Kate O’Brien and Spain: a dialogue with History

By Chary Panes (2010)

miércoles 22 de octubre de 2014, 11:21h
Kate O’Brien and Spain: a dialogue with History

Farewell Spain. This is the title of one of Kate O’Brien’s books. Personally, I do not like farewells (unless they are absolutely necessary) and I don’t know what to make of Spain most of the time. So, from the outset, this seemed to be an appealing book to read. The first person who mentioned this book to me was José Antonio Sierra (former director of the Instituto Cervantes in Dublin). He is quite a connoisseur of her life and writings and has been the driving force behind initiatives to make her name be better known in Spain and Ireland. He recommended me to read Farewell Spain, and so I followed his advice.


Kate O’Brien was born in Limerick (1897). She became a well-known Irish writer after the publication of her first play, Distinguished Villa, in 1926. The first time she stepped onto Spanish territory was in 1922, when she arrived to work as a governess for the Areilza family in Bilbao. From that moment on, she felt somehow linked to an “unexpected Spain”, linked incomprehensibly deep down inside, as only true lovers remain together: she fell in love immediately with the Spain she found, not the tourist Spain of red geraniums, clicking castanets and blazing sun, but Northern Basque Spain (…) with a climate rather like that of Ireland.[i]

Farewell Spain was written at the early stages of the Spanish Civil War, in 1937,[ii] and this is how she described the situation: Toledo shot to bits, Burgos a seat of war, the Guadarramas a battlefield. Ortega, the bullfighter, was shot the other day. Bombs were falling on Atocha Station, perilously near the Prado. The tourists find their beverages undrinkable, and go to bed. But though depressed they believe, since that is the easier thing to do, that they will see their love again.[iii]

This is not a typical travel book, one of those in which one can find nice comments on the places described, as this book breaks the thin frontier between the writer and the person who feels: “I’m going to take you on my own journey, she says, and narrate in oratio recta all that I remember of Spain and desire to see again”.[iv] This is, I think, the heart of the matter, what she can remember, that turns it into some sort of a personal diary, in which objective impressions get mixed with feelings. Objective/subjective are terms that lose their strength in this work, to merge into a reality that is interpreted by a first person, who is –as she herself tells us- fickle.[v]

Kate O’Brien starts her journey in Santander, “a plain-faced, sober town of decent importance and integrity”, where she becomes familiar with some characters, such as a journalist from Zaragoza or a lighthouse-keeper, Don Ángel… They won’t be the only people she meets during her travels through Spain; quite the opposite. There will be an unknown person awaiting her in each of the cities and towns she visits, waiting to reveal the insights of the Spanish character, but also the insights of Kate O’Brien herself, as sometimes they will be just excuses for her to speak freely about the political situation in those years: I’m not a Communist, but I believe in the Spanish Republic and its Constitution, and I believe in that Republic’s absolute right to defend itself against military Juntas, the Moors and all interfering doctrinaires and mercenaries. And naturally I believe, as one must, in the Spanish Republic’s right to establish itself communistically, if that is the will of the Spanish people. A very large ‘if’ with which only Spain itself can deal.[vi] No wonder after the publication of this book she was banned from Spain until 1972.

On her way, she wanders through the streets of Asturias, Santiago, Salamanca, Ávila, Madrid, Alcalá de Henares, El Escorial, Segovia, Burgos and Bilbao. I can imagine her wandering in a distracted way (harmless sentimental wanderings, she’d say), pretending just to pass by, letting the brownish Castilian buildings talk through the silence of a glance, feeling Spain with the knowledge of a writer and the bare intensity of the last day. 

She loved Spain: “Fatal attraction between persons is an old poets’ notion that some of us still like to believe is possible and occasional, though not probable- and Spain seems to me to be the femme fatal among countries”. Sometimes a farewell is just an exercise in escapism, sometimes it’s just a short trip before returning, but what we can be sure of is that when we say good-bye, when we say good-bye to someone we care about, we suddenly find ourselves drenched in unbearable memories: “All that we can do, the lazy and helpless, is lull ourselves with remembering. Had we the power truly to set down our memories, how noble you should be praised.(…) I shall remember always a million things not set down in this book or anywhere- moments and places without name or date, but filled with your light and arched forever by your incomparable sky.”[vii]


[i] Lorna Reynolds quoted by Dr. José Antonio de Yturriaga at the Opening address of the Kate O’Brien weekend on the 24th of February, 1989 in Limerick).

[ii] A homage to Charlie Donnelly was held in Madrid a couple of weekends ago. He was part of the International Brigades and died the same year (1937).

[iii] Kate O’Brien: Farewell Spain. London: Viarago/Beacon Travelers, 2006. Pg. 11.

[iv] Ibídem, pg. 21

[v] Ibídem, pg. 227

[vi] Ibídem, pg 123

[vii] Ibídem, pg. 226-227


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