The Spanish Armada Tree

by Colin Urwin
Audio version recorded by Colin Urwell

In late May 1588 one hundred and thirty ships, known to history as the Spanish Armada, set sail from Coruña on the north coast of Spain. They anchored off the French port of Calais awaiting a rendezvous with the Army of the Duke of Parma when they were to cross the channel and invade England.

At the ensuing Battle of Gravelines the Spanish fleet was scattered by the English Navy. They fled northwards with the intention of going the long way home around Scotland and Ireland. They encountered ferocious storms and many ships were lost. Six thousand men perished along the Irish coast from Antrim in the north to County Kerry in the south west.

The body of one young Spanish sailor washed upon a small sandy beach at a place called Ballygally in County Antrim. His body was taken a mile inland and buried in the churchyard of Cairncastle.

In his pockets were sweet chestnuts, still a favourite snack across the Mediterranean and a Christmas treat to the rest of us. One of the chestnuts germinated and from it grew a mighty Spanish sweet chestnut tree, a species not native to these shores. The tree has stood for over four hundred and thirty years, until June 2020 when it literally toppled over from old age. 

It was beloved by locals and tourists, and was affectionately known as the Spanish Armada Tree. It will be missed and to commemorate its passing I have written these few lines of verse from the point of view of the chestnut and the tree …

The Spanish Armada Tree

Four hundred and thirty two years ago almost to the day
I was washed up on the sandy shore of Ballygally bay
In the pocket of a sailor fighting for the Spanish king
Against the cruel weather and the English virgin queen

The poor sailor had drowned at sea and never got to taste
My sweet chestnut flesh, but I did not go to waste
I survived that wretched  journey from the sunny coast of Spain
And found myself in Ireland starved by cold and rain

And there I might have died myself, shrivelled in my skin
But they buried that poor sailor and me along with him
I shivered in that cold, wet ground so far away from home
Praying for the sun to warm the fertile, peaty loam

Next spring I poked my head up, I never felt so brave
But I was greeted by a wind that was colder than the grave
How I longed for my homeland of oranges and heat
Where the olive groves are fragrant and all the chestnuts sweet

But here I grew undisturbed, but for the Irish weather
My roots consumed the flesh and bones and boots of Spanish leather
Of my unwitting sailor friend, unworldly and unlearned
Who thought he would consume me, oh how the tables turned

I’ve seen many things in my long life, who hasn’t I suppose
But for every question answered a hundred more were posed
From this tranquil churchyard I saw wars and famine rage
The greed and foolishness of man is etched on every page

Perhaps I should be grateful it was man’s folly brought me here
But so far away from my homeland the price I paid was dear
Alone I stood without the hope that ever there might be
A sapling growing somewhere from seed passed on by me

I am not a common Conker tree that Irish school boys climb
I am a sweet Spanish Chestnut estranged from my own kind
And though from all the native trees I have stood apart
From the singing of the Chaffinch and Blackbird I took heart

The Robin through dark winter days, noisy Rooks in spring
What joy each Sunday morning to hear the people sing
I have stood against the wind and rain my boughs have creaked with snow
But still and all my ancient heart never failed to grow

For no matter where you find yourself you must do the best you can
Be you Sweet Spanish chestnut tree or native Irishman
And now, alas, my time has come, as to everything it must
To you my fellow beings my old wooden heart I trust

Make something useful out of me, a bower or a seat
Where pilgrims take a moment to sit down and rest their feet
And let the children climb and play while you remember me
And tell them all the story of the Spanish Armada Tree

Colin Urwin