As divers off the coast of Sligo continue to bring ashore freshly discovered artefacts from the three Spanish Armada vessels which sank there more than 400 years ago, there’s a small group of local people who know exactly how they feel.
Billy Murray and his colleagues in the City of Derry Aqua Club found themselves in the exact same position 44 years ago when they discovered La Trinidad Valencera off the coast of Kinnego Bay in Inishowen.
Aged in his early 20s, Billy was one of the youngest members of the amateur aqua club at the time of the discovery. He would be among the local men who, over the next eight years, would help bring ashore and conserve for posterity much of the wreckage now housed in Derry’s Tower Museum.
Now aged 67, Billy, has worked for the council in Derry for the past 29 years and is a Senior Recreation Attendant/ Lifeguard at Templemore Sports Complex.
Back in 1971, Billy from Beechwood Avenue in Creggan was a young man in his early 20s and working as an Turner with Molins. He had joined the Sub Aqua Club because a number of his colleagues were already members.
Speaking about the latest discovery, he said: “It was lovely to hear the story about Sligo, and it just brought back memories, and thinking what they are going to be faced with, the excavation of it all.”
But Billy is not tempted to head off in search of another Armada adventure.
“My diving days are over,” he laughs. “I had my time at it, enjoyed it and as I say I was young and worked at it for 10 years. I joined the City of Derry Sub Aqua Club about 1968-69. Their base was at William Street Swimming Baths.
“When I joined it then they were looking for this wreck. They knew it was in Kinnego Bay, in Glenagivney. It was a club project to look for it and the excitement of looking for it was part of the fun and purpose of the Sub Aqua Club - to have a club activity.”
When the wreck was found in 1971, it was quite by accident, and owing to the same unpredictable weather which caused the Armada captains such grief back in 1588.
Billy recalls: “When the divers went down we trucked all of the stuff from the car park to the far end of the beach and that’s where the diving took place. That was where the concentration was, and they searched and searched. They were actually searching for about a couple of years before I joined in.
“At the start I was only what they called snorkel cover. If there were divers down underneath I was hovering over the top of them, looking after them, if they needed anything. But that was only in the early stage and then later I was a diver. I was doing the second level training around the time it was discovered.
“The day we found it, we went down as a regular diving trip but there was torrential rain. I was there, it was a bad day. We decided rather than truck all this stuff over to the far end of the beach we would just dive where the car park was, straight out into the water. It wasn’t actually me that found it, it was one of the other club members, Archie Jack and another fellow.
“It was an accident. But you can imagine the excitement. Everybody going out to see it. The canons were popping out of the sand.
“It is always a dream of any sub aqua club to come across treasures, or artefacts or ships or whatever you are looking for, but it can be very daunting then. Once we found it we came back to club meetings straight after.
“You can imagine the excitement, some members weren’t there that day and when they found out they were excited. This was the Spanish Armada.”
The club members then set about working out their next steps and certain people were appointed to certain jobs such as checking the legal side of things concerning the wreck, ownership issues, the border, and dealing with the media.
“I wasn’t involved in the forefront there,” Billy said. “They did a brilliant job in finding out what was involved in it. I was involved as part of the search party.
“We were told that the cannons or any artefacts had to stay down south for a year and one day, but where did we keep them? The archeology work started to get very big. The cannons had to be housed, so they picked Moville.
“They excavated behind some waste ground. They dug out this big hole and they had to fill it with water and prepare that to bring the cannons up.
“When they were bringing them up I was involved. We used big 50 gallon drums as airbags, tied on to ropes and on to the cannons. It was lashed against a trawler and brought to Moville.
“Then it was brought on to a lorry and into the prepared site. And they sat there for a year and a day.”
n Keep an eye out for second half of Billy’s fascinating first-hand account in Friday’s Journal.