Fallen ‘Armada Tree’ set to be transformed into ‘something memorable’

The Spanish Chestnut Tree at St Patrick’s Church of Ireland, Cairncastle. Pictured are Gerard Gray and Rev Philip Benson. Picture: McAuley Multimedia.

THE ‘Armada Tree’ at the St Patrick’s Church of Ireland in Cairncastle has fallen after hundreds of years but now a woodturner wants to transform it into “something memorable”.

Ballycastle woodturner Gerard Gray has been tasked with the challenge of repurposing the wood.

According to local folklore, the Spanish Sweet Chestnut tree appeared after germinating from seeds found in a dead sailor’s pocket who had been buried in the graveyard after an Armada ship was wrecked close by.

Wood turner Gerard Gray has experience working with wood from the ‘Game of Thrones’ Trees at the Dark Hedges as well as having featured on the One Show and even had his work presented to The Queen.

He has taken up the challenge of making something memorable from the Fallen Spanish tree.. With the help of Sean Devlin from TreeTops Treecare Gerard has the timber safely stored at his workshop in Ballycastle.

According to local folklore, the sailor’s body was washed up in Ballygally Bay and brought up to the churchyard for burial. The tree then grew from a chestnut in his pocket – chestnuts were eaten by sailors to ward off scurvy on their long voyages.

It is certainly true that many Armada ships were wrecked off the coast of Ireland and the grave of another drowned Spanish sailor exists in nearby Glenarm. Analysis of the tree found it dates back to the 16th century, also giving credence to the local legend.

The Rev Philip Benson, rector of Kilwaughter and Cairncastle, said that CCTV footage showed the tree falling around 5.30am on Thursday.

There was no wind at the time and a tree surgeon has diagnosed that the ancient tree was suffering from root disease.

A popular attraction for tourists both local and from abroad, the area around tree had been cordoned off for health and safety reasons.

“The tree has come to rest on top of a number of graves and headstones, so we need to act quickly,” said Philip. He added that families whose graves are affected have been advised of the situation.

The tree was looked at again by tree surgeons, and an archaeologist is due to examine the site where it grew.

“The roots will have disturbed whatever lies below, but, if we have permission to look closer, it would be wonderful if we find something relating to the Spanish sailor,” Philip said.

He added the parish would be taking advice from experts on whether it might be possible to re-seed further trees from cuttings from this tree.

“We hope that the smaller branches can be crafted into carvings, and as there is quite a bit of the trunk left it could be turned into furniture or doors for the church – there is even a suggestion that it could form the basis of a sculpture of a Spanish sailor, but these are just ideas at this stage,” Philip said.

In 2017, the chestnut was named runner up in the Woodland Trust’s ‘Tree of the Year’ competition, with a panel outlining its story installed at the top of Larne’s Main Street.

Wider interest in the Armada legend saw the tree become something of a tourist attraction. “It’s amazing how popular it was,” said Philip. With the Game of Thrones connection nearby, we’ve had people make a detour to go by the church and photograph the tree.”


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