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Downed: the Larne tree that grew from seeds brought by the Spanish Armada

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The Spanish Chestnut Tree at St Patrick’s Church of Ireland, Cairncastle after it fell over.

The Spanish Chestnut Tree at St Patrick’s Church of Ireland, Cairncastle after it fell over.

The Spanish Chestnut Tree at St Patrick’s Church of Ireland, Cairncastle

The Spanish Chestnut Tree at St Patrick’s Church of Ireland, Cairncastle

A poster in Larne town centre giving details of the legend behind the tree, thought to be over 400 years old

A poster in Larne town centre giving details of the legend behind the tree, thought to be over 400 years old

The fallen tree

The fallen tree

The Spanish Chestnut Tree at St Patrick’s Church of Ireland, Cairncastle after it fell over.

A tree, which could well have roots dating back to the time of the Spanish Armada, has finally fallen in a Co Antrim graveyard.

If legend is to be believed, the Spanish Sweet Chestnut tree has stood sentry alongside St Patrick's Church of Ireland in Cairncastle near Larne for more than 430 years.

According to local folklore, the tree sprouted from seeds stored in a dead sailor's pocket, carried as chestnuts were thought to ward off scurvy at the time.

"Everyone around here knows of the local legend about the Armada tree and it's always been quite an attraction over the years," said Rev Philip Benson.

"You'd often see Americans in the graveyard lapping up the history. It's amazing how popular it was. With the Game of Thrones connection nearby, we've had people make a detour to go by the church and get a photograph.

"The tree was a runner-up in the Woodland Trust Tree of the Year awards in 2017.

"They did look at the history at the time and said it was entirely plausible that the legend could in fact be true.

"Everyone in the parish has always been very fond of it and we've already been inundated with offers from people to make sure the tree lives on in some form. We will certainly be trying to do something like that, but the first priority is to make the area safe."

It was in late May 1588 when a fleet of 130 ships set sail from Spain to invade England, King Phillip II's aim to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I and halt the rise of Protestantism.

The story goes that gales had blown his ship hundreds of miles off course before it was wrecked off the coast of Northern Ireland. The sailor's body washed up on the shores of Ballygally Bay in 1588, where locals discovered the corpse and buried it in an unmarked grave at St Patrick's Church.

But his grave didn't remain unmarked for long. A sapling sprouted and went on to stand there for over 400 years.

"It's quite a tale and one which the locals around here love to tell," said Rev Benson.

"We'd be hopeful of finding out more about the history of it now it's fallen.

"We could see on CCTV that the tree fell about half five in the morning. It was very calm so there was no storm damage as such.

"It's now resting across some gravestones so we need to be careful about moving it.

"We had a tree surgeon come up and look at it and apparently the roots had gone.

"Unfortunately that's it. It would have happened sooner or later and we're thankful it happened when it did, with no-one around. It was just the weight of the tree that finally brought it over.

"But there's no way we want to turn it into firewood, we're much too fond of it for that.

"Once we examine the condition of the wood we'll be looking into doing something with it. The trunk itself is quite a size and we want to use it to create something substantial for local people to remember it by. It deserves to be preserved."

Rev Benson is now hopeful that a study of the site might bring some answers as to whether there's any truth in the legend.

"There's interest from an archaeologist who will be coming down to have a look and see if there's anything underneath where the tree stood," said Rev Benson.

"Now that the tree is down we can let experts take a really good look at it, date it properly and see if indeed it did grow from the chestnuts in the pocket of a Spanish Armada sailor who may still lie beneath it."

In the meantime, Rev Benson has urged people not to come along to the graveyard to salvage a piece of history. The graveyard is covered by CCTV and numerous people have already ignored the tape around the fallen tree to take wood and cuttings.

"We cannot stress enough that the tree is not safe," he added.

"We don't want to close the graveyard, but if people continue to ignore the warnings, that is unfortunately the action we will have to take.

"Anyone ignoring the tape is personally liable for any further damage to yourself or the gravestones, so please be careful."

Belfast Telegraph