In a box in the archives of the National University of Ireland Galway, there is a bundle of yellowed letters dating from 1935 to 1936 about a mysterious Galway man who sailed with Columbus on his first voyage to the west in 1492.
It seems that in 1935 a Chicago-based organization named the Guillermo Herries League enlisted the help of historians, librarians and scholars, in a bid to prove that this Irishman had in fact discovered America before Columbus. They hoped to name a new bridge after this brave Irish explorer, but unfortunately their hopes were never realized.
The Irishman in question was recorded in the Spanish navy records as Guillermo Herries, an unlikely name for an Irishman you might think, and you’d be right. Perhaps, if he had been known by William Harris rather than the Portuguese translation of his name, then he would be better known in Irish history. Surely every Irish child should learn that an Irishman was part of the famous voyage of the Nina, the Pinta and Santa Maria.
To this day St Nicholas’ Church in Galway is known to have been visited by Columbus in 1477 and it was supposedly here that Guillermo met Columbus and inspired him with tales of lands to the west that he had visited himself.
The legend of Saint Brendan’s voyage were said to have provided extra fuel for Columbus’ dreams. It is certainly not impossible that Guillermo could have reached America before 1492 as Leif Erikson and his band of Norsemen had already discovered America 500 years beforehand. Tim Severin’s reenactment of St. Brendan’s voyage proved that the 6th century monk may have even reached America centuries before that. So why not Guillermo? Unfortunately, the voyage of 1492 was to be his last.
Guillermo’s name can be seen on the list of 38 people left behind on what is now modern day Haiti to form the first European settlement in the New World. Although the Galway man lived in peace with the natives for a time, by Christmas of 1492 the locals rebelled and the entire garrison is believed to have been slaughtered. However, in the records of the Guillermo Herries League, a rumor persists of a daring escape in the pinnace of the Santa Maria by the Irishman and several others to the coast of Mexico, where they were shipwrecked near the mouth of the Mississippi river, in the vicinity of the present day city of New Orleans.
Despite the hopes of the league that championed his name, Herries never did provide the name for the new bridge in Chicago and the honor went to Leif Erikson. The facts, fiction and mysteries of this little-known Irish explorer remain in the archives of Galway University and, although we may never know how Guillermo died, we can be proud of the fact that he was part of such a significant event in world history.
* Originally published February 2013.