A violent storm on September 20th 1588 drove three great ships from the Spanish Armada (the Juliana, the Lavia and the Santa Maria de Vision) onto the strand at Streedagh, Co. Sligo, in the process tearing them to pieces. Those aboard, with few exceptions, were either drowned or killed when they were washed ashore (by a combination of townspeople and English garrison forces) It is estimated that up to 1200 people lost their lives.

In 1999 the Arts Office of Sligo Co. Council offered a commission where the brief was to make
a public artwork in the context of the Armada at Grange.

My interest in making a work in that context was largely generated by a photograph I had come
across in 1998.  It showed the transport ship HMS Aragon being sunk by a German torpedo just off the port of Alexandria in Egypt on the 30th of December 1917. The photograph was taken by one of the escaping lifeboats; Aragon has only a few minutes left.  Another ship is also visible—Aragon’s escort ship ‘Attack’: It too was about to be sunk.

The stillness of the image deceives: hundreds of people are already engulfed in blind panic and
are about to die.  On board was my paternal great-grandfather; Patrick James Hughes (aged 29,
originally from Bellaghy, Co. Derry).

His name is inscribed on a memorial in the harbour in Alexandria, along with the names of 609 others who died alongside him. According to the war office he was ‘drowned in action’.

I decided to make a work that was commemorative in spirit: Working with a diverse range of groups and individuals I introduced the project idea and asked people for ‘keepsakes’—something of a personal emotional value—that could be given to the sea. In the end 320 resin ‘cannonballs’ were cast housing the donated objects.  The cannonballs were initially sited along the beach in 16 formal pyramidal stacks, as on a ship’s deck, and at high tideon the 24th of June 2000 they were scattered by the sea, watched by many of those who contributed. The plan was that despite their number, they would eventually only be chanced upon occasionally. 

The things I received commemorated personal events of varying natures eg. the death of a loved one or the memory of a happy Summer’s day.  Some things referred very directly to the Armada sailors who died at Streedagh but the vast majority (many of which were extremely touching or personal) were much more open to interpretation.