Treasured memories the richest find for Derry divers who found Spanish Armada ship
When Archie Jack and Danny O’Donnell step on to the golden sands of Kinnagoe Bay, the years slip away. It seems like only yesterday they were young divers eager to find the lost wreck of the Spanish Armada ship La Trinidad Valencera.
Archie, who turns 84 later this month, and Danny, now 76, were members of the Derry Sub Aqua Team, which had begun searching for the ship in 1968.
For centuries, the wreck lay undiscovered off Kinnagoe Bay on the Inishowen Peninsula in Co Donegal.
For years, club members had been focusing their attention on the far end of the bay, lugging heavy equipment over the sand or launching a boat to ferry their gear across the half-mile of beach.
On a cold winter morning in 1971, when conditions were poor and the sea was rough, the 13-strong diving team decided on an easier dive in the area immediately in front of a small car park at the beach.
Archie, who was a trainee diver at the time, remembers the moment when he surfaced, shouting: “I found a gun!” Within minutes, fellow diver Jack Scoltock discovered another.
There was no mistaking what they had found. It was the wreck of La Trinidad Valencera. On two of the cannons was the coat of arms of King Philip II, and his name, Philippus Rex, together with the date of the casting, 1556.
Danny, originally from Derry but now living in Donegal, says it was pure luck.
“We were meant to be at the other side of the bay, but it was too rough and maybe we were too lazy to carry all our stuff. Within 25 minutes of being in the water, Archie had shouted that he’d found a gun.”
As young men, they had become intrigued by stories of the wrecked Armada ship that foundered off Kinnagoe Bay in September 1588. La Trinidad Valencera did not start off her life as a Spanish war vessel. In fact, she was a heavily armed trading ship from Venice named La Bananzara, whose captain was ordered to transport her to Spain for the Armada.
Once in Spain, she was requisitioned, strengthened and refitted to be part of the great invasion.
When she set sail under her new name, she was the fourth-largest ship in the 130-strong fleet, whose goal was to conquer England and replace Queen Elizabeth with King Philip. Not one ship made landfall. Instead, many were blown off course and wrecked off the Irish coast.
The sense of shock at finding the cannons that day still runs deep for Archie. He recalls several divers had to be helped out of the water as the excitement of the discovery overwhelmed them.
After he surfaced to let the others know what he had found, Archie returned to the seabed to “sit on the gun like a horse” until other divers could come and help preserve the scene. “It was the longest wait of my life,” says Archie, who is from Strabane, Co Tyrone.
While no gold was found, the divers were in no doubt about the significance of the discovery. However, they were dismayed when the authorities in Dublin showed no interest. While wrecks over 100 years old and archaeological objects underwater are protected under Section 3 of the National Monuments (Amendment) Act 1987, in 1971 no such laws were in place.
Fr Michael Keaveney, a maths teacher from St Columb’s College in Derry and a member of the original diving team, contacted the National Museum of Ireland. Dr AT Lucas, its director, said: “It would be better that the cannon guns be put back into the sea.”
Fr Keaveney, now 95 and the oldest living member of the crew, was determined they would persist with their efforts.
The divers were also adamant that the conserved remains be kept in a single location to be housed in a local museum. “We always wanted the stuff to stay local,” says Archie. “We made that promise on this beach not to let it go to private collectors. We wanted it to go to a local museum.”
In October 1982, then Taoiseach Charles Haughey handed over items into the keeping of the Ulster Museum. It had been Haughey’s wish that the finds should be eventually displayed at a suitable location in Derry. He had his own connection with Derry – his father John was from Swatragh.
It was not until 23 years later that the Tower Museum Armada exhibition opened in the Derry city.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the discovery, the Inishowen Maritime Museum in Greencastle is hosting a series of events this weekend. The celebrations had to be postponed last year due to Covid-19.
The museum, which opened in 1994, is also exhibiting some of the artefacts recovered from the wreck after curator Rosemarie Moulden negotiated an extended loan of the items from National Museums of Northern Ireland.
Ms Moulden, who is also an archaeologist, says the items, which include pewter plates and olive jars, may not have the “Wow factor” of the cannons, but they do fulfil the wishes of the divers that the items would be displayed close to where they were found. It is also hoped one of the cannons may be loaned in the near future.
For Danny, even driving the road to Kinnagoe Bay is like stepping back in time and reignites those feelings of excitement.
“Coming here – it’s like being young again. I do find it a bit hard because a lot of friends have passed away,” he says.
Ever since the original dive, Archie has been camping at the car park at the beach every summer, regaling visitors with stories of the dive. In his heart, he says he never really left Kinnagoe Bay. His eldest son is named Trinidad; one of his daughters is Valencera.
He says that, even today, beachcombers may find small pieces from the Armada ship.
When he looks out to sea, he says there is no doubt there are many other items lying beneath the waves, just waiting for a new team of young divers to bring them to the surface.