Earlier, local lifeguard Billy Murray (67) described he and his colleagues from the City of Derry Club Aqua Club set about lifting artefacts from La Trinidad Valencera in the early 1970s, after finding the shipwreck at Kinnego Bay.
At the time Billy was a young man in his early 20s, and he and the other divers helped to not only secure the site and build the equipment they needed to recover the artefacts, they were also instrumental in ensuring the items were preserved for posterity.
He also recalled how the cannons taken from the huge merchant ship had to be floated along the coast round to Moville and stored in special pits filled with water for a year and a day while legal positions, ownership rights, conservation and other issues were worked through with the Spanish and Irish authorities, among others.
As this period ended, the team were then were allowed to bring the cannons and artefacts over the border, with a surprise interim solution reached.
Billy recalls: “The forefront men got themselves organised with Magee College which loaned the premises of one of its bunkers to store all artefacts we brought up to Derry.
“The bunkers were made for the Second World War. These cannons were put into pits made by Sub Aqua Club members. They did everything- we had brickies, people from all walks of life, and they all played their part, building walled tanks, covered with PVC inside so we could keep the artefacts under water and they wouldn’t deteriorate.
“That was alright, but the next question was what do you do with it? They had to contact the Museums Service.”
Colin Martin, founder and director of the St. Andrews Institute for Maritime Archaeology in Scotland, was among the experts whose interest was sparked and he worked with the local club on the excavation.
“He came onboard and he started the whole survey of the seabed and he showed us how to plan it out,” Billy recalls.
“We had to then build a shed from scratch. It was ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ getting all the material from wherever we could get it for this to house all our swimming gear and equipment.
“Colin surveyed the whole seabed with metal detectors and probes and he developed vacuums to suck the sand. We were only 40 feet off the shore and the depth was only about 30-40 feet, depending on tide height.
“Colin Martin was brilliant. He showed us how archeology worked and it was one of the most enjoyable parts of it. It fascinates me. He made out 10ft by 10ft grids, like a wire chequer-board. We had to take that out where he mapped it on the seabed and if we found anything in each square, we had to mark it. That artefact was brought up to shore where there was a copy of the grid on the shore, a replica.”
Most of the stuff brought up, Billy says, was concretion - a hard, concrete-like mass that cocoons artefacts under water over time. The team had to break these open to see what was inside.
Musket balls, canon balls, helmets, muskets, pristine fire bellows and other wooden objects were among the items recovered, and the process was captured in a BBC documentary after it and the Ulster Museum came onboard.
“It’s unreal,” he said. “One of the boys brought up a wee sole of a shoe. I was saying, 400 years ago somebody wore that. It’s hard to get your head around it.
“We found out then through the archeologist that this would have belonged to a wee ‘monkey boy’. They went and cleaned the ins and outs of cannons and the ship.
“We found a pair of brass dividers for marking out charts, beautiful, hand made. They were hardly even touched as the sand preserved them.”
Billy said the Ulster Museum did “a marvellous job” to preserve the items they recovered.
He added that being involved in the salvage operation was a source of great pride for all the men involved.
“When you went down there you went down with your chest stuck out - you were a diver.
“People would come passing by or down for the day and come over and talk to you. We had crowds coming down.
“Although you were a diver, you were involved in everything. Those days were brilliant the things we did - we had nothing.
“The equipment- I had a wee bib for a life jacket. Now they have all these jackets you can blow up. We had working gloves tied in with string. I saw boys making weight belts out of washers and nuts. We even made our own knifes for probing.
“We would be there all year round. I saw me coming out the water and there’s hailstones; trying to get soup into you and you freezing.
“Although we were involved, the families were involved as well because they came down for the day. There were barbecues. We used to have this big fire. There was flasks of soup, sandwiches. There was singing, the craic was good.”
Billy said walking through the Tower Museum and seeing himself in a photo, and all the objects, as well as the equipment the club members used during the excavation was “unreal”.
“I’m part of the history, the club and members, we’re part of that history. We all did that together. It was a body of men and a body of men who were just Joe Blogs from all different backgrounds.”
It would be years later however when Billy realised just how important the work the men did was, and it took his young daughter to point it out to him, when she chose, without any input from her father, to do a history project on the Armada while a student at St Mary’s College.
“I saw the project she finished and she had written, ‘my daddy is part of the Armada’ and that sticks in my mind. That put the realisation into me - yes, I am part of it, not just me, we all had an input. At the time you never think of that, you were just getting on with it.”
He adds: “One of my highlights was when I saw the artefacts come here to this museum- it was the community’s, because people from all walks of life, whatever creed, had done it.
“It sticks in my mind that this was actually in the depth of the Troubles, going to it and coming back. All that went on at the height of the Troubles. We had the club there and we faithfully went down there every week.
“There were great memories, brilliant memories The club took on a mammoth task, the whole lot of us, every man, everybody, they all did their part and we all made this happen.”
And during the council-organised Impact 92, Billy got the chance to sail on a near replica of the Spanish Armada’s Trinidad Valencera as a working hand, sailing from Derry around the coast to Bangor, an experience which brought the life of sailors onboard the Armada vividly to life.
And as a memorial to his time on the excavation, Billy still has one of the 200 special, limited edition jugs celebrating the Armada find which were made at the Ulster Ceramics Factory in Derry.