1930s Santander Through Irish Eyes

I get my fair share of visits from friends and family – and really enjoy seeing the city of Santander through their eyes. In fact, most of these blogposts are inspired by questions or observations from my out-of-towners. When one such visitor told me that I’d missed a great Kate O’Brien (1897-1974) Literary Weekend last month, I sought solace in my copy of her 1937 travel book ‘Farewell Spain’. Not only was it a great read again – I love the Irish writer’s fascination with Spain, “a land we care for uncritically”, but this journal of her time in Santander and the North of Spain in the mid-1930s struck me as an interesting way to present the city I never knew. So I’ve allowed her set of eyes and her words to document the city as she saw it in 1935. There are few in a position to criticise her viewpoint. (If you can, please get in touch.) For the rest of us, let’s enjoy her thoughts on travel, on Santander, and on life.

Let me quickly give you some context to the book. It’s a “plaiting together” of a number of trips taken by the writer during the mid-1930s. From her home in London, she weaves these trips into one, based on her recollections rather than diaries. Her decision to write a book of this nature at this time shows her as an independent-minded and gutsy individual – which indeed she was. The title of the publication and the premise of this book as a whole is to say farewell to democratic Spain. Although it could be interpreted as latching on to a cause to get herself some exposure, and this cause was certainly a concern in literary circles at the time – when you read the book you realise that her adoration for Spain and her outrage at the Civil War is the only motivation. Although it was written 77 years ago, as you read her words, you sense her fear for the direction the Civil War is taking.

Pamela Cahill Kate O'Brien Plaza Pombo Plaza Libertad Santander 1930s

What we now call Plaza Pombo which is filled with cafes, children’s carousels and a bandstand. Air-raid defences in the Plaza de la Libertad. Photographer: Pablo Isidro Duomarco. Taken 1936. Victor del Campo Cruz Collection. © Centro de Documentación de la Imagen de Santander. Ayuntamiento de Santander

But let’s talk about the travelling first before we get to choked up in the history.

The Art of Turismo

Before we even step off the ferry at Santander, Kate O’Brien has declared herself to be an escapist and a sentimental traveller. No, she’s not looking for pretty sunsets. I take it to mean that she looks to connect with others emotionally while abroad. She describes how a traveller’s enemy is his or her pre-conception of where they are travelling and says that these preconceived ideas of a place must be dismantled if they have any chance of getting to know a country. To do this, she says, you need time (ideally more than a fortnight), some Spanish, you must be “well prepared in advance with real information” and have “no obstinate pre-conception of Spain”. I have to say I agree with all of this.

Kate O’Brien paints a picture of why an open mind should be on everybody’s list along with your passport and toothbrush when she describes the average couple’s trip abroad: “Their twelve days depend entirely on their personalities. If they have initiative and can somewhat control self-consciousness they will find that at the end of those days they have in fact done a number of interesting things, and discovered a segment of Spain to replace their fantasy one. If they are merely observant people, not hedged by prejudice, again they will have learnt much and will have been entertained by that best of spectacles anywhere for the good looker-on – normal life, human life, being normally lived by people whose customs and characteristics are fresh to our eyes, but whose natures are not alarmingly varied from our own. But initiative and powers of deliberation are not necessarily the two things we infallibly pack.”

By way of example, she praises her fellow countrymen Harry and his wife from Dublin with whom she coincided on her stay in Santander. Harry  “got on well with the Spaniards, and it was pleasant to see how far in gay understanding that man could go with the five or six words he bothered to learn.” She was rather proud of this couple’s initiative – going to the Casino, Pedrosa, Solares, learning to drink wine from a ‘porron’ by men in overalls and going to a ‘romeria’ in a village in the mountains. (I’m quite impressed myself to tell the truth!) Kate O’Brien went with them to their and her first bullfight. Harry, for those of you why might be interested, didn’t like it – his wife was enthralled. Kate O’Brien was “interested and perplexed”.

Out and About in 1930s Santander

As I do when anybody asks me about visiting Santander, Kate O’Brien begins by preparing the reader for the Northern climate – comparing it to Devon and Kerry. In Santander, she says in her intro, it’s “very likely to be raining cats and dogs“. Now, as any member of my family will tell you – it doesn’t rain that much. I was strangely relieved when I turned a few pages and found the weather was thankfully “fine and hot“. But I’m certainly with her in believing that it’s better to undersell Santander’s climate – just in case it is raining when a person arrives.

Pamela Cahill Kate O'Brien Santander 1930s Calvo Sotelo

Don’t the trams look brilliant? This is on a stretch that is now called Calvo Sotelo. You can just make out the post office on the right. La Ribera, Santander. Photographer: Fuertes A. Taken 1926-1935. Victor del Campo Cruz. © Centro de Documentación de la Imagen de Santander. Ayuntamiento de Santander

Pamela Cahill Kate O'Brien Santander 1930s

I had to scratch my head quite a bit to work out where this was taken because the street names have changed and the church to the right of the town hall has been consumed by the town hall itself. Plaza de Pi y Maragall & The Town Hall. Photographer: GH Alsina. Taken 1935. Victor del Campo Cruz Collection. © Centro de Documentación de la Imagen de Santander. Ayuntamiento de Santander

Pamela Cahill Kate O'Brien 1930s old squares Santander

This square was later renamed to the Plaza Vieja and burned down in the 1941 fire so don’t come looking for it now. Plaza del 14 de Abril, Santander. Photographer: GH Alsina. Taken 1935. Victor del Campo Cruz Collection. © Centro de Documentación de la Imagen de Santander. Ayuntamiento de Santander

If I ask myself whether Kate O’Brien liked the city, I would have to say ‘yes’ but I think she was confounded by it. I think she was cautious about recommending it because in addition to the climate (or because of it) the city was (and still is) quite different to most people’s image of Spain – and therefore requires an extra helping of that on which she spoke above – an open mind.

It’s true that her description of the city as “a plain-faced, sober town of decent importance and integrity” does seem very cold. She warms slightly in her description by adding “its landscape is green, fertile and homely-seeming”. You’ll have to decide whether you agree with her descriptions by looking at the images from the 1930s. I suppose there’s a lot worse than being plain-faced and homely-seeming.

She does give a lovely description of her ship’s arrival into the port as the morning mist is “plumming up from the sleepy dark hills behind Pedrosa“. But she follows it quickly with a less charitable comment about the Palacio de la Magdalena Palace or “Alfonso XIII’s ugly palace” on the right as she calls. Gulp. Not that many people have called it ugly. (Perhaps I need to read up on this and see how it was perceived at the time…)

Santander 1930s Kate O'Brien Pamela Cahill

This space looks completely different now  – it’s the site for the new Botin Centre. And even before that, it bears no resemblance. Are those chauffeurs waiting beside the cars or husbands waiting for their wives? You can see a ship in the port just behind Plaza Alfonso XIII or as it was known then – Avenida de Galan y Garcia Hernandez, Santander. Photographer unknown. 1933. Victor del Campo Cruz Collection. © Centro de Documentación de la Imagen de Santander. Ayuntamiento de Santander

Pamela Cahill Kate O' Brien Magdalena Palace Santander 1930s

This image shows the ruggedness of the gardens . The trees are very young also. The Magdalena Palace (former Royal Residence). Photographer: Lucien Roisin Besnard. Taken 1931-1940. Victor del Campo Cruz Collection. y © Centro de Documentación de la Imagen de Santander. Ayuntamiento de Santander

Maybe it’s a little optimistic on my part but I like to think that she is concerned about those who may choose to holiday in Santander, feeling more at ease and a lot less responsible when her fellow travellers go to Potes, Burgos, Altamira or San Vicente de la Barquera. She is uneasy about recommending this place.

A Keen Eye for Characters

If she is a little unsure about the city, she is more decisive about the residents of Santander. “The people, bred between mountains and shore, have largely the sanity such breeding gives, and its courage. They speak good Castillian, they are courteous, humorous and kind; and they and their regime are muy español, they would say.” I can’t fault any of that.

I really enjoy when she describes exchanges, usually awkward, between the Santanderinos and those visiting. She writes of an English couple being very confused by a boy selling biscuits in a red-painted barrel with a brass handle. (BTW I’m on the lookout for a decent photo of one of this ‘barquillo’ boxes). Thankfully they are cheered up by a wonderful dinner with a bottle of red Rioja and drink liquers “as they watch lights flicker from sardine boats on the bay“. (Brace yourselves for a post about these sardine boats or ‘traineras’ soon as I row in one most weekends.)

She does love to observe the locals going about their business. I get the feeling that she enjoyed sitting at cafes taking in what was going on around her. She gives a lovely insight into everyday life when she visits the new cinema in Santander (would that be the Coliseum?) where “they break the movie in the middle and let you buy delicious ices from pretty little boys.” She continues, “there’s a shadowy cafe-place in that cinema, with a fountain and with vast sofas on which novios whisper to their marvellously lacquered queridas, their sweeties, who were all blondes, oddly enough, when I was around.”

She allows these observational skills to illustrate the political minefield in which she finds herself. Her description of a conversation between an anarchist and a journalist at the lighthouse paints a helpful picture  – without her having to sound-off on politics or history. Incidentally, I think this conversation really rattled her because she gives no mention of the views from the top of Cabo Mayor – which must have been staggeringly beautiful.

And in between the clumsiness of the travellers and the conflict between the residents, there are some lovely light touches  – for example – she refers to Consuelo at her hotel, as “the most beautiful chambermaid who ever held a duster“. And her descriptions of the waiters and porters throughout the book are very tender.

Pamela Cahill Kate O' Brien Sardinero Beach 1930s

Wonderful photo showing how undeveloped the far side of  the Sardinero area was. And the windbreakers or changing cubicles were quite nice too! If you go today, you’ll still see lots of people walking the water’s edge. The Three Beaches of the Sardinero: La Concha, Primera Playa and Playa Castañeda. Photographer: Lucien Roisin Besnard. Taken between 1925 & 1932. The Victor del Campo Cruz Collection. © Centro de Documentación de la Imagen de Santander. Ayuntamiento de Santander

Pamela Cahill Kate O'Brien Sardinero Concha beaches 1930s

And from the other side – you can also appreciate how under-grown the Magdalena parkland was and how visible the Palace was then. It’s much more overgrown now. San Roque church on the top right was damaged during the Civil War and was knocked and re-built on a different site. [Correction – the building to the right of centre is the Restaurante Miramar. See Comments on this post below for more details] The Primera Playa and the Concha Beach, Sardinero. Photographer: Lucien Roisin Besnard. Taken 1930-1936. Victor del Campo Cruz Collection. © Centro de Documentación de la Imagen de Santander. Ayuntamiento de Santander

Little Time for the Royals, their Fans and the Season

Kate O’Brien might be able to tolerate a local preference for a hair-style amongst the residents but is much less sympathetic of the traveller that might choose a hotel in the fashionable seaside suburbs of the Sardinero. This area, “discovered by Alfonso XIII some years ago” was still in “summer-holiday vogue” in the mid-1930s. I don’t think she liked either the Anglo-influx to the city, thanks to Alfonso’s wife, the English Reina Victoria, or the affectations acquired locally as a result of the royal family’s presence. She seems to sneer at both when writing about one of her fellow-travellers who is wearing plus-fours which “will please the local señoritos, who have a fancy at present for that unfortunate kind of trouser.” One hundred years on, there is still a bit of an Anglo-look in the shops and on the streets but I’m not sure whether that dates back to this period or not. I must do some reading around this subject.

The writer finds the concentration of activity into a few weeks of the summer (known as the season) completely exasperating. She describes how annoying the season can be with a cruelly accurate and brilliant scene I have witnessed here so often: “And if you sit on the breezy terrace, pouring pale tea, if you marvel aloud at the empty bandstand, the forsaken beach, it may turn out that your grave-faced waiter had lived in Chicago, and can explain to you that the season is not yet, oh, not for many weeks – you have come too soon. (You are always too soon for the season in the Cantabrian holiday resorts.)… A pity the señores came so soon.”

She did stay in town long enough to see the ‘season’ in full swing and praises her theatre experience in Santander. The city plays host to the country’s top companies that re-locate north “when Madrid grows too hot to be profitable to the players“. She has less praise for the ‘zarzuelas’ or musical comedies that also decamped. Her attendance at a bullfight tells me that she was here for the Feria de Santiago in the highest of the high season.

The Onward Journey

By the end of the chapter on Santander – which I’ve just realised she called Peevishness (meaning cross, irritated or obstinate), she loses her patience with the city, calls it “unexceptional” and complains about “that confounded bandstand. There’s no denying that Spaniards are wolves for noise.” I think she is bored with the ‘season’ and keen to get on her way. From Santander she goes to Santillana, La Montaña’s “lost jewel” and she stops in Altamira also. And then she goes on – to Covadonga, Coruña, Santiago de Compostela, Salamanca, Avila, Madrid, El Escorial, Segovia, Burgos and Bilbao. She finishes her journey with us in this book in Irun, on the border with France.

The Farewell

The last chapter is very melancholic. In it she analyses the future for Spain, teasing out every potential outcome and what it might mean. Too afraid to contemplate General Franco’s success, she dwells on the challenges for Spain should the Republican side win. Agreeing the negative impact to individualism and spiritual freedom that Communism would bring, she says “it seems unlikely that the regimentation of Russian communism could work at all in Spain. Given half a chance, with time and luck the Peninsula will perhaps resolve into a loosely-linked federation of small democratic states, all governed for external purposes from a centre, but internally run on regional, distributive principles.” (Isn’t that sort of what is in place now?)

She goes on to explains her love for Spain “the femme fatale among countries…My love has been long and slow – lazy and selfish too…Though Ireland is as beautiful as any country on earth, I am native to her and therefore cannot feel the novel thrill of her attraction. One does not mix up the love one feels for a parent with the infatuations of adult life. And with Spain I am once and for all infatuated.”

The book closes with these four words: “goodbye, and (curiously because it was more associated with the Falange) Arriba España!

Persona Non Grata 1937-1957

As you would expect, the writer did not have any friends within the new regime and two decades passed without her setting foot on Spanish soil. Of course, Kate O’Brien was no stranger to censorship. The Irish Censorship Board had already banned her 1936 novel ‘Mary Lavelle’ and would later ban her 1941 novel ‘The Land of Spices’ for immorality – a classification that wasn’t infrequently applied to domestic and international literature in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s in Ireland. Kate O’Brien did return to Spain from 1957 onwards for a number of occasions but died in 1974 before Franco’s passing and the subsequent transition to democracy. My copy of ‘Farewell Spain’ includes a touching introduction by the writer’s friend Mary O’Neill dated 1984 in which she reproduces an article by Kate O’Brien. It had been published in the Irish Times in 1969 and welcomed the idea of a return to monarchy in Spain. As usual Kate O’Brien didn’t mince her words: “any bit of a King, however expensive, is infinitely less of a mischief than a non-stop dictator“.

If you are interested in the censorship of Kate O’Brien’s work in both Spain and Ireland, I came across an in-depth article by Marisol Morales Ladron published in 2010 which is an interesting read. You should also read the article from the Limerick Leader ‘Self Censorship is the New Battle‘ by Man Booker Prize winner, Irish writer Anne Enright at this year’s Festival.


As I walk about the city centre in 2014, I ask myself what Kate O’Brien would say about Santander now. So much has changed since 1936. A decent section of the mediaeval city was wiped out by the fire in 1941 for starters. And the tramlines were taken up by 1953. The ‘new’ cinema is gone too. And considering the population has doubled if not tripled since then, the human footprint has left its mark by way of apartment blocks, roads, shops, offices and the streets are full of cars. And you won’t find many fishermen at the wharf in front of Paseo de Pereda – they’ve been moved to a new dock.

The city isn’t completely unrecognisable though. Some of the tall miradored houses she wrote about are still here. And the lighthouse, the casino, the bullring, and the monuments to writers Concha Espina and Pereda – they’re all still here. The beaches are too (although the recent storms have battered the coastline). Alfonso XIII’s palace is still overlooking the bay – it’s open to the public now – the present royal family holiday in Mallorca. And the shrimps – which “are almost de rigueur with aperitifs” – are still in demand in practically every bar and restaurant in the city.

Pamela Cahill Kate O'Brien Farewell Spain Santander

Alfonso XIII’s palace is still the first landmark when you arrive by boat as Kate O’Brien did.

Pamela Cahill Kate O'Brien Santander Piquio beach

This park (unchanged) overlooking the beach gets a mention – it’s called Jardines de Piquio. As you can see, it’s not peak season as the beach is extremely empty

Pamela Cahill Kate O'Brien Santander lighthouse

The lighthouse stands as it did in Kate O’Brien’s time. There’s a memorial beside it,  that today, remembers all those who lost their lives in the Civil War. The writer  climbed up as far as the light but didn’t give any details of the views – she was distracted by a conversation

Pamela Cahill Kate O'Brien miradores Santander city Farewell Spain

Some of the miradored buildings that Kate O’Brien highlighted in her travel book are still here! Pity the tramlines were taken up though…

Curiously the ‘season’ still exists although the Ryanair flights are bringing in more year-round traffic. The season no longer commands any royal patronage but the four weeks of July and the first two in August are still when the place really comes to life. That’s when the Madrileños come to the coast and the restaurants, bars and beaches are full to capacity. The festival hall is bursting with performances, the bullring is busy, there are queues to get into the carparks and the streets are thronged. It’s both exciting and annoying for the year-round residents – who I suppose you could describe as being a little peevish when it gets to the middle of August. I’ll forgive her for the ‘peevish’ title then, I suppose.

Want To Read or See More?

I have to praise the great work at CDIS – the Centre for Image Documentation in Santander. It is brimming with great images and friendly helpful staff. They have been encharged with the work from some of the great photographers of the period – so if you are looking for some interesting old shots of the city, you can pick images such as the ones here for a couple of euro. Browsing their archive is a fantastic way to learn about the history of the city. I expect to be a frequent visitor.

If you’d like to learn more about Kate O’Brien, go to the festival website or check out the shelves at O’Mahony’s bookstore in Limerick which stocks the writer’s work and that of the speakers at this year’s event.

Pamela Cahill Kate O'Brien Farewell Spain Santander ferry

Here I am re-reading my copy of  ‘Farewell Spain’ on a bench outside the post-office with a ferry in the background…

Where next?

I’m interested in learning more about the years the royal family holidayed in Santander and the family’s influence on the city so I’ll do a bit of reading up about that and bring you the fruits of that here sometime. But more immediately, I’m going to order a few more books by Kate O’Brien. And I fancy taking some inspiration from ‘Farewell Spain’ and going over to Santillana – the lost jewel – perhaps with my next set of out-of-towners. For now though – it’s a farewell from me.


  1. netocrata · · Reply

    Fantástico artículo Pam, muy bien documentado! una vez mas 🙂

    1. Thanks Miguel. Me alegro muchísimo 🙂

  2. Pamela

    I thoroughly enjoyed the old photographs and I understand why Kate O’Brien was ambiguous about Santander. Her attitude to Franco may have been coloured by her first stay in Spain which she spent with a Basque family as a governess/tutor.


    1. Thanks Tony! Good point. It’s true that she started out in the Basque Country as a governess – I agree it would have been a factor but I think her opposition to General Franco was more about principles. When Kate O’Brien sided with the Republicans, she saw herself as defending her belief in democracy. And I think there was an emotional element as well – she was defending the Spain she first met. A Spain that she knew would never be the same again – whatever the outcome and wherever in Spain she would travel to – be that in the Basque Country or Santander or Avila. Glad you liked the photos. There’s lots more where they came from…

  3. This is my favourite post til now, congratulations! I´m sure that it took you a lot of time.
    Just let me make a comment about that last old picture (#62). La ermita de San Roque was not damaged during the Civil war, but demolished on purpose in 1936 (http://www.eldiariomontanes.es/pg060617/prensa/noticias/Sociedad/200606/17/DMO-TEL-137.html)

    Thank you and keep writing 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for your positive comments Borja. It’s a bit more literary and the subject matter a lot older than most of my previous posts. I’m glad you enjoyed it. And I really appreciate your correction about the Ermita de San Roque – complete with link 🙂

      1. By the way, your blog is great Borja. If a picture paints a thousand words, your images give that and more…I recommend people check it out on http://www.fusionestemporales.com

      2. Thank you very much Pamela, I´ve been taking these photos for years, and much more are coming. I moved my old blog to a new site, made some changes… btw I´ve linked your blog in mine, I love knowing how we, the santanderinos, are seen by foreigners and I like sharing your perspective about us.

      3. Thanks – it’s great to know there’s support from fellow bloggers in the city…

  4. Pamela, You paint a lovely picture of Spain both through Kate O’Brien’s eyes and your own.
    I adore ‘bred between the mountains and shore’. It reminds me of the inbreeding that happened(s) in Tasmania! Have just listened to an audio book whilst gardening called ‘Golden Earrings’, written by Belinda Alexandra. It is set partially in Spain. The story is a bit disjointed: set first off in Paris amongst the Spanish ’emigre´ community, and then re-lives why the grandmother left Spain.(Skipping backwards and forewards…) Loved your photos! I shall share your post with some other bloggers!
    with love, Barbara

    1. Thanks Barbara. I have to admit that I thought Kate O’Brien was referring to in-breeding when I first read that line about the sea and the mountains too. But on re-reading it, and because she doesn’t refer to it again, either directly or indirectly, I think she must have meant it positively – as in ‘how wonderful it was to have both mountains and coastline’.

      Before I have any Santanderinos taking insult – I’d better explain that Santander has been a busy port town since the 13th century when it served as a hub for most of Castille and much more recently was one of the main ports for trade with the Americas. And at the turn of the 20th century its beaches and baths attracted tourism en masse. So there must have been a continuous injection of new blood into the mix. (If anybody has any more info on this I’d be happy to read it…)

      I love the plot for ‘Golden Earrings’ – it sounds like a great read. I’ll order a copy. Thanks so much for your comment and support Barbara ☺

  5. Ciara O'Sullivan · · Reply

    Lovely piece, evocative, beautifully written, urging me to read Kate and head to Santander before ‘the season’

    1. Thanks for the lovely comment Ciara. Santander welcomes the ladies of Limerick (and their families) both in and out of season in 2014 🙂

  6. Pamela, am sure you are right! Thanks for your response. It must be a wonderful place to live. I hope you get lots of interest. Xx

    1. Victoria (and Tasmania) sound like pretty amazing places too XX

  7. neluco · · Reply

    It is so nice to see my town through the eyes of a foreigner. Your documentation efforts are amazing, I am learning a lot learning your posts. Greetings from a Santanderino that lives far, far away from ‘la Tierruca’.

    1. Thanks so much for such kinds words. It’s surprising and lovely to know that quite a few of my readers are Santanderinos. I’m really enjoying learning about your home city – peeling back the layers is great fun. Thanks for commenting and all the best to you wherever you are!

      1. I look forward to more posts and learn new things about Santander. Reading your blog helps to fight homesickness when you are in a place so far and so different from there like in my case. Cheers!

      2. Glad to hear that the blog has a soothing effect – maybe you should write one yourself. It’s a brilliant way to explore and learn 🙂

  8. Just corrected the labelling in one of the photos above. I had called something the San Roque church when it was the Restaurante Miramar which was built in 1910 and knocked down around 1936. I am much indebted to a great number of Santanderinos who share their knowledge and time. Thanks for the correction P. Now I have another building I want to learn more about 🙂

  9. A quick update following a trip to Limerick in Ireland last weekend. In July, on the back of this blogpost and my fondness for all things relating to Kate O’Brien, I was asked to write an article about the Limerick writer for the ‘Even the Olives were Bleeding’ memorial event honouring six Limerickmen who died in the Spanish Civil War. I sent in the piece about ‘Farewell Spain’ in August and was very pleased to pick up a few copies of the book ‘From the Shannon to the Ebro’ last weekend. The memorial unveiled at the Civic Offices on Merchants Quay is a beautiful piece of stonework by Simon Donnelly which is well worth a visit. And I met lots of people with an affinity to Spain including some big fans of Kate O’Brien and the city of Santander…

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