A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Do some Irish names come from Spanish Armada survivors?

October 19, 1979

Dear Cecil:

Many of my Irish friends have suggested that certain Irish surnames, such as Costello, Moore, and Spain, originated at the time of the Spanish Armada, what with all the seagoing Spaniards swimming ashore and becoming enchanted with the fair colleens. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the names Murray and Murphy originated this way (apparently they mean something like "from the sea"). Is this blarney, or do I see some blue Spanish eyes when Irish eyes are smiling?

Cecil replies:

Good to hear from somebody with a nice Irish name like Kowalczyk, Andrzej. However, I'd have known you were a son of the auld sod even if you hadn't signed your letter, mainly because like all the Irish you like to lay it on thick. I mean, come on — Murphy a Spanish surname? Murphy is the most common name in all of Ireland. The Spaniards would have had to have been humping like bedbugs to populate the whole island.

In fact, it seems likely that few, if any, survivors of the Armada took up residence in Ireland. For one thing, there weren't many survivors. Perhaps as many as 17 Spanish ships ran aground or sank off the Irish coast in the fall of 1588, as the crippled Armada made its roundabout way home after its defeat in the English Channel. The records of the period are incomplete, but it's possible as many as 6,000 Spanish soldiers and sailors were dumped into the sea. Of these, 2,000 or more simply drowned. One contemporary account claimed that 1,100 bodies washed up on a five-mile stretch of beach.

Between 3,000 and 3,500 of the remainder were killed or captured by the English or their Irish minions. The English had fewer than 2,000 troops to maintain their hold on Ireland, so they resorted to the expedient of not taking any prisoners. In one instance, several hundred Spaniards were induced to surrender with the promise of honorable treatment, only to be methodically butchered the next morning.

The richest or most prominent survivors were held for ransom, or for public spectacle (the English always were a class act). Only a few hundred of the castaways managed to make it to Scotland and to the Continent with the help of sympathetic Irishmen, themselves no great lovers of the English, who at the time were attempting to consolidate their grip on their miserable neighbor.

Frankly, there was little to induce the shipwrecked soldiers and sailors to stay. The Spanish considered the Irish savages — maybe they'd been to a few Notre Dame games — and thought the island was a cold and forbidding place. One Captain Francisco de Cuellar, who managed to make it to Spanish-held Antwerp, relates in a letter how an Irish chieftain, impressed by de Cuellar's bravery, offered him his daughter's hand in marriage. The Spaniard's response was to sneak away in the middle of the night, which doesn't say much for the fair colleens you mention.

A few Spaniards stuck around for a while, of course; several were on hand to help a combined force of Scots and Irish defeat an English army at Ballyshannon in northwest Ireland in 1597. But it's fair to say the Armada's castoffs didn't make much of a dent on the ethnic makeup of the country.

That's not to say no Spaniards ever settled in Ireland. Spanish merchants did a brisk commerce in Irish ports for hundreds of years before and after the Armada; some took up residence there.

More interestingly, there was a tradition among the Gaels, Ireland's original inhabitants, that they had originally migrated from Spain. This tradition didn't find its way into writing until nearly a thousand years after the supposed event, though, and the evidence from other sources is inconclusive. Basically, the story is that three sons of Mileadh (Mil, in some versions; the sons were Heremon, Heber, and Ir) came to Ireland from Spain about the time of Alexander the Great. The consensus among scholars is that the Gaels could have come from Spain (although some say France), but there's no way of knowing for sure.

The Spaniards-in-Ireland myth has many weird permutations. One of the Teeming Millions wrote in with the curious claim that there have been several Spanish-surnamed Sephardic Jews involved in Ireland over the years, notably the patriot Eamon de Valera. She also says that the Gallego culture in northwestern Spain has many similarities to the Gaelic culture of Ireland, and further says the Gaels were a green-eyed people, as many Irish, Gallegos, and Sephardic Jews supposedly are today.

Most of this is rubbish, of course. There have been Jews in Ireland for generations — you probably recall the story about the Irish being one or more of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. For all I know some of them were Sephardic, but Eamon de Valera wasn't one of them. He was a Catholic, as were his parents. He had a Spanish surname because his father was a Spaniard who had emigrated to the United States and met and married De Valera's Irish mother in New York. As for the Gaels, it's generally thought they were a blue-eyed people, although obviously they didn't keep the best records on this kind of thing back in those days.

A more promising line of inquiry is offered by another correspondent, who wonders whether Irish redheads can trace their ancestry to Viking invaders having their way with the poor colleens. I've studied the matter and my opinion is: I dunno. The Norsemen frequently raided Ireland's coastal regions around the turn of the millennium and some eventually settled there, but they didn't differ dramatically from the natives in appearance, at least as far as hair color went. Those with a Norse-Irish surname like Harold, however, are free to conjecture about their randy ancestors.

A couple last points: Murray and Murphy are old Gaelic sept (clan) names; Moore is an anglicization of another such name, and Costello is a name adopted by some of the Normans who invaded Ireland in 1171. Spain, as near as I can make out, is an English surname also of Norman origin. I can see a potentially cool angle there, but I can also see where some might not find it exciting to trace their ancestry to a people named the Normans.

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