A tiny number of compatriots survived and told the story of a desperate fight for survival that sadly ended in an unbelievable loss of life on the coast of Antrim, Northern Ireland, in 1588. Somehow, the magnitude and significance of this disasterous shipwreck has never conveyed fully into the psyche of the Irish people.
Any series of sad events relating to multiple and consecutive incidences of shipwrecks, such as that of St Paul, when described by his fellow Apostle, Luke, after he was ‘shipwrecked for a third time’, on the coast of Malta in 60 A.D., may seem comparable with the following account. (Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 27.)
The experience of St Paul does not compare however, and is representative of a number of stories recounting how sailors, having had the misfortune of their ship sinking, then later transferred into another ship, only to sink once again, and so on. These latter occurrences, not entirely but by enlarge, have been portrayed over protracted periods during war at sea.
‘Thrice shipwrecked’ is a unique event and begins with the La Rata Santa Maria Encoronada, a significant but bulky trading vessel that was called into military service in 1588 by King Philip of Spain. She was ordered to take part in the ‘Invincible Armada’ that would crush the English and restore true Christianity. It was God’s will - the mission was blessed and could not fail.
However, God was playing both sides and just hadn’t made up his mind until the huge Armada reached the English Channel. Having blown hot and cold, He finally blew in favour of English Christianity and the devil had a field day.
Invincibles they were not, and were scattered by the wind and British cannon fire. Defeated, a significant number of the Armada vessels then sailed around England and Scotland in an attempt to get back to Spain. Their course took them southwards off the west coast of Ireland, a coast they were warned to steer clear of.
The Rata was battle weary when she limped into the shelter of Achill Island on September 15. Led by the thirty four year old Spanish noble, Alonso Martínez de Leyva, she carried more than 400 Spanish sailors and soldiers who survived after she wrecked near Ballycroy. All aboard escaped several miles over land and sea and were joined by a number other survivors from an unidentified Armada vessel wrecked nearby in Broadhaven Bay, on the remote north western shores of county Mayo.
Assisted by local clans, this large number of survivors joined an already large compliment in the Duqessa Santa Anna after she limped into Blacksod for repairs several days later. She came to anchor in Elly Bay, swelling the total number of optimistic homeward bound travellers to in excess of 900.
They all sailed on the Santa Ana a week later. However, they soon discovered that they were unable to make further way southward and set a new course back towards Scotland. Misfortune struck again when the Santa Anna wrecked on September 28, in Loughros Bay, on the southwest coast of Donegal.
After another miraculous survival of her full compliment, led by the now badly injured De Leyva, they marched many miles southeast over difficult terrain after receiving news of Armada vessels anchored in Donegal Bay. Such a large number of Spanish soldiers ‘shivered some timbers’ in Dublin before the authorities learned that, they had reached Killybegs and had entered into the large ship, La Gerona.
Heading for Scotland, the Gerona was violently wrecked under high cliffs on the coast of Antrim, on October 28.
With no respite, they scrambled from ship to shipwreck, thrice. All of the soldiers and crews of the Rata Encoronada, Duquessa Santa Anna and La Gerona suffered 43 days of salvation and repeated shipwreck.
Just nine of her compliment survived the ordeal, from an estimated 1400. This death toll represents the greatest loss of life in an unparalleled saga of shipwreck on the coast of Ireland.