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The Irish and Santiago de Compostela

by Turlough O’Donnell

“One needs an adequate account of the wandering priests and friars moving hither and thither between this country and the continent, suffering so deeply, striving so gallantly to keep the institutional side of the Church from utterly fading away.”

Daniel Corkery, The Hidden Ireland[1]


The Irish College at Santiago de Compostela[2]


One of the most important recommendations of the Council of Trent which ended in 1563 was that seminaries should be set up to train priests in Catholic countries.   The foundation of such seminaries in Ireland was impossible after the break with Rome by Henry VIII, the suppression and confiscation of the monasteries and the rigorous laws enforced by him and his successors.   In particular, the penal laws enacted by Henry VIII’s successors had a disastrous effect on Ireland.

The solution to the problem was to establish seminaries outside Ireland in Catholic kingdoms sympathetic to the Irish predicament such as France, Spain, Italy, and Portugal, and also in Poland, Bohemia and the Low Countries or Spanish Netherlands.[3]

The Irish College at Santiago was one of these colleges.   It was founded in 1605 to train priests for the “Mission” to Ireland as they called it.


The Irish College at Santiago was opened in 1605 as the Gaelic civilization in Ireland was collapsing and closed in 1767.

The students in the early years of the College were housed badly in a variety of rented dwellings one of which was in the Huertas quarter of the city.   In 1616 44 Rua Nova was rented and subsequently purchased in 1620 and it became the College’s permanent home from then onwards.

The garden at the rear of the College includes a statue of St Patrick to whom the College was dedicated.   It is suggested that the statue is the work of Mateo de Prado a noted 17th century sculptor.   Several Irish ex-patriate merchants were mentioned in the college ledger in 1667 as subscribing to the purchase of the statue.   At the top of the building is the royal escudo or coat of arms, surmounted by a crown which indicated royal protections for the college and its students.   On the opposite side of the street is the parish church, at number 27, of Santa María Salomé and interesting feature of which is the statue at the entrance of La virgen embarazada (The pregnant virgen).   On brief inspections in the last few years the statue and the escudo remain but the College was ultimately converted into a family home and is now in a pitiful state of repair.   It is not open to the public and is believed to be for sale.   Could the Irish State not purchase it and transform it as it has done in Leuven and in Paris?

The student’s day was long and followed that of a novice in the Jesuit order (for the most part of its history the College was run by the Jesuits).    They rose at 5.30 in winter and 4.30 in summer; mental prayer followed until mass at 6.30, then private study until leaving for classes.   The seminarians went there in twos.   On their return, the litany of the Virgin was recited before their main meal during which there was a reading from a spiritual work.    This was followed by a period of rest overseen by the superior or another father.    There was then a brief exposition on a moral theme or on the lives of the saints.   Later the students recited the rosary and read a spiritual work in private.   Classes came then or else private study, often followed by Scholastic debate.    Before supper the litanies of the saints were said and a short period of recreation and then a quarter of an hour for examination of conscience before retiring to bed.

Money seems always to have been in short supply.   Funding was provided by the Spanish Crown, Irish merchants in Spain and the students themselves.   Sometimes food was sent from Ireland and for example the records show from Ireland and other Irish in Bayona that ox-tongues and butter were sent.  There is mention of friends in Ireland sending three cow hides, a barrel of salted salmon, a large pot of butter and a small one and a dozen Irish cheeses.   There was very little money in circulation in Ireland at the time so the sending of quantities of food was a logical solution to the problem.   The food could be sold in the markets of Galicia.

With the suppression of the Jesuits the College closed in 1769 and this chapter in the relationship with Santiago ended.

But, what was kept alive in the College at Santiago for Ireland had at one time been kept alive in Ireland for the Continent.   Flood (Ireland :its saints and scholars) (as cited in O’Connell) describes as follows: “The sixth and seventh centuries of the Christian era must be regarded as the Golden Age of Ireland.   The story of our country during this period is one of the most glorious epochs in the history of European Christianity.    Learning became the handmaid of Faith and art and letters followed rapidly in the train of churches and monasteries ……. Armagh, Clonard, Durrow, Bangor and Clonmacnoise were at this time the Universities of the West and the great centres from which the spiritual life was once again to be renewed in Europe”.

Its nice to think of the Irish Colleges as a giving back by Europe for those years when Faith and learning was kept alive for Europe in Ireland.


Irish Visitors to Santiago[4]

The earliest reference we have to the Irish Pilgrimage to Santiago is in Archbishop Alen’s Register which notes that in 1216 or 1217 the Pope agreed to the union of the dioceses of Glendalough and Dublin on condition that funding be provided for a pilgrim hostal in Dublin for those travelling to Santiago.   It is not clear that the hostal was ever built.

There were two distinct strands to the medieval Irish pilgrimage.   The first phase was dominated by Anglo-Norman influence.    Indeed the very earliest pilgrims travelling from Ireland to Santiago who can be traced to documentary sources were Anglo-Norman officials from England whose careers brought them to Ireland such as Fulk de Sandford – Archbishop of Dublin  (1267) and William de Vescy (1276).   The earliest Norman was Richard de Burgh of Clonmel  (1222).    Fragmentary evidence suggests that the cult of St James was one of the cultural influences that Anglo-Norman settlers brought to Ireland.   At least some of the Anglo-Norman enthusiasm for the cult of St James the Great in Ireland may well have originated not with Santiago de Compostela but with Anglo-Norman settlers who knew about the shrine of the hand of St James at Reading Abbey in southern England.

In the fifteenth century the second phase begins when pilgrims from the Gaelic parts of Ireland as well as the Anglo-Normans start to go to Santiago.   The Maguires of Fermanagh were first:  Aodh Mág Uidhir (1428), Tomás Óg Mág Uidhir (1428 and his second pilgrimage was in 1430).  Tomás Óg was followed by the first Irish woman to be mentioned – Mairgréag an Einigh Ní Chearbhaill (Margaret O’Carroll) who travelled with her entourage in 1445.

The pilgrims did not go unnoticed in Spain.   In about 1474 García Alonso de Torres chronicler to King Ferdinand of Aragon was prompted to mention Ireland in the context of its Pilgrims:  “In the kingdom of Ireland (or Hibernia as others call it), the King of England is Lord.   It is an island and some say that it lies outside the seven climates and that the inhabitants live long….There is no bread on the island but livestock is abundant.   The people are simple, exceedingly handsome and good-looking and many of them frequent the jubilee pilgrimages to Santiago”. [5]


In 1602 Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill  (Red Hugh O’Donnell) accompanied by 25 others arrived at Santiago and Domhnall Cam Ó Suilleabháin Béarra (Donal Cam O’Sullivan) arrived in 1605, both as exiles and political refugees as much as pilgrims.


The fifteenth century marked the high point in the medieval pilgrimage from Gaelic Ireland to Santiago.   Some pilgrims from Gaelic Ireland may have found themselves in the same boat as pilgrims from different backgrounds.   Part of the experience of pilgrims was encountering other pilgrims on the way.


The heyday of the pilgrimage to Santiago lasted from the 12th to the early 16th centuries after which it went into steep decline.   Martin Luther dismissed the notion that pilgrimage offered a route to salvation and came to regard the veneration of St James of Compostela as idolatrous.   The era of the 16th century Reformation saw a marked reduction in pilgrimage to Santiago.  

Despite this decline some Irish pilgrims continued to make the journey in the 17th century but by the 19th century there were only a handful of pilgrims each year almost all drawn from the local archdiocese of Santiago.

There was a revival in the early years of the 20th Century and by the early 1990’s the Camino had become a popular destination from Ireland for sponsored walks the best-publicized being those organized as fund-raisers for the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Ireland some of the participants were among the founding members of the Irish Society of Friends of St James founded in 1992 and reconstituted as Camino Society Ireland CLG in 2015.

A note on Red Hugh O’Donnell and the connection with Spain

Red Hugh travelled to Spain after the defeat at the battle of Kinsale to elicit support from the King of Spain.   He arrived in Santiago: “where he was received with magnificence by the prelates, citizens, and religious persons, and his lodgings were made ready for him at St Martins (San Martin Pinario?)…..  The nine and twentieth (January 1602) the Archbishop saying Mass with pontificall solemnity , did minister the Sacrament to O'Donnell, which done he feasted him to dinner in his house…..”[6]

Part of the reason for the enthusiastic reception might have been the myth shared by the Spanish and the Irish that Ireland was seen by Íth the son of Breogan from Breogan’s tower in A Coruna and that the sons of Breogan sailed from there to conquer Ireland from the Tuatha de Danaan.   So when O’Donnell landed at A Coruna he went to visit Breogan’s tower.   “It gave him much satisfaction to land there , for he thought it a great omen of success that he should have come to the place from which his ancestors  had obtained sway over Ireland formerly, and that he should have returned in their footsteps.” Emphasis added.[7]







A Statue of Breogan exists in A Coruna near Breogan’s tower – (the lighthouse).


The myth (if myth it is!) was a functional myth actively promoted as part of the Grand Project at Leuvan/Louvain because it allowed the Irish Chieftains to say that they were the same race as the Spanish and to assimilate into positions of power in Spanish society which is what happened.[8]


Turlough O’Donnell


[1] As cited in Patricia O’Connell’s outstanding work, The Irish College at Santiago de Compostela 1605-1769 Published by Four Courts Press

[2] Nearly all of this is taken from Patricia O’Connell’s book and her very words used.

[3] English and Scottish colleges were also founded on the Continent for the same purposes as the Irish establisments

[4] All of this section was taken from Bernadette Cunningham’s brilliant book: Medieval Irish Pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela Four Courts Press ISBN 978-1-84682-729-7 and her very words were used.

[5] Cited in Óscar Recio Morales, Ireland and the Spanish empire, 1600-1825 (Dublin,2010)p35 as cited in Bernadette Cunningham’s book at p148

[6] (Stafford), Pacta Hibernia, p479 as cited in Bernadette Cunningham’s book at page 155

[7] Life of Red Hugh O’Donnell p323 (Dublin) 1893 translation by the Rev Denis Murphy SJ

[8] The other parts of the Grand Project were to petition Rome to make St Patricks day a feast of the universal Catholic Church and to collect the history of Ireland from the old houses which was then written up as the Annals of the Four Masters.   The Grand Project demonstrates a great fear that Gaelic Ireland was about to be lost forever.

Breogan's Tower A Coruna
Statue of St Patrick 2.jpg
St Patrick's Statue in the Irish College Santiago
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