Friday, September 04, 2015


Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This is the fourth Rihla ( see: Rihlas 47,49&52) about the quays and slipways of Connemara this time exploring those of the islands and coastline of the Iorras Aintheach peninsula.


South of the Bóthar Scrathóg (This means the road of the topmost or ‘green’ sod of turf – almost every layer of turf taken from a bank has its own descriptive Irish noun.) that crosses the bog valley of Gabhlán Thoir – east to west – from the small quay at Bun Inbhear to the quay at Cashel lie the townlands and islands of Iorras Aintheach, the peninsula of the storms. On the peninsula, as a consequence of having been in pre-Famine times far from the main roads to anywhere, there exists, like a necklace of colour-changing (depending on the tide and the sunlight) gems the greatest concentration of well built quays in all of Connemara. And for good reason they are jewels! For the people of Iorras Aintheach the sea was the beginning and the end of their existence. Life, love, religion, sustenance, commerce, survival all depended on the sea and the safe havens created to shelter the sailor, fisherman and penitent from the storms. I have not got to all of them yet but hope to give a sense with the following of the essential symbiosis of man and stone embracing and embattling the sea.

 Bothar Scrathóg road looking North towards Twelve Pins


Cé Choill Sáile
(Quay of the Inlet of the Wood)

Kilkerrin Quay
(Cé Cill Chiáran - Quay of St Ciarán's Church)

(Cé Aird Mhóir - Quay of the Big Headland)

MOYRUS (Maíros or Maíghros)

The peninsula of Iorras Aintheach is part of the Barony of Ballynahinch and comprises the southern part of the old large parish of Moyrus (Maíghros – headland of the plain). The village after which the Parish takes its name is no more than a deserted clachan or cluster of houses. There is both a ruined medieval Catholic Church dedicated to St MacDara and a Protestant church established by the evangelical (for food!) Irish Church Missions in 1855, and which although became Irish speaking was forced to close in the post-Famine years by a boycott. (See    :

Looking north. 
Old medieval christian church (dedicated to St MacDara and graveyard in foreground.
Ruined Protestant school, rectory, church and graveyard on top of
rising ground above beach. 

Quay 1. Moyrus 
Cé an Droighne (Quay of the Blackthorn)

Quay 2. Moyrus

In any event Moyrus never developed like its neighbour to the west, Roundstone or Carna to the south, a failure which ultimately signalled the end of the Parish of Moyrus, dividing its spiritual remit into the present-day parishes of Roundstone and Carna.

The following quays are to the north-west and north of Moyrus churches.

Cé Maighros

 Cé Leitreach Ard

 Cé Belcarra (Barrett)

Cé Belcarra

Cé an Caladh Mór

MACE (MÁS – the buttock) and HALF-MACE

On the night of the 25th September 1588, in the midst of a howling Atlantic gale, the carrack Concepción de Juan del Cano – a ship of the Biscay Squadron of the Spanish Armada trying to make its way back to Spain following the failure of the invasion – while seeking a safe haven from the storm was lured onto a shingle beach called to this day Duirling na Spáinneach (Pebble Beach of the Spaniards) just east of Mace Head by false beacons set by Tadgh na Buile Ó’Flatharta, known as Tadgh of the Blows or the Ferocious O’Flaherty who lived in Airde Castle that straddled the boundary between Aird East and Aird West on the Mace peninsula.

There is another account which states that the Concepción had first tried to enter Galway port itself on account of the rough handling of some of the sailors sent ashore to negotiate and being fired on by guns mounted on what is now known as the Spanish Arch the captain decided to leave the roads and head back out to sea. The ship had a leak and could not make it against the winds out beyond Mace Head. Kept under surveillance by O'Flaherty agents and perhaps even guided by a pilot in the pay of the O'Flaherty's the ship was eventually beached at Duirling na Spáinneach.

The Concepción de Juan del Cano, had been built in 1585 in Cantabria and displaced 418 tons. Most modern accounts state that she was a vessel of 18 guns but according to Samuel Purchas’ Hakluytus Postumus (a 4 volume continuation of Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations) 1625 book, the carrack carried 24 guns, 70 sailors and 164 soldiers.

The Concepción had been named after Juan Sebastián del Cano the Basque navigator born in Guetaria, a coastal town west of San Sebastian, who had sailed in 1522 with Magellan as navigator on the Concepción, one of Magellan’s five ships. After Magellan’s death in Mactan on the 27th April 1521 Juan Sebastián took charge of the Victoria and brought the 18 survivors of 237 men of the expedition home to Spain, arriving on the 6th September 1522, 66 years before the ship named after him was lured onto the rocky beach near Mace Head, Connemara.

Many ships of the Spanish Armada had lost their sea-anchors when their hemp ropes had been cut away trying to escape Raleigh's fire-ships off Calais. As a consequence when driven shorewards by the Atlantic gales of that September many did not have the capacity to anchor off land at sea. 

Duirling na Spáinneach beach with MacDara Island in the background.
(There is a bog created by the stream that runs from Loch Bhun na Cluife 
into the sea at the north-eastern point of the pebble beach, and which 
divides the downland of Half-Mace from that of Mace which would 
have been a good place to bury the killed Spanish sailors.)

Whatever happened on the beach that night only 30 of the ship’s compliment of nearly 240 men survived to be dragged into the city of Galway by the O’Flaherty’s. Most had been killed on or near the beach on the orders of Tadhg na Buile. This atrocity probably was only to be expected given the instructions that had been issued in Dublin in early September 1588 as a consequence of a paranoid fear of a still relatively numerically intact Armada making a concentrated effort to land in Ireland instead. Dublin was not to know that Philip of Spain had issued specific orders to the Armada admirals telling them to avoid landing in Ireland at all costs.

Ruin of a Napoleonic War signal post above Duirling na Spáinneach beach.
(In Leath Más or Half-Mace townland)

The Lord Deputy of Ireland Sir William Fitzwilliam, recently returned to the isle from his role as Governor of Fotheringhay Castle where he had supervised the execution of Mary Queen of Scots (the casus belli of the Armada in the first place), had continued in his blood-soaked way and issued a proclamation which stated,

‘We authorise you to make enquiry by all good means, both by oaths and otherwise; to take all hulls of ships, stores, treasures etc. into your hands; and to apprehend and execute all Spaniards found there, of what ever quality soever. Torture may be used in prosecuting this enquiry.’

In addition to this Tadhg ba Buile was not going to rock the boat that fed him. In the 1585 Composition of Connaught drawn up and signed three years earlier Tadhg’s territory had been extended at the expense of some of his other O’Flaherty relatives and he had been granted personal fiefdom over lands that stretched from Ballynahinch Castle to the Aran Islands.

 Mace Quay
Looking north from near Mace Quay

The surviving sailors from the Concepción de Juan del Cano were incarcerated with about 300 other Spanish sailors from other Armada shipwrecks on the west coast of Ireland. On the orders of Sir Richard Bingham, President of Connaught all but 40 (mainly those of presumed high ransom value and six Dutch boys) were summarily executed by beheading by 'citizen' executioners including a Robert Fowley and John Byrte and buried on the graveyard hill of the Augustinian Abbey. Bingham wrote immediately afterwards to Fitzwilliam saying that ‘having made a clean despatch of them’ that ‘he rested all day Sunday giving praise to and thanks to God'. Bingham also wrote directly to the Queen asking that he could override his superiors ‘execute-all’ orders and spare the remainder.

Cé Mhullin

By the time Lord Deputy Fitzwilliam reached Galway he was furious and ordered George Bingham (Richard Bingham’s brother and aide-de-camp George who had taken into his custody the Spanish prisoners of high worth and the Dutch boys) that all of these prisoners including the young boys, in echoes of today’s Islamic State, be executed. This order was carried out but it is recorded that two ordinary Spaniards were hidden by the people of Galway and subsequently made their way home to Spain. In addition two noblemen Don Luis de Cordoba and his nephew Gonzalo were ransomed.

In late September 1588 the Privy Council in England reacting to intelligence of the Fitzwilliam-Bingham atrocities issued a directive asking Fitzwilliam to desist which stated,

Their Lordship’s pleasure (the Privy Council) is that great care be had of their safe custodie (the Spanish prisoners) and keeping in some convenient place that hereafter they may be forthcoming, where their Lordship shall require them at his hands.

Unfortunately by the time the Privy Council order was relayed to Fitzwilliam nearly 1500 Spanish sailors and soldiers of the Armada had been executed on his orders. It is estimated that of the Armada soldiers and sailors lost to Spain on the west coast of Ireland during the terrible storms of the 10th and 20th of September 1588 in addition to the 1500 executed a further 3,750 drowned (or were drowned!!).

Sir Richard Bingham

George Bingham’s son Henry (Richard Bingham’s nephew) was made Baronet of Castlebar in 1632, and subsequently the family were created the Earls of Lucan in 1795. It was another Richard Bingham, the 7th Earl who disappeared without trace in November 1974 after the murder of his children’s nanny.  The Lucan family portrait of the first Richard Bingham is accompanied by the following self-congratulatory inscription.

Sir Richard Bingham, Knight,

Of the ancient family of the Binghams of Bingham
Melcombe in the County of Dorset. He was from
his youth trained up in military affairs, served
in the time of Queen Mary at St. Quentin, in the
Western Isles of Scotland, in the Isle of Candida,
under the Venetians at Cabo, Chrio, and the famous
battle of Lepanto against the Turks, in the Civil
wars of France, in the Netherlands, and at Smer-
wick where the Romans and Irish were vanquished.
Afterwards he was made Governor of Connaught,
where he overthrew the Irish Scots, expelled the
traitorous O’Rourke, supressed divers rebellions,
and that with small charges to Her Majesty, main-
tained the Province in a flourishing state for 13
years. Finally for his services he was made Mar-
shall of Ireland, Governor and General of Leinster.
When at Dublin he dyed January 19th, 1598 (note: 1599 new style)

The war-crime that the Lucan family ancestor perpetrated on the Spanish sailors of the Armada brought to Galway in September 1588 has been commemorated with a much more muted plaque in Forthill Cemetery, Galway the place where they were executed and buried.

Entrance to Fort Hill Cemetery, Galway

There are two plaques to the sailors of the Armada who were executed in Galway in Forthill Cemetery. The first is just to the left as you enter the gate and the second is mid-way up the east wall.

Forthill Cemetery Galway 
Spanish Armada Memorial Plaque 1.

Forthill Cemetery Galway
Spanish Armada Memorial Plaque 2.

The interesting aspect of this plaque (in Spanish and Irish and avoiding the use of English!) is that it was erected by the La Orden del Tercio Viejo del Mar Oceano a Los Marinos y Soldados de la Gran Armada

The Marine Unit of Naples was the first established Marine amphibious fighting unit (to train specifically for fighting on the galleys of Spain) in the world established by Charles I on 15 February 1537 (The British Royal Marines care into being in 1664). In 1571 Philip II established the Tercio Vieja del Mar Oceano y de Infantaria Napolitana and in 1603 this was renamed in honour of the Armada. 

A tercio consisted of about 3000 men. The name was lost about 1717 with reorganisation but was re-constituted as part of the Spanish forces in 1968 and its date of establishment as 1537 confirmed in July 1978 by King Juan Carlos (Royal Decree 1.888). Around this time the ancient military Order associated with the Tercio was also re-constituted with 100 members and a Grand Master by a Pasquale Barberan. The Order travels throughout the world aiming to commemorate the achievements and losses of Spanish marines over the centuries. 


Mweenish (Máinis) Island is linked to the mainland by a serpentine bitumen causeway that starts at Roisín na Bholgáin and crosses the small islets of Roisín na Chaladh and Oilean Seoige. Tim Robinson in his Gazetteer mentions the pre-causeway (built 1893) low tide stepping stones known as Step na bPeelers, used by the police to try and catch poitín makers on Mweenish.

Cé Roisin an Bholgáin

Cé Roisin an Chaladh

Cé Oilean na Seoige

Galway Hooker

Mweenish Island is known for its boatbuilding or shipwright families. In the case of the Galway Hooker sailing craft, Tim Collins – the wonderfully inclusive maritime historian and voyager (and former medical librarian in NUI Galway) – suggests that the very specific tumblehome design of the classic late 18th century Galway Bay craft evolved from 17th century Dutch cod-fishing boats, also with a tumblehome design, known as Hoekers. The boatbuilding demands of the Connemara islanders meant a shift from the Claddagh basin in Galway to Mweenish in particular. Here Séan O'Laoidhe in the 1840s trained Sean O'Casey, who trained his sons Padraig, Martin and Johnny. In addition the Mulkerrin and Cloherty families passed on the skills of the Saor Bháid from one generation to another. A large hooker, the St Patrick built in 1910 by and restored by Colm Mulkerrin in 1988 crossed the Atlantic in 2002.


Currachs have much older history stretching back to the coracles or hide-covered craft of bronze-age Europe. Their are about seven to eight design variants on the west coast of Ireland alone.


Cé na Phortaigh, Mweenish Island
(Quay of the Bog)




Although the 16th July every year is the date that the people of the Iorras Aintheach gather on the island to celebrate the patron saint of Moyrus parish and Connemara fishermen in general, St MacDara, a very early hermit Saint,  ecclesiastical feast day is the 28th September,  the same time of the year that the Spanish sailors in 1588 met their deaths in full view of the small 7th century chapel with corballed roof (restored 1975) on this tiny island. It is customary for all sailing boats coming in proximity to the island to dip their sails three times. (See:

There is some controversy about the Saint's given name. According to the Ordanance Survey letters of 1839 the saint's name was Sionnach, which is the Irish for fox. Tim Robinson thinks this most unlikely given the superstitions Connemara and Claddagh fishermen had about hares, foxes or rabbits being seen dead or alive before they went fishing. Tim Robinson and indeed the 12th century abbot Marianus Gorman (Maelmuire O'Dunian) in his Martyrology gives the first name as Sinach, which may or may not derive from Síonadh the Irish for storm. 

Perhaps St MacDara took his name from the peninsula rather than the other way round.

Michael D. Higgins, the current President of Ireland once said (when working as an academic sociologist) in praise of the voyager fisherman,

 "The migrant is the norm in coastal parishes. The deviant is the person who does not move."

I think that perhaps in the case of Iorras Aintheach, and its determination to exist by creating any number of portals (the quays) to the outside world it not so much a "deviant" who stays but a "defiant".

St MacDara's chapel.

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