Seamen of Irish Birth and Descent in the Spanish Navy in North Africa.
Years ago the Institute’s research department made a thorough examination at the Spanish Naval Archives (far inland in Cudad Real Province) to discover about exiles from Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries who joined the Spanish Navy.
There was abundant material there. It was noteworthy that many of these men, some of whom had very distinguished careers, spent time in the Spanish bases on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, Ceuta which the Portuguese had occupied in 1415, inspiring the famous Prince Henry the Navigator (who had a permanent agent in Galway) to start a series of exploratory voyages which changed world history and which Spain took over from Portugal in 1580 and Melilla, not far from the Algerian border, which Spaniards occupied in 1497.
In October I was able to fulfil a long standing ambition to visit these out-of-the-way places in search of traces of the Irishmen’ who had served there. Sure enough at Ceuta, which has rich and well kept archives, information was obtained that one of the best known local families are the Irish-descended MacCrohons, resident there well over a century, two of whom became Admirals in the 1800s; both were called Manuel. The elder served in 26 ships before reaching flag rank, first sailing had an astonishing list of ‘Excellents’ in examinations, served in Spain’s first iron-clad battleships and won fulsome commendation for a complete reorganisation of Spain’s Coastguard system in the Mediterranean.
At Melilla the local folk hero is an Irish general Sherlock, who saved the place from a huge attacking army led by the Sultan of Morocco (1775) with the help of a small naval squadron. One of the ships was commanded by an Irishman, Butler y Murphy. Other Irish seamen who served in these places included Enriquo MacDonnell, Captain of the Rayo at Trafalgar and hero of a too-little known episode after the battle, when he led a sortie from Cadiz and recaptured four of Nelson’s prizes, and Jacobo MacMahon, a pioneer expert with Torpedoes, who helped to design the first destroyer, the Spanish Destructor, commissioned at El Ferrol in 1887.
These towns are wonderfully picturesque, with encircling formidable fortifications, some dating back to the 15th century, with the Atlas Mountains stretching along the Mediterranean coast East and West of them.
John deCourcey Ireland
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