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De Cuellar sa Dartraí: 1588
4th October, 1589.
I believe that you will be astonished at seeing this letter on account of the slight certainty that could have existed as to my being alive. That you may be quite sure of this I write it the letter,and at some length, for which there is sufficient reason in the great hardships and misfortunes I have passed through since the Armada sailed from Lisbon for England, from which our Lord, in His infinite good pleasure, delivered me. As I have not had an opportunity to write to you for more than a year, I have not done so until now that God has brought me to these States of Flanders, where I arrived twelve days ago with the Spaniards who escaped from the ships that were lost in Ireland, Scotland, and Shetland, which were more than twenty of the largest in the Armada. In them came a great force of picked infantry, many captains, ensigns, commanders, and other war officials, besides several gentlemen and scions of nobility, out of all of whom, being more than two hundred, not five survived; because some of them were drowned, and those who reached the shore by swimming were cut in pieces by the English, whom the Queen keeps quartered in the Kingdom of Ireland.
I escaped from the sea and from these enemies by having commended myself very earnestly to our Lord, and to the Most Holy Virgin, His Mother; and with me three hundred and odd soldiers, who also knew how to save themselves and to swim to shore. With them I experienced great misfortunes: naked and shoeless all the winter: passing more than seven months among mountains and woods with savages, which they all are in those parts of Ireland where we were shipwrecked. I think it is not right to omit to narrate to you, or to keep back, the injuries and the great insults that it was sought to inflict upon me, so wrongfully, and without my having committed the fault of neglecting to do my duty, from which our Lord delivered me.
[Here de Cuellar recounts how he came to be shipwrecked off the Sligo coast, his journey to O’Rourke’s Castle in Dromahair and his failed attempt to reach a ship which subsequently sank within sight of the shore with the loss of over 200 lives].
Going along thus, lost with much uncertainty and toil, I met by chance with a road along which a clergyman in secular clothing was travelling (for the priests go about thus in that kingdom, so that the English may not recognise them). He was sorry for me, and spoke to me in Latin, asking me to what nation I belonged and about the shipwrecks that had taken place. God gave me grace so that I was able to reply to everything he asked me in the same Latin tongue; and so satisfied was he with me, that he gave me to eat of that which he carried with him, and he directed me by the right road that I should go to reach a castle, which was six leagues from there. It was very strong, and belonged to a savage gentleman, a very brave soldier and great enemy of the Queen of England and of her affairs, a man who had never cared to obey her or pay tribute, attending only to his castle and mountains, which made it strong.
I set out for there experiencing much trouble on the road, and the greatest, and that which gave me most pain, was that a savage met me on the way, and, by deceiving me, took me to his hut in a deserted valley, where he said I must live all my life, and he would teach me his trade, which was that of a blacksmith. I did not know what to answer nor did I venture, so that he should not put me in the forge. Before him I showed a pleasant countenance, and proceeded to work with my bellows for more than eight days, which pleased the wicked savage blacksmith, because I did it carefully, so as not to vex him and an accursed old woman he had for wife.
I was in tribulation and sad with such miserable employment, when our Lord favoured me by causing the clergyman to return by that way, who was surprised to see me, because that savage did not wish to let me go away, as he made use of me. The clergyman scolded him severely, and told me not to be troubled, as he would speak with the chief of the castle to which he had directed me, and get him to send for me, which he did the following day. He sent four men of the savages, who served him, and a Spanish soldier, of which he had already ten with him of those who had escaped by swimming. When he saw me so stripped of clothing and covered with straw, he and all those who were with him grieved greatly, and their women even wept to see me so badly treated. They helped me as best they could with a blanket of the kind they use, and I remained there three months, acting as a real savage like themselves.
The wife of my master was very beautiful in the extreme, and showed did me much kindness. One day we were sitting in the sun with some of her female friends and relatives, and they asked me about Spanish matters and of other parts, and in the end it came to be suggested that I should examine their hands and tell them their fortunes. Giving thanks to God that it had not gone even worse with me than to be gipsy among the savages, I began to look at the hands of each, and to say to them a hundred thousand absurdities, which pleased them so much that there was no other Spaniard better than I, or that was in greater favour with them. By night and by day men and women persecuted me to tell them their fortunes, so that I saw myself (continually) in such a large crowd that I was forced to beg permission of my master to go from his castle. He did not wish to give it me: however, he gave orders that no one should annoy me or give me trouble.
The custom of these savages is to live as the brute beasts among the mountains, which are very rugged in that part of Ireland where we lost ourselves. They live in huts made of straw. The men are all large bodied, and of handsome features and limbs; and as active as the roe-deer. They do not eat oftener than once a day, and this is at night; and that which they usually eat is butter with oaten bread. They drink sour milk, for they have no other drink; they don't drink water, although it is the best in the world. On feast days they eat some flesh half-cooked, without bread or salt, as that is their custom.
They clothe themselves, according to their habit, with tight trousers and short loose coats of very coarse goat's hair. They cover themselves with blankets, and wear their hair down to their eyes. They are great walkers, and inured to toil. They carry on perpetual war with the English, who here keep garrison for the Queen, from whom they defend themselves, and do not let them enter their territory, which is subject to inundation, and marshy. That district extends for more than forty leagues in length and breadth.
The chief inclination of these people is to be robbers, and to plunder each other; so that no day passes without a call to arms among them. For the people in one village becoming aware that in another there are cattle, or other effects, they immediately come armed in the night, and ‘go Santiago’ attack, and kill one another, and the English from the garrisons, getting to know who had taken, and robbed, most cattle, then come down upon them, and carry away the plunder. They have, therefore, no other remedy but to withdraw themselves to the mountains, with their women and cattle; for they possess no other property, nor more moveables nor clothing.
They sleep upon the ground, on rushes, newly cut and full of water and ice. The most of the women are very beautiful, but badly dressed got up. They do not wear more than a chemise, and a blanket, with which they cover themselves, and a linen cloth, much doubled, over the head, and tied in front. They are great workers and housekeepers, after their fashion. These people call themselves Christians. Mass is said among them, and regulated according to the orders of the Church of Rome. The great majority of their churches, monasteries, and hermitages, have been demolished by the hands of the English, who are in garrison, and of those natives who have joined them, and are as bad as they. In short, in this kingdom there is neither justice nor right, and everyone does what he pleases.
As to ourselves, these savages liked us well because they knew we came against to oppose the heretics, and were such great enemies of theirs; and if it had not been for those who guarded us as their own persons, not one of us would have been left alive. We had goodwill to them for this, although they were the first to rob us and strip to the skin those who came alive to land; from whom, and from the thirteen ships of our Armada, in which came so many people of importance, all of whom were drowned, these savages obtained much riches in jewellery and money.