.

A local group, Grange and Armada Development Association also helped, by keeping an eye out for items like timbers from the ship, which washed up on the beach.

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Funds were made available by the Department of Heritage in order for diving to begin. In all, nine bronze cannon and carriage wheels were recovered.

“We focused on what was visible and what was the most vulnerable, either from future erosion or looters or treasure hunters,” said Moore. “Some of the guns were in spectacular condition.”

Some of the cannon guns were “in superb condition, indicating they hadn’t been exposed much”, said Moore, while others were worn and exposed significantly.

They are now in the National Museum undergoing conservation.


Today, among those helping the archaeologists monitor the site is the local Sligo sub-aqua club.

“At the moment it seems to be covered it up again,” said Moore, explaining that this summer they will begin sonar imaging the seabed, to see if they can locate any anomalies worth investigation.

An archaeological campaign like that mounted in 2015 can be quite expensive, said Moore, while the National Museum will have to provide resources for the conservation of anything that is recovered.

Commemorations have been held in Sligo to mark what happened to the unlucky ships. It is also hoped that an interpretive centre can be opened in the local area, in order to create awareness of what happened.

Psycholllo / YouTube

Diving beneath

The Underwater Archaeology Unit helps to maintain an archive of 18,000 wrecks off the coast of Ireland.

There are three permanent staff in the unit with Moore, and all were commercially trained in diving in Scotland so they could undertake the dives. They’ve also built up a core group of people who can undertake the investigations with them.

Their dives are general ‘surface supplied’ dives, where air is supplied to the diver from a tube coming from on board the boat. The diver is in full contact with the team on board in the boat throughout the dive.

“The operation can be directed from the surface,” Moore explained. A grid is set out on the site and any features that are visible are surveyed. Sometimes, they use a hoover-like suction dredge to remove bits of sand (while catching any small items) to clear the area up for examination.

There are various health and safety rules around archaeology dives, said Moore, including the need to always have a standby diver, and have a person on deck holding the cord that leads to the diver.

As the conservation continues, more details are discovered about the items found – like the foundry where they were made, or the fact that one gun had a Turkish background to it, and was probably a prize from a battle in 1573.

spanish-armada-cannons-condition-sligo-390x285 Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht

The bronze guns are also a rare find, as when bronze began to be replaced by iron in the early 17th century, bronze guns were often melted down.

To get a collection of nine such guns together also makes it “a unique collection”, said Moore.

The search for all the Spanish Armada wrecks on the Irish coast continues, with Moore saying that technological improvements will help as the years go on.

“There are others we know roughly where they went down,” he said. “We have a rough idea but there’s an attempt to find the San Marcos at the moment – it went down off Co Clare. They haven’t succeeded in locating it yet.”

This summer, on a separate project the underwater archaeologists will also begin to re-inspect a site at Lough Corrib, where log boats from the Bronze Age, Iron Age and early Medieval period were found a number of years ago.

“We’re going to check out more anomalies, assessing what might be there and what could be done,” said Moore. All in a day’s work for the archaeologists who dive deep into Ireland’s past.

Fionnbarr will speak about the discoveries at Streedagh on 24 May in Instituto Cervantes, Lincoln House, Lincoln Place, Dublin 2. It’s a joint free event between Instituto Cervantes and the Spanish Embassy.

Read: Check out these Spanish Armada guns that have been found off the Irish coast>

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