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The hunt for the ‘San Marcos’ – the jewel in the Spanish Armada’s crown

A team of Irish academics is trying to locate a huge galleon that sank off Ireland in 1588

‘Destruction of the Invincible Armada,’ by José Gartner de la Peña.
‘Destruction of the Invincible Armada,’ by José Gartner de la Peña.

Whether the name is written in English or Gaelic, nowhere in Ireland suggests with greater power the enduring legacy of the Armada than Spanish Point, or Rinn na Spáinneach. This tiny community in County Clare, on the west coast of Ireland, has a grisly association with Philip II’s fleet, earning its name after two Spanish galleons, the San Marcos and the San Esteban, were wrecked nearby in 1588. Around 60 survivors from both vessels made it to shore, where they were promptly imprisoned, interrogated under torture, and eventually hanged on a nearby hill. Now, 426 years later, archeologists hope to locate the San Marcos.

Built in 1585 in Cantabria, the San Marcos was the most advanced vessel of her day, and the jewel in the crown of the Portuguese fleet. Commanded by the Marquis of Peñafiel, her displacement was 790 tons, she was fitted with 33 bronze cannons, had a crew of 140, and could carry 350 soldiers. The organizers of Project San Marcos are crossing their collective fingers in the hope of finally locating the vessel, which would be the first Spanish galleon to be discovered off the coast of Ireland, where many of the 130 ships carrying a total of 30,000 men were lost as they tried to make their way back to Spain after the failed attack in the English Channel in August of 1588.

Built in 1585 in Cantabria, the ‘San Marcos’ was the most advanced vessel of her day

“Between September and October of 1588, when the fleet was desperately trying to make its way back to Spain around the Irish coast, 24 ships sank, with the loss of 6,000 men,” says Hiram Morgan, a historian at the University of Cork, and an authority on Hispano-Irish relations in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The San Marcos Project is led by John Treacy, a historian at the Mary Immaculate College in Limerick. Over the last three years he and his team have been trying to raise money in Ireland to fund the search for the Spanish galleon. The Irish government has provided cutting-edge technology to map around 75 percent of the seabed in the area where the San Marcos went down, as well as 3D satellite maps.

The ‘San Marcos’

- The galleon was built in 1585 in Cantabria.

- Its displacement was 790 tons and it was fitted with 33 bronze cannon.

- It sank on September 20, 1588 during a storm with winds of up to 100 kilometers an hour and 15-meter waves.

- There were 350 soldiers aboard, along with a crew of 140. Only four survived, and were later hanged by the authorities.

“The great thing about this adventure is that local people in Spanish Point and other nearby communities are involved – for example, diving clubs along the coastline are helping out,” explains Treacy. Local schools are helping to raise awareness, and a shopping center in Miltown Malbay, the largest town near Spanish Point, has been decorated with drawings by schoolchildren of the Armada and the San Marcos. “It is very moving to see the tragedy of the galleon through the eyes of the young ones,” says Treacy.

Mick O’Rourke, an authority on the shipwrecks of the Irish coast, explains the difficulties facing the organizers of the San Marcos Project. He explains that the major problem remains the sea and the weather. “We are dependent on the divers carrying out very detailed searches of the seabed. Each area is covered by a team of 16 divers moving in a line, covering 100 meters at a depth of between three and 10 meters.”

He adds that the search is further complicated by the other wrecks that lie on the seabed off Spanish Point: “There are 21 other wrecks from different periods. It’s like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle with 5,000 pieces. But we’ll know when we have located the San Marcos, when we find the cannon, which will be stamped with the seal of the foundry where they were made.”

Part of the team working to locate the ‘San Marcos,’ off the Cliffs of Moher, in Ireland.
Part of the team working to locate the ‘San Marcos,’ off the Cliffs of Moher, in Ireland.

Everybody involved in the project is aware of the difficulties they face, but they are also aware that they are close to discovering an incalculable treasure. “It’s as though we had a time machine that is going to bring us close to one of the most formidable ships of the Spanish Armada,” says Treacy, comparing the search to that for the Titanic. The San Marcos must have been an astonishing feat of engineering to have survived the battle with the English fireships in the channel, and to have then made its way round the east coast of England and down to Ireland despite the damage it would have suffered. But its undoing was the treacherous rocks that lie just beneath the surface of the water along the coast near Spanish Point.

Treacy says the San Marcos and the San Esteban hit rocks off Mutton Island, at the southern entrance to Galway Bay, on the afternoon of September 20, 1588. “They were caught by a sudden storm, with winds of 100 kilometers an hour and 15-meter high waves,” says Treacy, adding: “The captain sought shelter between the island and the mainland.” But the San Marcos was pushed against the rocks and dashed. Of the 490 men aboard, only four made it to shore. The San Esteban was sunk a few kilometers south.

Queen Elizabeth had ordered the authorities in Ireland to show no mercy to Spaniards. Any survivors from the Armada shared the same fate as the men aboard the San Marcos and San Esteban, who after being hanged were buried in a mass grave known in Gaelic as Tuama na Spáinneach, the Spaniards’ Grave.

The story of the Spanish Armada continues to fascinate more than four centuries later, and the San Marcos Project has caught the imagination of the people of the west coast of Ireland. The San Marcos has been lying untouched on the seabed since 1588, and when it is finally located, will add another chapter to the legend of the one of the greatest fleets ever assembled.

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