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A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe …Part 40

The worst part of this stretch of the journey is having to keep to the main N15 road. At times it supplies a cycle track but, as is the case when these run by the side of main roads, it is a mess of flints and roadstones catapulted to the side by speeding vehicles. At other times the cyclist is left to mix it with the big boys. There are no winners. The bicycle is a nuisance to people in a hurry and the thundering pantechnicons are a danger to the life and health of the cyclist.

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The two choices are to put your head down and cover the distance as quickly as possible or to make frequent stops and explore the side routes.

At Grange I’ve had enough of lorries and the bigger cars. It is only the bigger cars that get annoyed with the slow moving. I see a sign saying something about The Spanish Armada and follow the lanes down to some perfect beaches. This is the Strand at Streedagh. On this cloudy, breezy day it is almost deserted. Four hundred and twenty years earlier it had been the place of shipwreck, carnage, slaughter and remarkable survival.

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In 1588 Philip II of Spain sent an invincible fleet to defeat the English. Bad seamanship, hubris, clever English tactics and appalling weather meant that more than fifty of these vessels never returned to Spain. The enterprise was one of the most glorious of the great PR reign of Elizabeth the First and an unmitigated disaster for the Spanish. After avoiding battle with the English off Plymouth (where Drake was famously going to finish his game of bowls), and failing to gain anchorage in the Solent, the Armada took refuge off Callais where they were scattered by a fire ship attack. A sea battle ensued; The Battle of Gravelines; where Spanish support from the Low Countries was prevented by the Dutch, and the Armada put to flight. The channel retreat was cut off so escape back to Spain was only possible by going through the North Sea and around the north of Scotland and Ireland.

Storms and wrecks dotted their path. The full story is obscure but much folk history has been passed down. The Fair Isle jumper is generally regarded as being of a Spanish design and is probably a relic of survivors of the enterprise settling in the northern isle.

What is known is that while sailing north up the east coast of England, the captain of a small Spanish ship; the San Pedro, broke formation. The captain, Francisco de Cuèllar, was about to find that failing in all the Armada’s intentions were just the beginning of his woes. He was sentenced to death by hanging and kept on board the galleon, San Juan de Sicilia, until the execution should be carried out.

The ship was one of three galleons that anchored off the Sligo coast when raging storms blew them all onto the strand at Streedagh. Over 1000 sailors perished in the storm and survivors were beaten and robbed by locals who had been warned of reprisals if they gave shelter to any Spanish sailors, or they were brutally butchered by English soldiers. In all 1500 men lost their lives on these beaches that night.

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De Cuèllar had clung to a hatch and made landfall un-noticed and remained hidden  while his fellow countrymen were killed and their bodies looted. At one stage he was discovered by armed men, but instead of making him another victim, they covered him over with reeds and left him concealed. Why they did this remains a mystery. From his hiding place he watched a troop of 200 soldiers wreak havoc.

When he eventually crawled out there were over 800 corpses scattered across the strand, left to be eaten by dogs and crows. It was like a scene from Sophocles. De Cuèllar made his way inland witnessing the bodies of his fellow countrymen strung up in nooses from the walls of churches. A local woman herding cattle warned him to avoid the roads and he made his way across country to Bréifne Ua Ruairc or O’Rourke’s Country, which more or less occupied the land now known as County Leitrim. His way wasn’t straight forward and he was attacked at least twice, was relieved of his belongings and most of his clothing as well as receiving a knife wound to the leg.

A boy treated the wound with a poultice and a young woman returned his stolen clothing. This merely allowed him to be attacked a little further inland and be robbed once again of his clothing.

Surviving on berries and watercress he found some sanctuary and more that 70 fellow survivors of the shipwreck. He observed that the people lived in a near savage manner but were followers of the same Catholic religion as the Spaniard. Without the rough hospitality of the Leitrim people he wouldn’t have survived.

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The English army arrived in search of these survivors, several failed  attempts were made to get him aboard vessels. Eventually he was secreted to The Hebrides and after several months off the west coast of Scotland was put on a ship to join his countrymen fighting in Holland.

Nothing was going to be easy for Francisco de Cuèllar and his ship was attacked and wrecked. He was flung into the sea and survived by clinging to yet another hatch. He was washed ashore on a beach in Flanders and entered the city of Dunkirk wearing only a shirt. Things went a little better for him after that. As far as we know he never lost another pair of trousers.

I found out the first part of this story on the beach at Grange, have used Wiki and other Sligo websites to flesh out the tale. What I heard and read was at complete variance to what I saw around me. A magnificent stretch of beach. A local population who again and again had made my problems their concerns. Two things were obvious. This part of the country had a history far darker than its present. And, it was a lot better to be a visitor from foreign parts in 2011 than in 1588.

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From the main road the views varied. At times gloriously looking out towards the mountains and highlands of Mayo. The ever present great and imposing shape of BenBulben on my left. At times, looking over rather grim caravan parks that smacked of what English retirées have done to the north Wales coast. At times the juddering ugliness of cycling as best you can along a road built for lorries.

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I was happy to make my pilgrimage stop at Yeats’ Grave. Tourist signs highlighted Yeats’ Country and boat trips to lake isles. I would have liked to divert in all of these directions but my breathing was heavy ad the sweat on my brow had the oily feel of illness as well as the salty taste of being tired. I was bound for Sligo and another threat to the whole of my journey. There is always a positive; just ask Francisco de Cuèllar; and the positive was that I was going to have to spend longer in this city than I had planned to do. A whole day longer. It is a fine city to gain an extra day.