Poems from the Coast | A Maritime Poetry Series
The latest in our series of maritime inspired poems by Daniel Wade. This poem is a meditation on the 1588 sinking of the Spanish Armada galleass La Girona, which foundered off the Antrim coast on October 28th of that year.
The Girona was one of four galleass of the Spanish Armada. She carried with her 121 sailors and 186 soldiers and had stopped off for supplies and repairs at Killybegs harbour. A local Irish chieftain offered the ship assistance and while anchored they came across around 1000 survivors of two Armada ships that had run aground off Mayo and Donegal.
To avoid being tracked down and killed by English soldiers they decided to leave Ireland and sail for Scotland where they could rest and repair before sailing home. As soon as the rudder was fixed they loaded all the men, nearly 1300, and set sail from Killybegs.
But the ship never made it very far and met disaster. On the night of 26th October 1588 a heavy gale struck the ship, the rudder broke and the ship foundered, sinking off Lacada Point, Co. Antrim. The death toll was enormous and there were only 9 survivors.
Jetsam at Lacada Point
More than twenty [ships] were lost in the Kingdom of Ireland, with all
the chivalry and flower of the Armada.
– Francisco de Cuellar, Adventures in Connaught and Ulster
Ay mis hermanos, compañeros en tribulación:
Oidme, que yo cantaré de nuestro apuro…
When the last cable was axed, clean and clear,
anchors freighted by the burden of themselves
plunged to a sand-crypt untouched by oar
and sounding line. Galleons fled the bared shelves
for the Atlantic and the world’s rusting brink, where
Christ’s footprints scalded cresting Gaelic gulfs.
Smoke belched skyward with the wind’s laughter
and a scattered hymn of culverin-fire punctured
the ears of duke and shellback, not long after
the hellburners’ infernal drift pressed them leeward.
Figureheads winced between shots, rigging and spar
smoked in seconds. For such services rendered
to crimson crest and brass lion, a mantle of rubies,
faces smudged on cloth and hung in halls of dusty fame,
too many men to count perished beyond the seas.
The moon hung slack from Heaven’s yard-arm;
stone-dead reckoning was all their guide.
Sails bellied out, sweeps splashed a vague tempo
on that windward voyage, leaving them wide-eyed,
hollow-eyed, and lantern-jawed with alarm,
praying only for tonic winds and a restful tide,
crucifix and rosary to rattle in hand for landfall.
Ay Santo Padre, compañero en tribulación:
Líbranos de la tentación.
For days, the straggled galleass cruised
that coil of strait. Rain smudged the light.
Fog swam past her hull. The bruised
months before the mast triggered dreams,
the same dreams, perhaps, that held the confused
revelator captive on Patmos’ dim shore, dreams
that weave the head to madness, coldly abeam
to wax fear, sprinkle vinegar in our bones.
What sinew of river, rotunda of ocean,
shaven cliff, horned rock, hunched evergreen,
coasts gilded by sand, tired, frothing surf
or laurel-green heat, was past unseen?
What wizened corner of the map remains void
of the empire’s swollen touch, and how many
cadaverous ships were dashed to kindling
on these rocks? The blaring of Triton’s conch,
drift to the Sirens’ dulcet aria,
waves thundering through the grey cove
where skeletons leer from the reefs,
saw the Kraken’s meaty tentacle slither
from the depths to coil and tighten around
rigging and stay, jaws parted to gnaw the hull,
and they saw the nectarous islands
melt into the fog as they approached.
Ay mis hermanos, compañeros en tribulación:
Nuestras oraciones no se puedan calmar las olas.
The galleass wasn’t a hulk of romance
but a flat-bottomed tub cracked by angry
waters, chafed by voyages in rainfall.
Her aft castles didn’t catch burning light,
the masts were like minarets filed by wind,
barnacles coarsened her waterline.
And with her, November drifted to Antrim
a choir of blackening waves rose to meet her
in atonal swells, uncaring as embalmers,
first storm of the season, still soft as sleep.
There was a cave, the promontory’s steep eye
oozing with alluvial tears, the heaving ship,
last of Sidonia’s fleet, stern-lanterns doused,
drifting to where the butchery of rocks is common.
Rowers dragged against concussions of white
flame clawing the gunwale in tackles and booms,
erupting from the iron sea to stake their spoil.
Do you read and jot down the foamy changes –
a melting sky, scorched from the thunder, the brine-
brewed vexation of Lacada Point, its swollen,
aphanitic prow a pusher of waves, a basalt claw
submerged with assassin’s intent. Wind favoured
no-one. Tesselation did not shield the galleass,
now shorn of majesty and mileage, from the reef’s sabre.
Ay Santo Padre, con las manos suyas, calme
la rabia de la mar.
Ah, waves held their tidal office, the moon’s
bleached gem rinsed the causeway’s icy bondage
as the figurehead, dove-winged and elm-carved,
kept aloof of the swells’ drenching volley, dour
as the season, I suppose, with arms outspread
to the coast’s fanged contour. It may be that this
is the awaited finality, the shallow-draught reckoning
of all that is palatial and poised, where the bodies
of sailor and officer alike are frailly skewered on shoals,
the hold ripped open and hemorrhaging cargo,
rivulets of pesos, amethyst stones, garnet crucifixes,
masts splintering with long baritone snaps, dusk
erasing moon and star, marble vaults retching
forth royal entrails, regal trimmings of obsidian and gold
a coat-of-arms extolled with the insignia of barnacles,
drenched blackness spreading like a crow’s wing
and wind scalping the treeless foreland back to aridity.
The captain knew as well as the men, kelp clasping
their perfumed ankles, their swamped shouts pulled
to the sunless depths with the velocity of pebbles.
Judgment did not volley from the heavens but churned
instead from the deep, bubbling wrath in blue-black
howls, and only a sable cliff, its rigid tail unravelling
into the waves, spiked as a covert dagger in a man’s rib,
to lance the ship in the dread white of her keel.
Ay mis hermanos, compañeros:
estoy con vosotros todos los días, hasta el fin del mundo.
La Coruña. Gravelines. Lacada Point. Each port-
of-call stinging with red-letter significance.
Dawn’s early, bracing glow saw corpses,
abundant as mussels or kelp, pepper the beach.
Did they know what was coming, I wonder,
as they ran out their oars in that gusty strait?
Did they count or even consider the cost,
the doubloons they wouldn’t live to spend,
coins crushed to grey wafers by brine?
Perhaps they were already drowned,
scuttled by their fears’ inchoate mould,
vague, frantic screams staked by eternity
for it isn’t their ghosts guiding the salvager’s
hand, nor their bullion, a museum’s flaunted
prize, claiming solace in a cormorant’s
echo-less keen. Without prudence or prophecy
I add another storm to the season and memorize
those who crawled, gasping, from the sea’s
loud expulsion only to slip to its shelf once more,
its hold of waxen sand mute as the past the waves’
wind-scraped teeth flung rashly on this shore.
Ay mis hermanos, las olas no descansan nunca:
no tenemos ningun respiro de la furia.
About Daniel Wade
Daniel Wade is a poet and playwright from Dublin, Ireland. He is a graduate of Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology where he studied English and Journalism.
Check out his website danielwadeauthor.com for more information