Among Savages

Streedagh Strand, County Sligo

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Illustration of Irish warriors by Albrecht Dürer in 1521, public domain

In 1588, Captain Francisco de Cuéllar sailed with the Spanish Armada, no doubt expecting victory over the English and a triumphant return to Spain. Instead, his fleet received a crushing defeat and he attempted to sail his galleon, the San Pedro, home via Scotland and Ireland. Off the coast of County Sligo, the San Pedro floundered and met its end on Streedagh Strand.

I escaped from the sea and from these enemies by having commended myself very earnestly to our Lord, and to the Most Holy Virgin, His Mother; and with me three hundred and odd soldiers, who also knew how to save themselves and to swim to shore. With them I experienced great misfortunes: naked and shoeless all the winter: passing more than seven months among mountains and woods with savages.

— Captain Francisco de Cuéllar

His travels through Connacht and Ulster brought further adventure and hardship. He walked barefoot and wounded along a stony road, and was robbed of all his belongings. Fortunately, some of the locals were kind enough to provide him with food and dress his wounds.

De Cuéllar and some of fellow Spaniards found themselves in County Leitrim, living with a man named MacClancy, “a savage gentleman, a very brave soldier and great enemy of the Queen of England and of her affairs”. The English governor was not happy that MacClancy was providing shelter to the Armada survivors, and attacked the castle.

After MacClancy and his clan hid up a mountain, De Cuéllar and his countrymen held off the governor and his forces for 17 days, until “our Lord saw fit to succour and deliver us from that enemy by severe storms and great falls of snow”. MacClancy declared the Spaniards as his “most loyal friends, offering whatever was his for our service”, suggesting that his sister would marry De Cuéllar. The captain turned down this enticing offer, and travelled to Antrim where he found passage to Scotland and eventually back to Spain.

De Cuéllar’s letter about his experiences provide a valuable picture, if not always a flattering one, of Tudor Ireland:

The custom of these savages is to live as the brute beasts among the mountains, which are very rugged in that part of Ireland where we lost ourselves. They live in huts made of straw.

— Captain Francisco de Cuéllar

He describes the men as “large bodied, and of handsome features and limbs”, wearing “tight trousers and short loose coats of very coarse goat’s hair” and with “their hair down to their eyes”. The women are “very beautiful, but badly dressed”. He notes sniffily that “these people call themselves Christians” but “the chief inclination of these people is to be robbers, and to plunder each other” and concludes that “in this kingdom there is neither justice nor right, and everyone does what he pleases”. But he also acknowledges that “if it had not been for those who guarded us as their own persons, not one of us would have been left alive”.

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A slightly longer version of this story was originally published on my other blog, A traveller from an antique land.

Beyond the Ninth Wave

Kenmare Bay, County Kerry

Photo by P.J. McKenna

Am gaeth i m-muir
Am tond trethan
Am fuaim mara

I am the wind on the sea
I am the stormy wave
I am the sound of the ocean

— Song of Amergin

According to the legend, Ireland was once inhabited by a magical race known as the Tuatha Dé Danann. They survived several threats from invaders, until the last.

The last invaders came from Galicia in what is now Northern Spain, descendants of a man named Míl Espáine (“soldier of Spain”) and therefore known as the “Milesians”. They fought several battles until a truce was drawn. As one of the conditions, the Milesians were forced to withdraw to sea and set anchor beyond the ninth wave from the shore.

Of course the Tuatha Dé Danann had a magical trick up their sleeves. They brewed up a storm and sent it towards the Milesian ships. The wind roared; the ocean churned. Many Milesians lost their lives to the waters, and others clung on as the storm threatened to overwhelm them. The invaders had no magic of their own, so how could they hope to survive, let alone defeat the Tuatha?

But they had a secret weapon on board. He was Amergin, a poet. He took out his harp and he sang.

Coiche nod gleith clochur slébe
Cia on co tagair aesa éscai
Cia du i l-laig fuiniud gréne

Who made the trails through stone mountains
Who knows the age of the moon
Who knows where the setting sun rests

— Song of Amergin

His music had charms to soothe the savage seas, and the Milesians were able to come ashore at Kenmare Bay. They had several more battles to fight, but they eventually defeated the Tuatha Dé Dannan.

Amergin was given the task of dividing the land between both sets of peoples. He gave the portion above ground to the Milesians, and the underworld to the Tuatha Dé Danann, where they still reside and only occasionally meddle in the lives of humans.

According to the legend, the people of Ireland are descended from the Milesians, those warriors and poets from Northern Spain. Of course, that’s just the legend. However, recent DNA analysis found the closest relatives to the Irish people in Galicia and the Basque country. So perhaps some Iberian poet led them here, after all.

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