1588- A Dark Year for Galway
Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill
Following the disaster of the Spanish Armada the remnants of the fleet sailed down along the Irish coast and had the misfortune to encounter the worst storms in ten years. To add to their misfortune their maps, especially with regard to Connacht, were deeply inaccurate, with only half the province actually appearing on their maps. Of the estimated 5,000 members of the fleet who perished in Ireland just over a fifth lost their lives in Connacht and twelve ships found their watery grave along the Connacht coast.
The Spanish saw the native Irish as savages. Indeed, Captain Cuellar’s account, describing his treatment upon reaching land does little to dispel this image.
The English feared the Spanish would invade Ireland and the order went out that no quarter was to be given to any Spaniards landing in Connacht and the man who would oversee this in Connacht was Governor Richard Bingham.
Bingham had been appointed governor of the province in 1584. He was soldier and seaman who had served both with and against the Spaniards and been involved in English naval manoeuvres against the Spanish at Smerick in 1580.Connacht was relatively peaceful and any sign of rebellion was brutally crushed and it was not long before Bingham became known as ‘the flail of Connacht’.
In September 1588 two ships were sighted off the Aran Islands, but were unable to land in the poor weather and it is not known what became of them. An unnamed Spanish vessel sailed into Galway bay and anchored around Bearna. A party went inland bringing wine with them which they hoped to barter for food and water. It is probable that they knew the coastline well as they had managed to avoid running aground. Galway was the centre of wine trade in Ireland with the continent. The city was also loyal to the crown and the landing party was met by a mixed group of Galwegians and English troops who ordered the Spanish to lay down their arms. Edward Whyte, clerk of Bingham’s Connacht Council, who spoke Spanish recorded that the townspeople took them and the mayor of Galway was willing to spare their lives if they would yield up their goods and ship. However, the captain, seeing how his men were being treated, sailed away. Whether or not the ship made it back to Spain is not known.
The Falco Blanco Mediano, a 300 tonne ship carrying 103 men on board 16 guns was wrecked on a reef near Freaghillaun in Ballynakill Bay between Clifden and Renvyle. The survivors were looked after by the Connely clan. Bingham had issued a proclamation that all Spaniards were to be surrendered to the English under pain of death and through his network of spies news of the Spaniards’ arrival would have soon reached him.
There were several Spanish noblemen amongst the prisoners, the most famous being Don Luis de Cordoba, his nephew Don Gonzalo and the captain Pedro de Arechaga.
Another sept of the O Flahertys under Tadgh na Buile was involved with another wreck. He had his castle at Ards near Carna, at the head of a natural harbour. Only a small part of a wall now remains as a reminder of this time. The clan knew the sea well. It was at Duirling na Spáinneach near Ards in Mweenish Bay that the Cocepcion Delcano went ashore. One night in rough weather the crew saw fires on the shore. Thinking the fires were to guide them in they followed them, little realising that Taghg na Buile deliberately intended to drive the ship aground and plunder what remained. It carried two hundred and twenty five men on board and its captain Juan Delcano went down with the ship. Again the survivors were beaten and robbed. The guns from these wrecks were soon recovered by Sir George Carew. Those who survived were brought to Galway, among them Don Diego Sarimento.
In Galway the jails were soon overflowing. Spaniards from wrecks in Mayo had also been sent to The City of the Tribes. They numbered between 300 and 350. Sir William Fitzwilliam, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, had given the order to execute all Spaniards regardless of rank and even to use torture. He came from Athlone to Galway to personally oversee the executions. It is highly probable that his motive was also to get his share of the spoils and he ordered the O Flahertys to hand over anything of value they had stolen from the Spanish.
Robert Fowley, Captain Nathaniel Smythe and John Byrte along with several assistants were chosen to act as the main executioners.
Three hundred Spaniards were taken to a hill at St Augustine’s Monastery, now called Forthill where the grisly deed was to be performed. The Augustinians gave the condemned men the last rites and then to the horror of the Galwegians they were beheaded.
Forty noblemen were set aside for ransom with Don Diego Sarimento and Captain Archega included in their ranks. When news of this reached Fitzwilliam he was furious and ordered them to e executed immediately. The order was carried out. Included in the executions were six Dutch boys, who had been on the ships. It is said that two Spaniards were saved and hidden in the city. This is probably a reference to DeCoroda and his nephew, whose lives were spared. De Corboda had made no secret that he was a wealthy man and there is little doubt that is what kept them alive. They were both repatriated after a ransom was paid. Unsurprisingly, his Ireland sojourn left him bitter towards the Irish.
The women of Galway made burial shrouds for the corpses and the Pope forgave the citizens of Galway for what had happened.
The question remains however, could the Galwegians have done more for the Spaniards? While it is true that most people in Connemara would have had scarcely enough food for themselves, let alone for a few hundred Spaniards their actions seem to promote self-interest over showing kindness to strangers.
Today there is little trace in the Galway city of these terrible events and most Spaniards and Galwegians are oblivious to what happened so long ago. Forthill is still in existence and is the city’s oldest cemetery. Thirty seven Spaniards are said to be buried in a corner of the cemetery and a plaque in Spanish and Irish, but not English, serves as a reminder to this grisly epsiode in the city’s history.