Francisco de Cuéllar was barely breathing when the Atlantic waves deposited him on a Sligo beach. He had survived English cannons and a death sentence handed out by his own superiors. Between passing out episodes on the cold ground, he shared the inhospitable sand with a fellow survivor, one who was driven mute by the chaos and who would soon die. All around, bodies lay like seaweed, drenched and loose.
How did he ever end up in such a situation?
Francisco de Cuéllar: Intrepid Explorer & Sailor
As is well documented, the Spanish Armada was defeated and many of the sailors, seeking refuge off the coast of Ireland, were eventually shipwrecked and dumped on nearby beaches.
When de Cuéllar found enough strength to stagger onto his feet, he came across a burnt-out church. Hanging from the rafters were his compatriots, murdered by Ireland and Spain’s common foe: English soldiers.
That being said, local bandits beat and robbed him several times. They were tough, living as they did, opportunistically off what could be salvaged or stolen from shipwrecks. He was even temporarily enslaved by a blacksmith.
This could be one reason for why this sailor, lost behind enemy lines, referred to the locals as ‘savages’. He also referred to the peasants of north Spain in similar terms. Though the word seems strong, his own account of his Irish adventures writes of beautiful women, handsome men and a warm culture. In fact, he credits his survival to the amount of help given to him by the Irish.
The savages also fed him with bread and gave him his first experience of beer.
One historical novel, keen to ramp up the drama, turned the locals into neanderthals and the protagonist Francisco de Cuéllar into a Spanish James Bond through passages of bed-hopping and averting danger.
On the advice of friendly locals, he stayed away from the towns. Based on his own story, it seems women were moved more by his pitiful state, though a priest and two lords kept him alive as he moved into MacClancy’s country.
An Irish castle, an English siege
Francisco de Cuéllar moved first to the land of O’Rourke before ending up at the castle of MacClancy. Both men would pay with their lives for helping survivors of the Armada. O’Rourke was even charged with treason, which was a bizarre accusation issued by the colonizer to the colonized.
For unknown reasons, MacClancy’s wife and her friends thought Francisco de Cuéllar had magical powers of foresight. Through the weight of expectation, he was forced to read their palms and, with Irish levels of absurd storytelling, foretold limitless glories for the owner of each hand pushed into his face.
And so numerous Spanish sailors rested there, safe. Many would stay in Ireland; anybody with a tanned complexion in Ireland today is said to have Spanish blood in them. De Cuéllar, for his part, was asked to remain in Ireland and marry MacClancy’s sister. The pull of home was too much for him, however.
The denouement to the tale begins with an English siege. MaClancy took to the hills, while the Spanish defended the castle. The English hung two Spanish sailors in full view of the castle in order to break their morale. The bad weather, with heavy snowfall, broke the English siege and de Cuéllar started his long journey home.
Back To Spain & Francisco de Cuéllar’s Legacy
The Spaniard’s life was one of forward momentum. Shipwrecks, if not lighting, strike twice. On the way back to Spain, de Cuéllar was dumped by the Atlantic, practically naked, on the French coast after Dutch ships tried to kill off the Armada survivors.
Once back in Spain, he set sail again, serving his country in various posts around the globe. He died peacefully in Madrid, but nobody knows how or when.
His legacy, one could say, means he has never really died. He has cheated death again, like when he washed up on Irish shores. And if Ireland was a bigger country, or with more money, we could turn stories like these into movies. As it is, movies like Black 47 and Pilgrimage show our limitations. Good films through they are, budget limitations force us to produce cheap action flicks rather than sweeping, expensive epics.
And his life was epic.
As you can see in the photo above, a route has been opened in Ireland. Today, tourists can retrace the shipwrecked steps of Francisco de Cuéllar, from the sodden beach-head to Marco Poloesque forays into Irish customs and people, and finally to the castle and salvation.
Thank god for the Irish, says one Iberian commentator on Twitter, offering tweeted thanks to a people helping to preserve Spanish history. If the Spanish Civil War is too controversial to talk about, other chapters are beaten into monotony by sheer orthodoxy. Being studied in a school syllabus seals the death knell for any topic.
And of course, topics like the Armada can be co-opted by conservatives, pushing lefties away from tales like that of Francisco de Cuéllar. Starving and behind enemy lines, he made a universal push for home. Yet piece by piece, stories like this one are being reclaimed. The waves of history loaded with passengers and life.
Update, May 2020: A Movie
Now, Spanish Armada Ireland has made a docu-drama about this man’s life. It has caused some controversy in Spain; some people believe it should be a Spanish flick, not an Irish one. But it is obvious that many people in Ireland care about de Cuellar’s legacy.
It can be downloaded on Vimeo by following this link.
Thanks for reading!