In this new walking series produced by Sligo Walks for The Sligo Champion, we focus on some of the most beautiful walks in Sligo, through the eyes and words of a local person.
This week, it’s Spanish Armada enthusiast Eddie O’Gorman, who talks about his favourite beach, Streedagh, home to three Spanish Armada wrecks, and made even more popular by the new TV series Normal People.
A walk on Streedagh Beach on any given day, in any given season, is a life enhancing and memorable experience. It is a beautiful, crescent-shaped strand of flat sand; though occasionally it is stripped to its cobble foundation by Winter storms.
The beach is book-ended by the rocky outcrop of Streedagh Point on the left and Tór Rock on the right. The setting, nestled below the towering mass of Benbulben, for all the world like the upturned hull of an abandoned galleon, offers a glorious panorama of Donegal Bay. Looking North, the sea cliffs of Sliabh Líag, tallest in Europe, and bundled up behind, the Mountains of Glen Columcille and the Blue Stacks in South-West Donegal.
The beach is strewn with many examples of fossilized remnants of the 300-million-year-old pre-history of this area at a time when a shallow sea covered all you see before you and the geographic position back then, believe it or not, was close to the equator!
Ahead of walking this beach on a beautiful Summer’s day I arranged to meet with Eddie O’Gorman, Chair of Spanish Armada Ireland. He heads up a local group dedicated to the preservation, conservation and promotion of the unique wreck site at Streedagh.
He explains the history that links this beach with the Spanish Armada. As we know from the recent film made about the subject, three great ships sank here in a “Great Gale” on a fateful day in September 1588 with more than 1,000 men losing their lives.
“This beach became the graveyard for so many young men who set out in May of 1588 thinking that they would enjoy honour and distinction in the invasion of England only to see their hopes and lives destroyed on the pitiless coastline of North Sligo,” says Eddie, as we start our walk.
The wreckage of the ships, La Lavia, Santa Maria de Visón and La Juliana, lie buried under a burden of sand offshore and there have been very significant recoveries of cannon and other important artefacts in the recent past by the State authorities.
A contemporaneous report of the time by one of the few survivors of the Streedagh wrecks “The Carta of Captain Francisco de Cuéllar” provides us with a thrilling account of survival in the North West and his recording of the lives and customs of the Irish people is an invaluable and unique resource for historians.
Eddie explains that the background to this unique site along with some original and replica artefacts can be explored in the Spanish Armada Visitor Centre at The Old Courthouse in Grange Village. There the visitor can also avail of frequent screenings every weekend of the aforementioned docudrama “Armada 1588, Shipwreck & Survival”.
Continuing our leisurely walk Eddie points out the remains of the “Butter Boat” as its locally named. This wreck is usually visible at low tide – a hundred yards from the car park and on the surf-line as you traverse the beach. A lot of people think that this must be a part of the Armada wrecks but recent carbon dating of a sample taken from the wreck establishes that it is late 18th Century and research is currently underway to tell the story of this enigmatic vessel. “And it has nothing to do with butter!” he says, adding that “The boat’s real name was the Greyhound of Whitby, and it sank here in the late 18th century with the loss of life of upwards of a dozen people.”
As we get to the mid-point of the beach, we look West as Inishmurray Island comes into view. A fabled isle with 6th Century monastic ruins associated with local Saint Molaise, confessor to that great warrior saint, Columcille. (little dove!)
The Battle of the Book took place a few miles away at Cuíl Dreimhne at Columcille’s instigation (copyright asserted with the loss of 3,000 lives!) His penance for the loss of life was exile to Scotland to convert the pagan Picts and resulted in the establishment of the monastic settlement of Iona.
St. John’s Point with its white lighthouse is visible on this clear day and tucked in behind it, Killybegs, na Cealla Beaga, with its own impressive Armada heritage.
Onwards to Tór Rock and turning then through the gap in the sand dunes where the tidal estuary of the Grange River opens out with its abundant wild life. To the left Connor’s Island continues and then Garinish Island and the tidal outflow beyond Milk Harbour. The spire of Ahamlish Church is barely visible to the eagle-eyed on the far shore. We follow the winding shoreline west and resist the temptation to follow the ridge of the sand dunes.
“They are a delicate and endangered environment held together by the marram grass and susceptible to erosion. We welcome the recent increase in visitors attracted by the natural beauty and outdoor pursuit opportunities afforded by this stunning location. ‘Normal People’ the recent TV series enjoying world-wide success, set all the beach scenes at Streedagh because of its wonderful landscape so we have many new visitors. We encourage everyone to respect the place and leave no trace,” he says as we complete our walk and return to the start of the beach.
Streedagh will likely become more popular as the fame of Normal People brings pictures of its unspoiled beauty to audiences around the world. So make sure you get out and enjoy it this Autumn, where you might still have the place largely to yourself.
This is a leisurely walk that does not demand a high level of fitness but has outstanding natural beauty and a remarkable historical resonance. For information on how to get to Streedagh, plus some other items of interest for the walker visit https://sligowalks.ie/walks/streedagh-strand/