Published in Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2023), Volume 31

By Gonzalo Franco-Ordovás

On 16 March 1545, the Valladolid court of justice resolved a dispute between the inhabitants of the Castilian coastal village of Castro de Urdiales. The conflict had its origins in a disagreement over the granting of commissions to trade with the ruler of the Beara Peninsula in Ireland, Domhnall Ó Súilleabháin. Rather than being an isolated incident, the case reflects some of the extensive trading connections between the kingdom of Castile and Ireland during the later Middle Ages.

Above: Extract from a Valladolid court of justice document of 16 March 1545 relating to a dispute over the granting of commissions to trade with Domhnall Ó Súilleabháin [Ausiliban], ruler of the Beara Peninsula, described as ‘Lord of Vieran’ [Señor de Vieran] and ‘knight of the kingdom of Ireland’ [caballero del Reygno de Yrlanda]. (Archivos Estatales, Spain)


In general terms, during the later Middle Ages Hiberno-Castilian trade developed along two geographic areas. The Castilian merchants enjoyed extensive connections with the main towns in the Irish Sea region, namely Dublin, Drogheda and Waterford. These ports were well connected to a wider English economic network that extended from Bristol to London and from Calais to Bordeaux. This English economic framework has been viewed as the principal path of communication and commerce between Irish and Castilian merchants.

Above: Map (1520) of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic coasts of Europe, including Ireland. (Archivo General de Indias, Sevilla)

By comparison, Castile’s links with the wider Gaelic world of the western seaboard has not received much scrutiny. Unlike the more heavily Anglicised eastern seaboard, commerce in the western region was well beyond the control of the English Crown. Along Ireland’s southern and western seaboards, trade was largely localised in nature and dominated by the Gaelic aristocracy. Castilian merchants were drawn to these western waters for two main reasons. First, Ireland was a natural source of wheat; the crop could not be grown in northern Castile and the Irish lords were ideally placed to sell their produce to the Iberian market. Second, Irish waters offered bountiful fishing-grounds for Castilian seamen. Throughout the later Middle Ages, Castilian merchants and fishermen negotiated with Irish lords to fish in these waters; permission was granted in exchange for hides, wine, salt, iron, wool and other textiles. This Hiberno-Castilian trade continued until the later sixteenth century, when the deterioration of Anglo-Spanish relations saw increasing numbers of Castilians look westwards to the Americas for new sources of fish.

Recent decades have witnessed a growing interest in the development of this trade. Timothy O’Neill’s famous study, Merchants and mariners, pointed to the emergence of a burgeoning Hiberno-Castilian trade in this period, noticing Iberian involvement both in the colony and along the western seaboard. More recently, Mark Gardiner and Tom McNeill have re-examined the impact of the fishing trade in the later medieval period. By combining archaeology with historical research, they have demonstrated that Castilian merchants, alongside their European counterparts, played a leading role in the commercialisation of Ireland’s western seaboard.

Scholars of later medieval Castile, in comparison, have paid less attention to the evolving Hiberno-Castilian trading nexus. Michael Barkham, for example, has demonstrated the vibrancy of Castilian archives for studying trade in the later medieval and early modern periods. Nevertheless, Barkham focused primarily on the economy of the Basque peoples, overlooking the emergence and development of new trading connections between the northern Castilian towns of Cantabria and Asturias and the Gaelic Irish. By drawing on a number of previously neglected sources, this article seeks to redress this omission and cast new light on Castile’s links with Ireland in the pre-modern era.


As trade developed between Castile and Ireland, so did a variety of personal relationships between Castilian seamen and Irish women. The ordinances of the northern Castilian village of San Vicente de la Barquera, from 1487, offer a window into this issue, noting that sailors from the village often ‘looked for women’ (buscaban mujeres) when in Ireland. Many Castilian mariners were also reputed to have visited Irish brothels, a situation that could lead to personal and logistical problems.

The ordinances did not openly forbid these bonds, but sailors could be punished in certain circumstances. Firstly, the authorities were concerned that Castilian sailors would want to remain in Ireland with their new partners. This could lead to a lack of manpower on the fishing and trading vessels and could also result in the abandonment of their wives back in Castile. Secondly, the authorities in San Vicente de la Barquera were concerned that Castilian sailors would get Irish women pregnant, abandoning them when they returned to Castile. An examination of these ordinances offers only a brief glimpse into the world of evolving Hiberno-Castilian connections but it highlights how interactions often extended beyond the world of trade into personal and sexual relationships.


Above: Coat of arms of Laredo, Cantabria. In 1487 a group of raiders from West Cork assaulted Sancho González de la Obra, a merchant from the town, when he was travelling from Youghal to Kinsale.

Gaelic Irish lords of the southern and western seaboard often granted fishing licences to Castilian sailors in exchange for luxury goods. The ruler of the Beara Peninsula, Domhnall Ó Súilleabháin, is a case in point. He established agreements with the mariners of the aforementioned San Vicente de la Barquera: the seamen could fish in his waters in return for a range of commodities, including wine, silk, saffron and salt. Clearly, Castilian merchants played an important role in the development of the local Irish economy.

Despite all these agreements, there is some evidence of violent episodes between the local Irish and the visiting Castilians. One example is the case of Pedro Gutiérrez de Comillas, whose crew was attacked by Domhnall Ó Súilleabháin’s son in 1515 while fishing in Bantry Bay with his father’s permission. The legal records of the Castilian authorities shed some further light on this episode. The document states that Comillas’s crew sailed ‘every year to the said Kingdom of Ireland in their ships and the lord [Ó Súilleabháin] ensured [their safety]’ (van cada un año al dicho Reyno de Yrlanda en sus navíos e el dicho señor los asegurase, les lleva por cada navyo çiertos ducados porque los asegura). It pointedly requested that Domhnall Ó Súilleabháin honour the agreement and provide compensation to Comillas. The document also offers some additional information on the Castilians’ knowledge of the Bantry area, demonstrating the extent to which they were integrated into local society. For instance, it records that, during the attack, Comillas sent one of his youngest sailors to the mainland for help. Apparently, the boy went to a well-known Franciscan monastery, where he sought refuge, but he was attacked by Ó Súilleabháin’s men and removed from the monastery at knifepoint.

The second violent episode had taken place some years previously, when in 1487 a group of raiders from West Cork—presumably the hEidirsceóil family of Bantry, though it is not clear—assaulted Sancho González de la Obra, a merchant from the Cantabrian village of Laredo, when he was travelling from Youghal to Kinsale. They took him to a tower-house somewhere on the Cork coast and put him in chains before impounding his vessel and goods. Obra’s capture appears to have been in retaliation for an earlier act of piracy. Some days before, a group of Basque merchants from Guipúzcoa had stolen some merchandise belonging to the Irish. Clearly, in this instance the Irish did not differentiate between Castilians and Basques. González de la Obra spent several months in captivity as he sought to negotiate his release. Finally, he managed to pay the Irish attackers the value of the goods stolen by the Basques. In return, his captors gave him the power of attorney to enable him to pursue the Basque pirates when he was back in Castile.


While fishing appears to have been regulated, there were also a range of illicit activities within the Hiberno-Castilian interface. A lawsuit pursued between a number of inhabitants from San Vicente de la Barquera in 1503 offers a window into this world of illegal activity.

The lawsuit refers to the loss of a number of small fishing-boats which had been leased to local Irish fishermen. No Irishmen are mentioned in the suit, only the Castilians who owned the vessels and those who were involved in leasing them. Although the leasing of vessels was illegal, it was apparently normal practice for Castilians to let their fishing-boats to the Irish. The document also notes that the fishing season ran from August to December. It was commonplace for fishermen to lease their boats to the Irish before returning to Castile for the winter months. The Irish used the boats over the winter and spring and returned them in the summer of the following year.

These ‘outlaw’ activities were not only beneficial for the Irish natives but also for the Castilians, helping them to generate extra income. From 1513 the Corregimiento—the name of the local civil court of San Vicente de la Barquera—began handling an increasing number of cases dealing with illegal maritime activity in Irish waters. In order to avoid punishment by the Corregimiento, many Castilians were ordained as priests during their time in Ireland. This meant that they could only be tried in an ecclesiastical court in Castile. It is estimated that up to two thirds of the Castilian seamen in Irish waters underwent this procedure. These new clergymen subsequently entered the lowest levels of the Castilian ecclesiastical administrations and were known as ‘crown priests’. The Corregimiento had no power over these developments and wrote several times to the royal authorities claiming that the procedure ‘usurps the royal jurisdiction’. Collectively, these facts underline the ability of Castilian mariners not only to navigate the complex waters of Hiberno-Castilian trade but also to overcome various legal obstacles.

Above: The fortress of San Vicente de la Barquera today.


The corpus of documentation surviving in Castilian archives demonstrates that Hiberno-Castilian relations extended beyond trade, encompassing a range of interpersonal relationships. Moreover, it is clear that trade between Castile and Ireland was not solely dictated by the main ports of Dublin and Waterford; Castilian merchants boasted a range of trading agreements with the Gaelic lords of the southern and western seaboards.

The sources suggest that while trade in the colonised part of Ireland was regulated by the English Crown, the relationships with the south-west were more informal and rooted in local conditions, but the lack of a governing institutional structure did not provide Castilian merchants with legal or juridical guarantees in case of conflict. In fact, the Irish attackers of 1515 were never punished for their actions. These loose legal circumstances often led the native Irish to take justice into their own hands, as did the captors of González de la Obra in 1487. Moreover, the practices of ship-leasing and priest-ordaining prove how both Irish and Castilians took advantage of these informal agreements in order to improve their personal situation within their respective local communities.

The lack of Irish documentation on trade in this period is offset by the rich Castilian archives and there are numerous avenues for further research. For instance, one possible area of exploration would be to compare how Castilian trade developed in both Gaelic Ireland and the colony. Furthermore, such a study could offer new insights into how the Castilians perceived Ireland and its inhabitants. In several documents, Castilian authorities use the expression ‘kingdom of Ireland’ (Reyno de Yrlanda), indicating on a few occasions that it was located ‘in the kingdom of England’ (que es en el Reyno de Inglaterra). Additionally, this research could help to understand how noble status in Ireland was perceived by Castilian authorities. In the documents written by San Vicente de la Barquera’s authorities, the local ruler of Beara, Domhnall Ó Súilleabháin, is referenced as caballero of the kingdom of Ireland, a word which in Spanish could mean both ‘gentleman’ or ‘knight’, as well as señor of Beara, which refers to the Hispanic medieval concept of ‘lord’ or ‘dominus’. Conversely, a study of mentalities could be used to ascertain Irish perceptions of Iberia: for instance, did the Irish distinguish between Basques, Cantabrians and Asturians? Or did they view them all as Castilians—or, indeed, as Spanish?

Gonzalo Franco-Ordovás is a Ph.D student at the University of Zaragoza.

Further reading

M.M. Barkham, ‘The Spanish Basque Irish fishery and trade in the sixteenth century’, History Ireland 9 (3) (2001).
M. Gardiner & T.E. McNeill, ‘Seaborne trade and the commercialisation of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Gaelic Ulster’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 116C (2016).
J.A. Rodríguez, ‘Inclusión y exclusión de los navegantes del Norte de Castilla en las sociedades portuarias irlandesas a finales de la Edad Media. Estudio de caso de San Vicente de la barquera y Laredo (España)’, in A.A. Andrade, C. Tente, G.M. da Silva & S. Prata (eds), Inclusão e exclusão na Europa urbana medieval / Inclusion and exclusion in medieval urban Europe (Lisbon, 2019).


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