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The Myth of the Black Irish: 
Spanish syntagonism 
and prethetical salvation 
by tpkunesh 

Qui Angliam vincere vellet
ab Ybernia incipere debet.
He who would England win
In Ireland must begin. 

The idea of this study struck me six years ago after the first mention of the Black Irish as told to me in variant four
of the myth. The question of its origin, meaning, and purpose has haunted me ever since, primarily due to my own
Irish heritage (my mother's family name is Kelly) and extended residence in Spain.

It should be kept in mind that this is a myth whose background is the twentieth century, to date. Due to the lack
of variants prior to the XXth century I feel some trepidation in asserting belief in any one cause of origin.

This lack of literature and fieldwork regarding the hispanic Black Irish actually leaves us with more questions than
I can attempt to answer. This, then, is only one attempt at an explanation of the myth, a simple stab in the dark.
Hopefully the introduction of this topic will result in a more fruitful discussion and study of the myth.

tpk 12 march 1984
St. Paul, Minnesota 

Readers' comments on this essay
and related links. Please read this section before commenting. 

The color black appears often in the descriptive language of the physical and cultural features of
Ireland. It is also used to specify certain groups found within the broader spectrum of Hibernian society. One such
employment of the word 'black' in a racial sense is the reference to the "Black Irish" of the British West Indies (1),
the mixed-blood offspring of 17th century Irish emigrants and African slaves who live on the island Montserrat,
known also as the "Emerald Isle of the Caribbean."(2) The term "Black Irish" is also currently used with a
deprecatory meaning by the Catholic Irish to describe the Protestants of Ireland who have historically supported the
British rule of Ulster. "Black" in this sense connotes the "religious and political bigotry"(3) felt by the Catholics
towards the "Prots." The third usage of the expression "Black Irish" is far rarer and has yet to be found per se in
print. In this sense "Black "refers to the dark (hence "Black") hair, eyes, and skin that supposedly marks a person of
Irish blood as having descended from the conjugal relationship of a Spanish survivor of the Armada with an Irish

According to rumors and legends, these Black Irish are the descendants of a few surviving ill-fated Spanish sailors
who sailed with the Felícima Armada from Spain to invade England but were ultimately shipwrecked on the
northern and western coasts of Ireland in the autumn of 1588. A very small number of the more than seven hundred
Spanish men who made it alive to the Irish coast survived, and a few of those who did allegedly became intimate
with enough Irish women so as to engender a new inter-racial (Hibernian-Iberian) strain of progeny whose "dark
hair and eyes and soft brown Southern skin testifies to its remote Spanish ancestry.(4)" 

This story has been retold by a number of Irish and Irish-Americans of this decade by way of explaining their own
"dark hair and eyes"--although from personal experience these facial characteristics have never been matched by a
"brown Southern skin." No folk or scholastic literature (to the best of my knowledge) exists to verify this Hispanic
ancestry and, indeed, it is doubted whether there is any proof at all to the claims of Spanish blood in Irish veins.
Without written historical authentication of these beliefs, the story has been relegated to a strictly oral tradition, bar
the few variants that are cited below.

The four following variants are the sum total of referents found regarding connubial Spanish-Irish relations in
reference to the Armada's descent of 1588. It should be noted that all four come from 20th century sources.

Variant one: Anyone who goes along the coast of Ireland and along the Devonshire (SW England)
coast will in one locality after another find that the inhabitants of this or that village are asserted to be
descendants of the men from the Armada wrecked upon their coast; that the dark complexion of the
population is owing to the fact that a number of men of the Armada settled and married in that part of
the district.
--Major Martin Hume, The Geographical Journal, XXVII: 5 (London, may 1906) p 448

Variant two: A few others [i.e., Spanish survivors of the shipwrecked Armada] escaped. There were
other Irish girls who pitied them and took them home and forgot that they were enemies; so that even
now on that coast a child is occasionally born whose dark hair and eyes and soft brown Southern skin
testifies to its remote Spanish ancestry.
--Lorna Rea, The Spanish Armada (New York 1933) p 160

Variant three: The belief that men of Spanish appearance in County Galway [W Ireland] may be
descendants of men who came ashore from the ships of the Armada and inter-married with the Irish...
--T.P. Kilfeather, Ireland: graveyard of the Spanish Armada (Dublin 1967) p 63

Variant four: When she discovered that I was living in Spain, she--an Irish-American--remarked that
she herself had Spanish blood in her veins. Asked to explain further, she replied that her family had
always said that she was "Black Irish" to explain her dark brown hair, eyes, and personal like of Spain,
and that these features were inherited from a Spanish forebear who had sailed with the Armada, been
shipwrecked, and later married into her ancestral Irish family.
--personal account of a conversation with Mary Jean Goodman,
an Irish-American born in Minnesota (St. Paul 1978)

The truth of these statements is challenged within by the authors of variants one and three, both natives of the British

Variant one's challenge: 
There is very small foundation for this, either with regard to Ireland or the West of England. In the end
of the year 1588, Fitz William reported that, with the exception of a few score wandering Spaniards,
the whole of the rest had been either killed or had escaped to Scotland. In 1596 there was a letter
written ... by six men who had escaped and remained in O'Donnel's country, appealing to the King
[Philip II] to let them come back to Spain. They said they alone remained of all who landed. These
were six men, and this was only eight years after the Armada was defeated. Even supposing these
men were wrong and there were a dozen or two more in various parts, there were never enough men
to influence in the slightest degree the complexion or the ethnological peculiarities of the inhabitants of
the Irish coast. 
--Major Martin Hume, comments made in The Geographical Journal, XXVII:5 (London, may 1906)
p 449; see note 18

Variant three's challenge: 
The belief that men of Spanish appearance ... inter-married with the Irish cannot stand the test of
historical examination.
--T. P. Kilfeather, Ireland: graveyard of the Spanish Armada (Dublin, 1967) p 63 (5)

In research to date there is no other written source to be found that mentions a dark-skinned, dark-eyed, dark-haired
Irish phenotype created by the infusion of Spanish blood. Given the lack of supporting evidence, such as birth and
death records, genealogies, surviving Spanish surnames, much less anything more than an oral tradition in times of
well-documented 'history,' the opposing argument -- that the darker Irish phenotype is falsely ascribed to the genes
of the Armada's sailors -- stands. As a story which purports to be true and is widely and seriously believed, both in
time and space, but devoid of any data with which to support its claim, it enters the realm of myth. As myth it is open
to investigation as to the reasons for its existence: how it came to be told, why, and with what effects.

The former question--the 'how' of myth--is best described as the historical background surrounding the mythic
characters which, in this instance, are the sailors of Spain and the women of Eire. These characters could (and will)
be refined further, but Ireland's own mythic history speaks of just such a meeting. Gaelic legend, recorded and
revised in the Lebor Gabala Erenn or Book of the Invasions of Ireland (whose earliest source is dated in the
eighth century ce)(6), writes of a series of five invasions, the last, the greatest, and the most recent of which is
responsible for the current population of Ireland. This was the sea invasion of the Sons of Mil Espane (aka the
Milesians) who "after many wanderings in Scythia and Egypt eventually reached Spain,"(7) and subsequently
conquered Ireland. Variations of the eponym's name exist, such as "Mile" and "Milesius" (the Latin form), but all
agree that the source of medieval Irish kingship descended from Spain. The theory that the IXth "Spanish" Legion of
the Roman Empire (which served in Scotland and disappeared from historical mention in the first century ce) is the
"sole ground of the story of the colonisation of Ireland from Spain by Milesius" (8) also supports the conclusions of
the Book of Invasions. The natives of Eire whom the Sons of Mil defeated were the Tuatha De Danann, 'the
Peoples of the Goddess Danann,' Danann who is "Mother of the gods."(9) Although the "Peoples" of the goddess
Danann referred to are always male, more paramount is the fact that the men are defined by a Woman (the goddess
Danann) and that the island of Eire itself has been and always is referred to in the feminine form as "she" and "her"
[people].(10) The primordial intentional Spanish invasion is uncannily similar to the modern accidental Spanish landing
of 1588:

The Tuatha De Danann raised a furious storm by means of their magical arts and the Milesian fleet was scattered.
Donn and three other sons of Mile perished. A broken remnant of the fleet, after beating for a long time about the
coasts of Ireland, succeeded in again landing... (11) The result of the landing also resembles the legend of the Black
Irish: "One early text says the Tuatha De provided the sons of Mil with wives." (12)

These striking similarities beg for the myth of the Black Irish to be understood as an historical repetition of the act of
creation of Gaelic nation. All of the correspondences fit:

past (primeval) 
present (1588) 
Spanish males: 
the Sons of Mil
sailors of the Armada 
Irish females: 
Danann, "wives" 
"Irish girls" 
Milesian fleet
the Armada 
Tuatha De Danann
descendants of Mil Espane 

Both landings also entailed initial Irish resistance to the foreign españoles and subsequent inter-marriage of the
native Irish women with the dominant militaristic Spanish men. In this manner the tale of the Black Irish is invested
with an unknown quantity of sociogonic meaning for those Irish familiar with knowledge of the Book of Invasions,
and the XVIth century Spaniards become the second Mil Espane.(13) The Black Irish legend can also be seen as a
type of social charter which reaffirms the traditional bond between the Irish and the Spanish by the inter-marriage of
the two parties. This international bonding, however, seems to imply the equality of the two nations while, in fact,
there actually existed a great disparity--in Spain's favor. The Spanish Sons of Mil were regarded as the victors and
vanquishers of superior status, whereas "the other peoples of Ireland are sharply distinguished from them and
implicitly relegated to an inferior status."(14) Likewise within the story of the Black Irish is the implicit understanding
(probably due to the forthright acknowledgement of being Black Irish) that the taint of Spanish heritage carries with
it some superior merit. In this case the myth benefits the Black Irish alone who by its telling are themselves
associated with a mythically powerful people -- the Spanish. The legend of the Black Irish thus charters: 1) a social
bond between the nations of Eire and Spain, and 2) the superior status of the Black Irish within the larger society.

Moving from the founding of the Milesian-Irish nation towards the fatal year of the Armada we find that a constant
religious(15) and commercial(16) relationship existed between the two nations since the sixth century ce. This bond
was further strengthened by Henry VIII's rejection of Roman papal authority and the adoption of Protestantism
which was forced on the Emerald Isle. Before the Armada's arrival, Irish-Spanish relations had changed from good
to intimate as Spain's King, Philip II, supported the Irish Catholic Church and the various Irish earls intent on
breaking the yoke of English domination forced upon Eire.

Knowledge of the historical background of the close socio-religious ties between Ireland and Spain sets the stage for
a benevolent interpretation of the Black Irish myth. The title and story deal explicitly with the Irish as the affected
group and the Spanish as the main actors. What is usually not drawn out in the legend is the implicit English
background and English action necessary for the events to occur. Without the English, all impetus and motive for the
Armada's existence -- much less its culminating material and human destruction -- would be missing: England serves
as the catalyst for the confrontation between Eire and España (a factor missing from the myth's interpretation as
historical repetition) and the myth becomes an implicit, subtle polemic for the autonomy of Eire from England. This
confrontation between two superpowers--thesis and antithesis -- is an inherent factor in the dialectical process. Long
before the crippled Armada saw Ireland's shores it was the English nation versus Spain, island queen against
continental king, "Protestant and Catholic -- persecutor and persecuted." (17)

After the disastrous encounter of the Armada with hurricane winds, the ships were strewn, shattered wrecks, all
over the coasts of England and Ireland. In the latter country, the crews were treated very differently, according as
they happened to cast upon the shores of districts amenable to English authority or influences, or the reverse. In the
former instances they were treated barbarously -- slain as queen's enemies or given up to the queen's forces. In the
latter, they were sheltered and succoured, treated as friends, and afforded the means of safe return to their native
Spain. ... this hospitality to the shipwrecked Spaniards is too much for English flesh and blood to bear.

This 'positive' attitude towards the Spanish on part of the Irish is continued on past the debacle of the Armada.
References to the great "aid from Spain"(18) are numerous in the literature dealing with post-Armada relations
between Ireland and Spain.

The Armada's failure (1588), the subsequent Spanish attempt at forming a beach-head for Irish resistance and an
invasion of England at Kinsale (1601) for another Reconquista of Catholic land from the heretical Protestant
English, the Flight of the Earls from Eire to Spanish Flanders (1607), and the continuing supply of Irish 'Wild Geese'
given to the Spanish military (1580-1700) all indicate the support (albeit futile) that Spain gave to and received from
its Irish Catholic compatriots. Although Spain ultimately failed in its attempts to save Ireland (much less England and
the rest of northern Europe) from the imposition of a Protestant theology, Spain did provide a society receptive to the
self-exiled Irish upper-class and military in which to live. The University of Salamanca's Colegio mayor de los
nobles irlandeses, the Irish seminary in Valladolid, the re-settlement of Irish exiles in Cataluña,(19) the sherry
bodegas of Jeréz, the Spanish army,(20) and the Spanish nobility(21) -- all areas of Spanish society provided open
accommodations to the foreign Irish.

Taking these stories of historical design together, one forms the picture of a fruitful and enduring relationship
between Spain and Ireland since primordial times. It can be surmised that the creation of the legend of the Black
Irish was a manipulation of facts and events by the Irish to form a 'myth of renewal'(22) wherein the arrival of the
Sons of Mil Espane in Eire is re-enacted by the arrival of the Spanish Armada in Ireland--the return of the mythic
eponymous ancestor. The intermingling of the new Spanish 'black' blood with the common native Irish blood serves
to fuse again the link with the sacred past and to ennoble the thinned blood of the progeny who issued from the
union. As the genealogy of the Sons of Mil was artificially enlarged by "synthetic historians"(23) so as to include
families which were originally absent from the noble Milesian hereditary line, the artifice of myth-creation so, too,
was used by Irish coastal peasants to capitalize on an inopportune landing of Spanish through whom the quality and
quantity of the First Men's blood is increased in their own veins. This historic repetition of the mythic past by
re-interpreting and re-enacting the creation of the Irish nation through the landing and intermingling of native with
foreign (Spanish) blood presupposes a positive attitude towards the Spanish in the social milieu of the common Irish
in the XVIth and XVIIth centuries.

One could also interpret the seeding of Spanish blood anew into the veins of the Irish as the passage of political and
moral power from one tired contestant (the Spanish) to another fresher (the Irish) who is more able and better
adapted to the new challenge. Such may be the case when one takes into account the significance of the Armada's
failure as marking the final defeat of Spanish naval supremacy in Europe. This failure, coupled with the successive
failure of the Spanish to establish a military post in Kinsale (to precede a full-scale invasion of both Ireland and
England)(24) and Spain's losses in Flanders, could but only herald the upcoming economic and military downfall of
the Hispanic Hapsburg empire. With Spain's power and influence ebbing it would have been the proper time for the
Irish to take up the fading torch and -- with whatever support that could be eked out of their religious and political
ally to the South -- throw off the Protestant yoke and push the English into the sea.

But such was not the case. Because of the continuous drain of Irish men to fight in the Spanish wars in the
Netherlands ("the Flight of the Wild Geese") and because of the allied involvement of the Irish nobility with the
Spanish cause against England which caused the Flight of the Earls, Ireland -- within one generation of the Armada's
loss -- was left powerless and leaderless. Without Spanish aid the common Irish were left stranded to contend with
the might of the English military and political system. Without the guidance of the Irish upper-class, the peasants
remained impotent for centuries under the rule of a hostile foreign crown.

It would thus seem improper to lend to the myth of the Black Irish such a positive air if the transfer of Spanish blood
to Irish peasants is to be seen as symbolically marking the Irish as the heirs to the defeated Catholic champions of
Europe (the Spanish), for it was the Spanish themselves who gave the 'kiss of death' to Ireland as it simultaneously
lost to their common English enemy and drained the country of its political leaders, its military defenders, and its
guiding intelligentsia. Spanish blood, coupled with Irish blood, would be better seen as a corrupting liquid that should
be bled from the body politic and denied rather than cherished, remembered, and mythologized.

Yet it seems that the legend of the Hispanic Irish, told by the 'Blacks' and white Irish alike, transmits with it an
inherent quality that the alleged descendants are proud to mention. The myth -- however long it may have existed
prior to the XXth century -- is told as a manner of associating oneself and one's Irish family with a glorious past. This
benevolent attitude and association of the Irish to the Spanish may be the myth's purpose, the 'why' of its existence.
But given the fact that mythic hermeneutics change given different time-space coordinates, further investigation of
the time of its alleged conception (both figurative and literal) renders a different intent of the myth's creators, namely,
to disavow discomfiting chapter in Irish history and to mask the "Black Chapter."

There exists no corroborating evidence to support the story of shipwrecked Spanish sailor's relations with Irish
women and their resultant progeny. There does exist, however, a quantity of written testimony describing instances
in which members of the Spanish Armada's shipwrecked crew were stripped naked, robbed and delivered over to
English authorities or summarily murdered by the Catholic Irish peasants themselves.

In all accounts of the relations between the Spanish and Irish, severe distinctions between power, class, and
socio-economic status are quite obvious but have, as a rule, been overlooked. Spain in XVth--XVIIth century Europe
was considered one of the premier first-world powers, given the Iberian (i.e., Spain and Portugal) military and
commercial domination of the seas and Spain's continuously replenishable economic source of gold and silver shipped
back from its Latin American colonies. The King of Spain in the latter XVIth century, Philip II, was the single most
powerful monarch in all of Europe with colonies dispersed around the world. He also had plans of acquiring the
British throne, first legally via his marriage to Mary Tudor (later murdered by Elizabeth), but later via his role as
Defender and Champion of the Catholic Faith against the heretical seditious English.

In Ireland, Spain was seen as the Catholic foster-parent who would rescue and protect Eire from the invading and
marauding Protestant English who were set on destroying the socio-religious tradition of the Irish. Beyond sharing a
common religious doctrine and an intense distrust and disdain of the English (one based on power rivalry, the other
on opposition to colonialization), the Hibernian and Iberian societies were also similarly stratified into two basic social
classes: the upper nobility and the lower peasants. This social dichotomy played an important role in the historical
events testified to by witnesses. Notice that no distinctions between the status of the Spanish males and the Irish
females are made in any of the variants. This leads one to presume an egalitarian context for the interplay between
the Irish and Spanish mythic characters when, in reality, none existed.

The Spanish Armada was in no sense a fleet of the middle-class military sent as an invasionary force to attack and
overwhelm Ireland; rather it was made up of a great number of Spanish nobles intent on landing in England with
enough treasure to establish themselves in a hostile country, whose ships and selves were heavily loaded with a great
quantity of gold, silver and jewels. When these ships and nobles were wrecked on the colonial coast of
English-controlled Ireland it was into the immediate hands of the "mere" (i.e., peasant) coastal Irish that they fell.
The admiral of the Spanish fleet, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, had forewarned all ships to "take great heed lest you
fall upon the island of Ireland, for fear of the harm that may happen unto you upon that coast"(25) due to the 'enemy'
English in Ireland. But as it turned out, the 'allied' Irish peasantry was as much the enemy of the Armada as the
English overlords. A survivor of the shipwrecked fleet, Captain Francisco de Cuellar, wrote of his experiences at the
hands of the Irish. In his account he referred to the Irish who met the sick and half-drowned Spanish on the beaches

savages [salvajes] who turned [the landing boat] up for the purpose of extracting nails or pieces of
iron; and, breaking through the deck, they drew out the dead men...[whom] they stripped and took
away the jewels and money which they had... The land and the shore were full of enemies who went
about jumping and dancing with delight at our misfortunes; and when any one of our people reached
the beach, two hundred savages and other enemies fell upon him and stripped him of what he had on
until he was left in his naked skin. Such they maltreated and wounded without pity ...(26) 

Other groups of Spaniards were murdered by the Irish peasants or delivered by them into the hands of the English
after first having stripped the foreigners of all valuables and clothing:

Three [ships] were forced into Galway Bay. Here, it must be recorded, is a black chapter, for not only
is it said in tradition that Irishmen brought about the shipwreck of a Spanish vessel, but that they
cravenly gave up those Spaniards who had escaped death by drowning to the agents of Queen
Elizabeth. ... Greed for Spanish gold, silver, silks and wines may have been [the] unholy motive.(27)

Although the records indicate that the greatest number of Spanish survivors were hung or summarily beheaded by
the English, and that a number of shipwrecked Spaniards survived exclusively by the care shown by Irish chieftains
and peasants, it must be kept in mind that a fair amount of the Spaniards who arrived alive on the shores of Eire
were subsequently stripped and murdered by their supposed allies--the 'mere' Irish. Yet even more interesting is that
it is precisely in a county where the legend of the Black Irish still survives (i.e., County Galway; v. variant three
above) that the Black Chapter of Irish collusion with the English against the Spanish is written.

That the Irish acted ignobly towards their Spanish Catholic brethren is the subject of much dispute: "There exists little
evidence in support of the common belief that the shipwrecked Spaniards were slaughtered in large numbers by the
Irish, except in the case of the Ovendens;" (28) "there is no way of estimating accurately the number of Spaniards
drowned or dispatched; just as there is no evidence at all for the exaggerated belief that the [Irish] people murdered
them by the thousand;"(29) and the contrary opinion is submitted: "[the Spanish] were sheltered and succoured,
treated as friends, and afforded means of safe return to their native Spain;" (30) "... on several occasions the Irish
looted Spaniards of all they had, down to their clothes. But they rarely killed them, and they must have had a hand in
assisting the 400 or more who, according to Fitzwilliam, escaped to Scotland."(31)

In regards to the social attitudes of the Irish in the following XVIIth century, foreign travellers stated that: "The Irish
are fond of strangers; they love Spaniards, French and other foreigners, but the English and Scots are their
irreconcilable enemies;"(32) "The native Irish are a very loving people to each other though constantly false to
strangers, the Spaniards only excepted."(33)

An accounting of the Armada by number of ships, men, and losses even describes the "total [Spaniards] definitely
lost in Ireland" (5,250) as either "drowned or killed by shipwreck" (3,750) or "executed by English forces" (1,500)
with only 750 shipwreck survivors. (34)

But the records show otherwise. The Ovenden (aka Hovenden / Ovington) brothers mentioned above were Irishmen
who "butchered with lance and bullet" some 310 Spaniards.(35) Their action was supposedly justified, though, for " if
therefore the action of the Ovendens appears savage, it was no worse than that of the English."(36) Boethius
Clanchy, an Irish chieftain, is said to have been compelled to "have slain his share of Spaniards in a horrible orgasm
of sheer terror before the Unknown."(37) Another local chieftain, O'Malley, is held responsible for his "kerns" who
"fell on the poor [Spanish] wretches limping ashore exhausted, battering them down on the rocks or slashing their
blood into the sandy shorewater, they were all as much maniacs as murderers."(38) These are the alleged three
solitary instances (the Ovenden brothers "being the sole example"--bar two) of Irishmen who "slaughtered the
shipwrecked Spaniards in large numbers."(39) Besides wholesale killing of the Spanish by 'savage' Irish groups, the
robbery and denuding of their 'allies' is yet another -- albeit lesser -- offense to be accounted for. Captain Cuellar, in
his Account, (40) recounted his personal experience at the hands of the Irish and what he saw done to others: that
he and others were beaten, robbed, and stripped repeatedly by the Irish coastal peasants.(41) Relief for the Spanish
survivors came only when they chanced to meet the lone Irish man, woman, or local chieftain who offered them
food and/or shelter.

This juxtaposition of two distinct Irish attitudes towards the Spanish survivors of the Armada is taken directly from
the literature that describes the events. It is not my intent to argue either side of the issue, suffice it to say that I do
not believe the murder and loot of rich, weakened, shipwrecked foreigners by an impoverished, politically-oppressed
peasantry needs any justification here. The suspension of any and every social ethic in light of economic disparity is
an all too common historical occurrence to try to apply a moral judgement in this small case. History, whether read
as myth or literature, will survive to say that the shipwrecked Spaniards suffered pain and death in the
English-occupied land of their allies, Eire, and that the Irish themselves were responsible for possibly half of the
misery inflicted upon the Spanish, in conjunction with their mutual English enemies.

Having reviewed the controversial ethical disparity shown by the actions of the Irish towards the Spanish (i.e., the
murder of allies) in the historical accounts, we can now examine the acknowledged economic disparity between the
two groups:

"As Cuellar describes it, Irish society was primitive in the extreme and in general singularly
unattractive,"(42) " It must not be forgotten that de Cuellar, a Spaniard of the 'upper' class, is describing
the Irish as he found them. His impressions and attitudes were necessarily coloured by his memories
of, and customs in his own country--one of the most ancient and civilized in Europe, then at the height
of her power, with vast territories in three continents."(43)

The manner in which the Spaniards and their possessions are described is a good measure also of the dichotomy of
material wealth present in the stories:

"[He was] dressed in 'black raised velvet with broad gold lace' [and] died in the gray Irish waters
wearing a doublet and breeches of white satin, with russet silk stockings,"(44) "there came striding out
of the waves sixteen persons 'alive' with their chains of gold." (45)

The stereotype of the rich, foreign Spaniard is reinforced by another (religious) myth called 'The Spanish Sailor'(46)
which is/was told along the northwest coast of Ireland, coincidentally an area of numerous Armada wrecks. In the
story, a Spaniard becomes a sailor and promises his mother to remain true to the Catholic faith. As the years pass he
accumulates a "lot of money" and when he feels his death approaching, asks to be set ashore on the shores of NW
Ireland. Becoming very weak and moaning, a priest and his clerk happened upon him and, in accordance with his
mother's wish, the priest administers the Last Rites to the dying man. The Spaniard dies, but not before donating his
money-belt to the priest and requesting the construction of a church with it. This myth is told to explain the origin of
two churches, built by the priest, but it also bears a striking similarity to the oppositions present in the myth of the
Black Irish:


These opposing qualities are mediated by the unifying factor of Catholicism. In both myths the Spanish die and the
"mere" meek Irish "inherit the earth;" they, the true survivors of Spanish defeat, who end up with a greater quantity
of the foreigners' material and spiritual wealth.

Both the ethical and economic disparities in some fashion challenge or belittle the native Irish culture for either their
impotent or hostile reactions to the landing of Spanish allies or for the implicit Irish lack of financial capital. But no
myth lives in which all of the characters are objectively neutral or in which the foreign element has no negative
connotation either. Just-so in the myth of the Black Irish, the Spanish are responsible in their own way for the
resultant military and political disparities that widened after the Armada's demise--to the disadvantage of both

Based on King Philip II's own inner convictions, the "efforts of successive English governments of the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries to cope with the Irish problem by the expropriation of Irish lands, the plantation of English
colonies, the repression of the Roman Catholic religion, and, occasionally, by the deliberate extermination of the
native population"(47) had to be arrested with military power "since both the honour of Spain and his own devotion to
religion demanded it."(48) Ireland itself was not without its political and military leaders, especially in view of the
efforts that Hugh O'Neill, along with other Irish earls, put into the effort of reconquering Eire from the occupying
English. It was actually O'Neill himself who "sought with every argument at his command to secure at last a Spanish
invasion of Ireland."(49) The struggle of the Irish nobility to secure the independence of their country in the midst of
greater English power was heroic but doomed without the aid of an ally equal or superior to their enemy. Pope
Gregory's plan for a holy war in Ireland against the Protestant English failed earlier due to the lack of either French
or Spanish support. In 1580, the Spanish landed a force at Dun an Oir in County Kerry which was subsequently
massacred by the English. The Armada's failure to invade England and to return home unharmed left Europe is a
puzzle, but the defeat and surrender of the Spanish landing force at Kinsale in 1602 confirmed the view that Spain's
military power had fallen. Philip II's honour in Ireland meant nothing to him now and it was even said that "king and
people were weary of the importunities of the many Irish refugees in their midst and spoke of them as Irish
beggars." (50) Although it is said that "Spain had lost nothing in Ireland,"(51) the remark is not quite true: Spain had
lost its credence as a Catholic power allied to the Irish cause. Its attempts in Ireland had failed and its honor
remained besmirched.

What is more evident and more damning aún is that Ireland had lost everything in Spain:

In Ireland, the gigantic wave which the Spaniards had raised on the surface of English rule subsided in
the aftermath of their departure; in a few weeks it was as if nothing had ever happened, that the vision
of great ships looming like awesome birds of ill omen along the coastline was a mere dream. The old
Gaelic chiefs, their chance gone, returned to their internecine squabbling ... Spanish help would be no

Every Spanish loss in Ireland meant a loss of Ireland as the rebel Irish were forced by treaty or threat of death to
leave their country. Immediately following the first loss of the Spanish in Ireland at Dun an Oir (1500) began the
Flight of the Wild Geese (53) which continued on throughout the XVIIth century. This Flight was forced on many
Irishmen who had taken part in the 1580 rebellion and was "offered" later by Spanish army recruiters who needed
Irish blood to maintain Spain's grip on the Netherlands. The loss at Kinsale in 1602 and the subsequent failure of
Spain to honor its pledges to the Irish nobles who had sought Spanish aid in order to augment their fight for
self-defense resulted in "an era characterized by bitter frustration over the failure of Ireland to achieve political and
religious identity."(54)

The Kinsale loss also resulted in the Flight of the Earls which, coupled with the slower and steadier Flight of the Wild
Geese, resulted in the veritable emasculation of the patriarchal Irish culture and society. This was the hejira of the
Irish nobility -- the earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnel, along with a hundred northern chieftains -- to the mainland of
Europe, taking up military service under the Spanish as did the Wild Geese or settling down to live the life-in-exile,
mainly in Cataluña of NE Spain. The net effect of the Flight of Earls dealt a devastating blow to the Irish:

To the Ireland of the time, the depression and emigration of the leading families meant more than the
destruction of an aristocracy would have meant to any other country in western Europe. The whole
social system depended on the great families: it was they who supported the scholars, musicians, poets,
law officers. The disappearance of a historic family left a blank in the countryside.(55)

Politically and militarily, XVIth and XVIIth century Spain was power-ful while Ireland of the same time was
power-less. The special diplomatic bond formed between the two nations was born solely on the merits of their
shared religion and their antagonism towards the common English enemy. Their relationship as allies was to benefit
both parties, resulting in Irish independence and Spanish religio-political hegemony. The lapse of conviction and
power on the part of Spain was a betrayal of the Irish trust and hope in salvation which would befit a portrayal of
Spain -- in Irish eyes -- as an impotent, castrating, blood-sucking nation of bad Faith. So why would a romantic myth
of Spanish-Irish love survive this epoch? Historical hindsight may indicate the ultimate Spanish betrayal of Irish
interests, but the hope of salvation is a greater factor to be reckoned myth.

As we have pointed out above, four disparities or oppositions exist in the social milieu of the myth of the Black Irish:
1) ethical--Irish degradation of Spanish ally; 2) economic--the Spanish rich confront the Irish poor; 3) political--the
empirical Spanish lose to/betray the colonized Irish; and 4) military-power-ful Spain succumbs to power-less Ireland.
The unifying and mediating factors within the myth's context are two: 1) Spain and Ireland's opposition to English
political and cultural hegemony, and 2) Spain and Ireland's common Faith in the Roman Catholic religion. It is the
unifying factors themselves that presume a socio-religious equality existing between the allies but historical analysis
that uncovers the ethnic disparities between the Iberians and Hibernians. The following diagram lists the various
mythic and historic components found within the legend:

two realities:

ideal (self-definition) 
definition by ally 
definition by its enemy 
Sarana/ Inglaterra 

England is the only victor, remaining as Spain and Ireland's nemesis. The legend plays down to a stalemate between
the two defeated allies: the historical disparities and oppositions are drawn out, the mythic components are quantified,
and the myth's meaning remains unresolved. But one method of analysis is left: the analysis of its dialectical

The similarities between the native Tuatha De Danann's opposition to the Sons of Mil Espane and their later adoption
of the foreign invaders as a positive socio-political element, and the Irish "resistance" to the Armada's landing but
subsequent creation of the Black Irish myth, are too obvious to go unremarked. Using a dialectical framework to
chart the history, the Tuatha De is the initial thesis, the landing of the Sons of Mil -- the antithesis, and medieval Eire
becomes the synthesis. This was the last mythic combat between the native Irish Celts and a foreign invader whose
merging resulted in the historical Eire. As the synthesis (Eire) moves from the new to the established order to
become the thesis, it is met by the antithesis--the English. When King Henry VIII of England divorced Catherine of
Aragon (of Spain) in 1535 and separated England from the Roman Church, the split between the Catholic Church
and the English State created a whole new world of opposition/s. Protestantism remained the antithesis as the
Catholic Tudor queen Mary I became sovereign (1553) and was then eliminated (1559). Elizabeth I, England's first
Protestant queen (1559-1605), secured the Protestant antithesis in Europe and--by her hated Irish policies -- secured
the English antithesis in Eire which, removed from the Gaelic tongue, became "Ireland" -- the English antithesis of

English Ireland's contemporary (s. XVI-XVII) antithesis (which never realized its full potential) was Spain, and had
any of its attempts to land and wrestle control of Ireland from its English lords been successful, the Emerald Isle
would probably have become a protectorate of Spain which, for our purposes here, would be renamed "Irlanda"--the
Spanish synthesis of Ireland. But England's nemesis failed and remained simply a potential that ultimately signed a
treaty of peace with London in 1604, thus putting an end to the overt hostilities between the two countries and
implicitly surrendering Eire/Ireland to the English. Nonetheless, this opposition of the thesis (English Ireland) with the
antithetical empirical aspirations of XVIth century Spain, which given more military and economic support, may well
have resulted in the synthesis of "investing Ireland in a king ... of Philip's [III] choice,"(56) was not the dialectical
process that the Gaels had envisioned or hoped for. What the Irish sought now was salvation from their oppressor
and a return to the primal state of pre-English Ireland, Eire, through Spanish mediation. Even though historical
process was not to be denied, the mythical process of returning to one's origin--to Eire, free from all outside control
-- was the higher goal. Empirical Spain sufficed as the means to the end of English oppression but the historical
redemption process would have also involved becoming the Spanish protectorate 'Irlanda,' not returning to
independent Eire.

What was needed and found was a turn outside of the dialectic's historical process: the opposition of the prethesis to
the thesis in the form of Ireland's mythical eponymous ancestor -- España. The prethesis acts as the alternative
factor in the dialectical process of opposition to the status quo's thesis: the antithesis progresses temporally into the
future whereas the prethesis regresses into the "pragmatic" past of "reflective history"(57)--myth. The hypothetical
historical resolution of the opposition between the colonial English and the empirical Spanish in Ireland's favor would
merely have resulted in a Hispanic 'Irlanda,' whereas the positive resolution of the conflict between English Ireland
and the mythic Espane/España would have succeeded in creating a dialectical (p)re-synthesis of Eire, free of both
Spanish and English hegemony, re-turned to original pre-English independence.

Self -less methodical dialectical pro-gress in time is history; self -ish dialectical re-gress in time is myth. The
purpose of the prethesis is to supply an ideological mental milieu which is anti-historical and reactionary; a myth
whose projection into the past will offer the political substrata needed to recoup the distant ethnical glory. In the myth
of the Black Irish, the Eirish Gaels are the obvious protagonists, but not-so-obvious and only implicitly understood is
the antagonistic role of the Irish English. The intermarriage of the Espanish with the Eirish does not serve to set the
stage for a historical dialectic which will place Spain as victor over an Irlanda but rather functions as a method of
mythic reduction whereby both national groups are reduced to a common ancestry (the Celtic Mil Espane) in which
the regenerated foreigners -- the XVIth century Espane/Españoles -- become syn-tagonists: a people who play a
major dramatic role in support of the protagonist, selflessly, against the antagonist. 


The structuralization of the myth of the Black Irish well serves the purpose of laying out the inherent oppositions and
disparities in the two Celtic cultures--insular and pen-insular. Dialectical analysis illustrates the broader picture of
oppositions and resolutions within a context of national and international conflict. Myth reduces contention and joins
the two distinct contemporary cultures together into the mythic union that was the past.

This is the legend of the Black Irish, the self-imposed identification of Eireland with the mythic--not the true--España,
whose power would have brought the riddance of the colonial English and the re-establishment of pre-Anglo Eire.
The myth is still told today to maintain Eire's historical identification and religio-cultural union with the past, between
island and peninsula, in which the struggle for Roman Catholic self-determination still survives.

- ya - 

Comments? Critiques? Drop me a note:


1.John C. Messenger, "The Black Irish of Montserrat," Eire-Ireland, II-1 (St. Paul, Minnesota: spring 1967)

2.Don Riley, "Untainted Montserrat boggles eye and mind," St. Paul Pioneer Press (St. Paul MN 26 february
1984), 3D back

3.personal conversation with James Gearity, Irish-American 
(Minneapolis MN 1 march 1984); and 
conversation with Mrs. Jean Giles (neé Kelly), (St. Paul MN 27 february 1984) back

4.Lorna Rea, The Spanish Armada (New York 1933) p 160 back

5.On p 67: "In the tales of the seanachies of Galway, one may still hear of how only two men and a boy
escaped death of all those who had been shipwrecked in the Falco Blanco, the Concepción, and those who
came from the nameless ship. They were sheltered by the people of Galway--at great risk to their own
lives--fed and clothed in many homes. Did they ever get back to Spain? Did they remain in Galway, learning
to speak and to dress as Irishmen did? These are intriguing questions, but to them it is doubtful if there will
ever be an answer." back

6.F. J. Byrne, Irish kings and high-kings (New York 1973) p 9
nb: The abbreviation "ce" stands for common era, a chronographical term used to acknowledge the cultural
and religious diversity in the Western hemisphere, in contrast to the commonly used abbreviations bc (before
Christ) and ad (Anno Domini/Year of Our Lord) that reflect time only in the Christian cultural context. back

7.ibidem, p 199 back

8.Robert C. MacLagan, Scottish myths: notes on Scottish history and tradition (Edinburgh 1882) p 64 
nb: The eponym 'Mil Espane' or Milesius has two possible sources: 'Mil' being derived from the Latin 'miles,'
or soldier, or the Latin 'mille' meaning thousand. 'Espaine' undeniably comes from 'Hispania'/España/Spain.
Thus 'Mil Espane' would mean either the Thousand or the Soldiers from Spain. back

9.Alwyn and Brinley Rees, Celtic heritage (New York 1961) p 26,30 back

10.Kevin P. Reilly, "Irish literary biography: the goddesses that poets dream of," Eire-Ireland, XVI:3 (St. Paul
MN: fall 1981) p 64-70 back

11.Joseph M. Flood, Ireland: its myths and legends (New York 1916/1970) p 21 back

12.Rees, op. cit.; p 39. The Irish version of the Historia Britonum of Nennius, ed. and tr. J.H. Todd (Dublin:
1848) p 250 back

13.or the third: see F.J. Byrne, op.cit., p 201 back

14.Byrne, op.cit., p 9 back

15.Paul R. Lonigan, "An unexplored question: Celtic church influence on Old French hagiography;" Eire-Ireland
IX:1 (St. Paul MN: spring 1974) p 73 back

16.Wm. Spotswood Green, "The wrecks of the Spanish Armada on the coast of Ireland," The Geographical
Journal XXVII:5 (London: may 1906) p 430, 439; also anonymous, Advertisements for Ireland, 1623
(Dublin: 1923) back

17.Padraic Colum, A treasury of Irish folklore, 2nd ed. (New York: 1967) p 169 back

18.ibidem, p 172 back

19.Dorothy Molley, "In search of the Wild Geese," Eire-Ireland, V:3 (St. Paul, Minnesota: autumn 1970) back

20.R. Wall, "Irish officers in the Spanish service," Irish genealogist 1978:5 back

21.Micheline Walsh, Spanish knights of Irish origin, 3 vol. (Dublin: 1960-1970) back

22.Mircea Eliade, Myth and reality (New York 1963) back

23.Byrne, op.cit., p 9 back

24.John J. Silke, "Spain and the invasion of Ireland, 1601-02," Irish Historical Studies XIV:56 (Dublin:
september 1965) back

25.State Papers (Ireland), vol. 137:1; cited by Wm. Spotswood Green, op.cit., p 434 back

26.Captain Cuellar's narrative of the Spanish Armada and his adventures in Ireland, trans. Robert
Crawford (London 1897) p 49, 50 back

27.T.P. Kilfeather, op.cit., p 63-4 back

28.Cyril Falls, Elizabeth's Irish wars (London 1950) p 166 back

29.Sean O'Faolain, The great O'Neill - a biography of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, 1550-1616 (New
York 1942) p 134 back

30.Padraic Colum, op.cit., p 169 back

31.Cyril Falls, op.cit., p 166 back

32.Edward MacLysaght, Irish life in the seventeenth century: after Cromwell (London, 1939) p 18 back

33.ibidem, from The memoirs of Ann, Lady Fanshawe (1907 edition) pp 56-63 back

34.Niall Fallon, The Armada in Ireland (London 1978) p 215 back

35.Cyril Falls, op.cit., p 165 back

36.ibidem, p 166 back

37.Sean O'Faolain, op.cit., p 135 back

38.ibidem, p 135 back

39.Evelyn Hardy, Survivors of the Armada (London 1966) p 116 [original reference not given] back

40.Robert Crawford, trans., op.cit., p 51-8 back

41.Evelyn Hardy, op.cit., p 120. 
nb: These personal accounts are taken by many historians to be culturally-biased reports not so much about
the Irish but against them and arbitrarily dismissed as such. See also following op.cit., p 322 back

42.John de Courcy Ireland, "Book review of Survivors of the Armada by Evelyn Hardy;" Irish Historical
Society XV:59 (Dublin: march 1967) p 321 back

43.Evelyn Hardy, op.cit., p 96 back

44.Lorna Rea, op.cit., p 160-1 back

45.Sean O'Faolain, op.cit., p 135 back

46.Sean O'Sullivan, Legends from Ireland (New Jersey: 1978) p 101-02 back

47.W.R. Jones, "'Giraldus Redivivus'--English historians, Irish apologists, and the work of Gerald of Wales"
Eire-Ireland IX:3 (St. Paul, Minnesota: autumn 1974) p 13 back

48.John J. Silke, op.cit., p 299 back

49.ibidem, p 298-9, of footnote 9 back

50.Cyril Falls, op.cit., p 162 back

51.John J. Silke, op.cit., p 312 back

52.Niall Fallon, op.cit., p 208 back

53.see Maurice Hennessy, The Wild Geese: the Irish soldier in exile (London, 1973); and Brendan Jennings,
Wild Geese in Spanish Flanders, 1582-1700 (Dublin 1964) back

54.W.R. Jones, op.cit., p 13 back

55.? back

56.John J. Silke, op.cit., p 301 back

57.Georg W.F. Hegel, Reason in history, trans. Robert S. Hartman (Germany 1837/Indiana 1953) p 7- 8 back

Comments? Critiques? Drop me a note:

new text/s to consider:

Survivors of the Armada 
by Evelyn Hardy (Constable: London 1966) 


To our survivor and writer-in-chief, de Cuellar, the people seemed barbarous and savage. They were so to the
English who with the patronage of a more powerful invading race were ignorant of, and uninterested in Ireland's
glorious past, of her Gaelic customs, laws, legends, language and literature; her caste of Catholic thought in a religion
which they had once shared; or her methods of intricate skilled warfare adapted to the difficult terrain--never
fully-mastered by any invading soldier, no matter how experienced he had become in continental warfare.

Tudor England with her growing population and increased vitality sought expansion to the west, at the same time
attempting to ward off the thrust of a Spain enriched with the gold of Peru whose sovereign, in addition to his native
country, ruled over the Netherlands, Southern Italy and Sicily, Sardinia, Milan, the Spanish colonies in the Americas
and (after 1590) Portugal and all the Spanish colonies in the Indies. Ireland's involvement in her neighbour, England's,
problems was inevitable, yet her position, not only geographically, was ambiguous. Close to English and continental
shores she was yet remote and detached: small in size she was of great importance to a stronger power who could
use her as a base or an ally against England. By 1588, misunderstood and mishandled by successive English
sovereigns and governments, decimated by meaningless bitter wars, and rebellious under increasing religious tyranny,
both oppressed and depressed, she had become wholly unfit to meet the impact of a new Renaissance world from
whose influences she had remained virtually untouched, or to become involved in what Mattingly calls "the first great
international crisis in modern history". In this state of mental bewilderment and despair she was increasingly drawn
to Rome, or to Spain, for understanding and practical support. Since the three countries shared the same form of
Christian faith this was natural, but the links with Spain were far more numerous and ancient, more subtly forged
than those with Italy. They were, and are, geological, botanical, ethnological, archaeological, historical and
commercial, even in one basic instance linguistic. Here we are concerncd only with the racial 


and commercial, as they impinge on questions pertinent to the hurling of the Spaniards on Irish shores in the autumn
of 1588. 

There is a common supposition that large, undefined numbers of Irishmen and women are descended
from survivors of the Armada, a theory that Mattingly succinctly disposes of in fourteen lines. Anyone
who studies the State Papers and other contemporary accounts of events in that terrible year must come
to the same conclusion--that it is improbable that the few "ragges of men", as Lord Deputy Fitzwylliam
described the starved, shipwrecked, emaciated, half-dying Spaniards who were washed up and remained
alive, should beget numerous descendants. Either they died like flies on landing, or they were
exterminated at once on strands, rocks and shoals, or later in bogs, woods and mountains in which they
had taken refuge; in camps, prisons or market squares. We have an example of the first in the young
soldier, who had fought at Terceira, who died beside the sleeping de Cuellar during the night.

The men of rank who were saved from the sword for ransom were kept close confined in castles in the
west or north, until they could be conveyed to those in the east for easier transport to England. The
common soldiers or sailors who survived and were sheltered by friendly chieftains got away through Irish
or Scottish aid as quickly as they could, to Scotland or the continent, their overpowering instinct being to
escape the English whom they observed slaughtering their companions, harrying the Irish and hounding
themselves. An inconsequential number, as we shall see, remained in service in the north with that
Prince of Elizabethan Irishmen, the Great O'Neill, but these were an exception. Any physical similarities.
of the Irish to the Spanish may therefore more reasonably be attributed to their common Iberian blood
and the intermingling of the two races throughout many centuries past, facilitated by trade and

The commercial links between Ireland and Spain, fostered by the prevailing south-westerly winds, appear to go back
to Mesolithic times. Here archaeology confirms ethnology. 

Comments? Critiques? Drop me a note:

© Irish Centre for Migration Studies/Ionad na hImirce 2000 

Date this page was last updated: 20 May 2000 14:05