Ireland & Spain

Published in Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 2001), News, Volume 9

The historic links between Spain and Ireland are intellectual, economic, political, religious and especially military. However there are no racial or genetic links. The Gaelic Irish we can categorically state do not have Spanish origins. When the Lebor Gabála Érenn—the Book of Invasions—was composed as an integrative myth for the peoples of Ireland with the Gaels top-dogs, its scholarly creators latched onto geographical ideas emanating from the other great intellectual fulcrum of early Christian Europe, Visigothic Spain. In this origin myth the sons of King Milesius of Spain (Míl Espáine) became the ‘Milesians’, the founders of the all-conquering Gaels of Ireland.
During the Middle Ages trade links between Spain and Ireland flourished. Iron and wine were shipped to Ireland and hides and fish to Spain. Many Irish went as pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia; a bolder few travelled in the other direction to St Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg, County Donegal. These carrying trades were boosted by association with the growing Spanish/ Basque exploitation of Ireland’s maritime fishery from the Late Middle Ages. Gaelic Irish lords on the west coast taxed and protected this fishery.
In the sixteenth century the relationship became political. The Gaelic Irish under pressure from the advancing English conquest sought alliance with Catholic Spain, the leading power of the day, who in turn recognised Ireland as a strategically-sited back door to England. In a sense the Armada of 1588 had not been a complete failure. In spite of the drowning and execution of thousands of Spaniards on Irish shores, the event had demonstrated to the Irish the high level of Spanish commitment against England. A Spanish Armada finally disembarked in 1601. Too little, too late. O’Neill and O’Donnell having marched the length of Ireland committed themselves to an unnecessary pitched battle at the urging of the Spaniards inside the walls of Kinsale. The Spaniards evacuating Kinsale denounced their allies as a barbarous undisciplined rabble. Though Ireland was lost to the Irish; the Irish weren’t lost to Spain. Its depleted armies and military aristocracy needed replenishment.
The Irish themselves played the Milesian card. They renovated the old myth to emphasise Spanish origins and ultimately to gain citizenship. O’Donnell, when he first wrote seeking Spanish assistance, claimed his ancestors came from Cantabria and when he arrived in Coruña from the defeat at Kinsale he was taken to visit the Tor Bregon. Irish regiments were established in Spanish service and aristocratic hauteur, pure blood and religious orthodoxy provided their commanders with a ready entry into the Spanish governing class via the military orders. Ireland provided Spain with prime ministers in Alejandro O’Reilly in the eighteenth and Leopoldo O’Donnell in the nineteenth century. Other Irish fought in Spain’s American empire—some to build and maintain it but others to contest it and ultimately dismantle it. Spain also gave back to Ireland. Most notably it trained Catholic priests in the Irish colleges to return to Ireland to fortify the faith when none could be trained at home.
Irish Catholics had the opportunity to return the favour at the time of the Spanish Civil War when many volunteered for and many more contributed money to General Franco’s Nationalist cause. A smaller number of Irish Republicans and Socialists went to fight for the beleaguered Spanish Republic in what they too saw as a war to save civilisation. It is an interesting twist of historical memory that modern, secular Ireland now finds their minority cause the more compelling!
Today many Spaniards come to Ireland to study and many Irish who holiday abroad head for Spain. Both countries pursuing their particular paths in Europe have many problems in common and for comparison. These include issues of economic expansion, environment, immigration, fisheries and the respective peace processes in Northern Ireland and the Basque Country.

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