LA TRINIDAD VALENCERA. By David Artherton. Great Sea books. Hardback 128 pp. ISBN978-0-9567993-1-9. Price, €20
What a pleasure it is to read, and to be asked to review, such a beautifully produced, well written, and well illustrated book.
In 1588, a large converted Venetian merchantman, La Trinidad Valencera, came into Kinnigoe Bay, on the Inishowen Penninsula in County Donegal, where she capsized and sank after a few days. The ship had been commandeered and pressed into service to serve as a supply transport ship for the ill fated Spanish Armada that had been successfully repulsed by the English fleet some weeks earlier. The ship had suffered considerable damage in the battles in the English Channel and she was holed in several places. She was one of about twenty-six ships to have suffered a similar fate by being wrecked on the Irish Coast, despite the prophetic warning of the the Duke of Medina Sidonia, the leader of the Armada, to his ship commanders;
Take heed lest you fall upon the Island of Ireland for fear of the harm that might befall you upon that Coast.
Many of the crew were drowned, but many more survivedonly to be surrounded and slaughtered by a group of armed mercenaries, after the officers had been separated and kept for ransom. A tiny few escaped and reached safety in neutral Scotland. Included in the cargo aboard the ship were three mighty bronze cannons that were part of a Spanish siege train. The ship quickly disintegrated and many of the artefacts aboard simply sank into the sandy seabed, to await rediscovery almost four hundred years later.
On Saturday, February 20th. 1971, members of the City of Derry Sub Aqua Club were on a training dive in Kinnigoe Bay, and as usual, the members reminded each other to keep an eye out for the Trinidad Valencera. The general whereabouts of the wreck-site was known to the Club and they had conducted unsuccessful searches over the previous few years, mostly at the opposite end of the Bay, where old records indicated that the ship had sank, obviously the product of misinformation given to the English at the time. Two of the divers came across bronze cannons and they knew they had discovered the site of the wreck of the Trinidad Valencera.
What followed in the ensuing years is a most remarkable testament to the members of the City of Derry Sub Aqua Club, as they immediately took steps to ensure that the wreck-site would be protected in every way possible, that it would be excavated in a correct archaeological manner, and that the artefacts recovered would be properly conserved and displayed in a Museum, all of which aspirations were eventually brought to fruition by the Club, but only after years of selfless toil and effort, and often with the most meagre of resources. Over the course of the next decade, the Club carried out a systematic survey, excavation, and recovery, of a large amount of material from the site, with the help of Dr. Colin Martin of St. Andrews University in Scotland. The Irish Museum authorities of the day were approached but they had little or no interest in the finds, and, without the necessary conservation facilities, they were unwilling to take the artefacts into their care. An arrangement was made to have the finds taken in by the Ulster Museum, with conservation facilities being set up at McGee university. A third bronze siege cannon was subsequently recovered some years later and it now resides in the National Museum, in Collins Barracks, Dublin.
Many of the artefacts recovered can be seen today in the Tower Museum in Derry and in the Ulster Museum in Belfast, the latter of which also incorporates finds from two other Armada wrecks, the Girona, and the Santa Maria De La Rosa. The finds represent by far the greatest number of artefacts to come from an Armada wreck and they range from the two giant bronze siege guns, on replica gun carriages, which were based upon parts of the original ones found on site, to smaller weaponry, clothing, eating utensils and the remains of food items, footwear, and a host of other objects of sixteenth century shipboard and everyday living. The displays represent an example of what can be done by responsible and intelligent amateur divers, who undertake, and assist in, archaeological recoveries. It is worth noting in this regard that the bulk of the recovery work on the wreck of the Mary Rose in Portsmouth was largely undertaken with the assistance of amateur archaeological divers.
The author of this book, David Atherton, was a member of the City of Derry Sub Aqua Club since shortly after the wreck-site was discovered and he was involved in all stages of the project until the 1980s. He filled many positions on the Club Committee during that time. His writing is clear and concise and the book initially takes the reader through the story of the Armada and the circumstances of the wrecking and its aftermath. The tangled web regarding the ownership of the wreck and the interaction between the Club and the various Museum Authorities, the Courts, and the Spanish, British and Irish Government Departments, is described in most interesting and revealing detail. The indifference shown at the time by some of these is difficult to comprehend, particularly in the light of the sea-change that has taken place in Irish Archaeological legislation and the present day efforts of the small dedicated group of underwater archaeologists in the Depertment of Heritage, Arts and the Gaelteacht, in whose responsibility such matters now lie. There is an appendix written by Connie Kelleher of this Underwater Archaeology Unit, describing her subsequent investigation of the wreck-site. The Author describes the unremitting efforts and dedication of the Club Members to the project as they came back year after year to complete the task.
The methods of excavation carried out are described in some detail and many of these were innovative. They included initially pumping air over a great distance from the shore to power airlifts and dredges. A good portion of the book is devoted to the artefacts that were discovered and in common with the other chapters of the book, this is profusely illustrated with colour photographs of an excellent quality.
The Spanish Armada displays in the Tower Museum in Derry and The Ulster Museum in Belfast have achieved worldwide fame and they are visited by many thousands of visitors annually. The contribution of the City of Derry Sub Aqua Club in bringing this about testifies to the fact that the will to achieve something is just as important as money in such matters. Their involvement should be studied and used as a template for further recoveries and displays, particularly in view of the pressing need for an Armada Museum at Streedagh in County Sligo, where the remains of three Armada wrecks languish on the seabed.
A most enjoyable and highly recommended book.
Cormac F. Lowth