Lost Armada

In Brief

Walking on the battered and rotted remains of old ships and boats—"wood sieved by the shipworm"—Stephen turns his thoughts from the disaster of his own past to a national disaster: the ruination of Spain's great "Armada," which helped England to become an imperial power, the ruler of the waves.

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Catholic Spain was the great European power of the 16th century. Harassed during the reign of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth by small English privateers in the Atlantic and by English armies in the Low Countries, the Spanish assembled a huge fleet (130 vessels) to crush England's military power and topple its government. The fleet rendezvoused off the coast of England in August 1588 but was driven into disarray by an attack of English fire-ships and withdrew to the north, with English ships in pursuit. Attempting to return to Spain by sailing around Scotland and Ireland, the fleet encountered fierce storms and lost about four dozen ships. More than two dozen washed up along Ireland's western shore. Stephen entertains the logical possibility that some of the countless bits of driftwood in Dublin Bay may be from those lost ships.

Irish national history preserves the memory of other catastrophic failures of continental naval powers to dislodge the English colonizers. In Telemachus, Mulligan mentions that the tower at Sandycove was built "when the French were on the sea," during the nationwide rebellion of 1796-98 when French fleets attepted to land armies on Irish soil. One failed to land in bad weather; a second landed troops who were quickly defeated in battle; a third was defeated at sea by the Royal Navy. In Aeolus, professor MacHugh remarks proudy that "We are liege subjects of the catholic chivalry of Europe that foundered at Trafalgar" in 1805, invoking still another memory of French and Spanish fleets crushed by the Royal Navy.

[2015] In 1912 Joyce published a rambling essay in Il Picolo della Sera of Trieste which is translated in The Critical Writings as "The Mirage of the Fisherman of Aran. England's Safety Valve in Case of War." From the vantage of a boat leaving Galway harbor, it observes that "Beneath the waters of this bay and along its coast lie the wrecks of a squadron of the unfortunate Spanish Armada. After their defeat in the English Channel, the ships set sail for the North, where the storms and waves scattered them. The citizens of Galway, remembering the long friendship between Spain and Ireland, hid the fugitives from the vengeance of the English garrison and gave the shipwrecked a decent burial, wrapping their bodies in white linen cloth."

JH 2013
Route taken by the Spanish Armada in 1588, in a map drawn for the History department of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Source: Wikimedia Commons.