In 16th Century Ireland, thousands of Spanish sailors washed ashore after the dissolution of the failed Armada attack against England. The English authorities governing Ireland were none too keen about an influx of enemy Spanish—Catholic—refugees so close to home. Sir William Fitzwilliam, Deputy of Ireland, ordered that all Spanish survivors were to be executed. Often they were killed after surrendering and having been promised fair treatment and safe passage. Near Galway, one mass killing so horrified the townspeople that they gathered up the bodies with great dignity and buried them in an Augustinian friary outside the town walls. In another massacre outside Kinnagoe Bay, County Donegal, where the Spanish ship La Trinidad Valencera had grounded, ~400 survivors were encircled and slaughtered by cavalry and harquebusiers. About 150 men escaped this slaughter.
Sorley Boy McDonnell had reason enough to hate the English—they had massacred his family. By 1586, two years before the Armada, he had made his peace with England—at least publically—by prostrating himself before a portrait of Queen Elizabeth in Dublin. His interests in helping Armada survivors were not purely humanitarian. He also plundered several cannon, recovered wine, and found a great deal of gold and silver from the Armada wreck the Girona that sank off the Giant’s Causeway.
But when the 150 Spanish survivors from La Trinidad Valencera managed to escape the English massacre, Sorley Boy McDonnell sprang to their aid. The men who were well enough to travel were ferried to Scotland; the more severely wounded recuperated with Sorley in Dunluce Castle to be sent later on. The Dublin governor warned him to stop rescuing the Spaniards, threatening Sorley “on pain of death and confiscation of his property.” Sorley replied that he would rather lose his life and goods, and those of his wife and children, then to “barter Christian blood.”
Sorley Boy McDonnell is a complicated historic figure. A brief biography is available online at Library Ireland which goes into greater depth about his political affairs. He was no saint. He had ulterior motives for helping the Spanish. But he saved the lives of 150 men, and for that I remember him today.
BONUS: Here is a video of the Irish Rovers singing “Sorley Boy McDonnell” filmed on site at breathtaking Dunluce Castle.
Hanson, Neil. The Confident Hope of a Miracle: The True Story of the Spanish Armada. N.Y.: Knopf, 2005.
Hutchinson, Robert. The Spanish Armada. N.Y.: Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press, 2014.
Martin, Colin. Full Fathom Five: Wrecks of the Spanish Armada. N.Y.: Viking, 1975.
 Neil Hanson’s The Confident Hope of a Miracle says Sorley’s fealty was pledged “earlier that year.”
 Colin Martin, Full Fathom Five, p. 199.