Talking about Talking about Kate O’Brien

I’m back in Santander just over two weeks now. I was in Ireland presenting a paper at the Limerick Literary Festival in honour of Kate O’Brien.

Over in Limerick

My session was about the book ‘Farewell Spain’ written by the Limerick writer in 1937 and I focused much of my talk on her time in Santander which I first blogged about here. The talk went down very well. I gave an image-based presentation with photos from the 1930s peppered with quotes from the writer on her time in the Cantabrian capital.

Limerick Literary Festival Kate O'Brien writer Ireland Spain Santander Farewell

The book I was in Limerick to talk about – Farewell Spain by Irish writer Kate O’Brien was first published in 1937. This is the Virago reprint from 1985

Limerick Literary Festival Kate O'Brien writer Ireland Spain Santander Farewell

Me in Limerick talking about Kate O’Brien in Santander. The picture of Kate O’Brien in Santander is from the Kate O’Brien Archive which is part of Special Collections, Glucksman Library, University of Limerick

Limerick Literary Festival Kate O'Brien writer Ireland Spain Santander Farewell

Each of the audio-visuals gave a sense of the Santander that Kate O’Brien knew in the 1930s. Most of the 1930s images of Santander are from the Centro de Documentacion de la Imagen de Santander (CDIS)

Limerick Literary Festival Kate O'Brien writer Ireland Spain Santander Farewell

My talk had it serious moments but there were lots of laughs too…

The event itself was thrilling. I went along to most of the talks and got to see a great many writers read from their new books.

Who else was there?

The ‘big names’ would be Joseph O’Connor and Edna O’Brien whose work is so international that I can buy them (translated into Spanish) in my local bookshop in Santander. They were both amazing. O’Connor read from his latest book The Thrill of it All and also shared his hilarious awful memories of readings entitled On a Dark Desert Highway.

Limerick Literary Festival Kate O'Brien writer Ireland Spain Santander Farewell

Writer Joseph O’Connor officially opened the festival with aplomb. Image courtesy of Sean Curtin Photography.

Edna O’Brien’s session was the highlight of the weekend. If you’re not familiar with her or her work, you should read this. Her anecdotes on Kate O’Brien were terrific. She described her brief encounter with the writer in Dublin – explaining that “those who wish to be a writer have a foolish notion that if they meet one, it will rub off”. A young Edna was introduced to Kate whose only comment to her was “Spanish cigarettes. The best in the world“. After Edna had written a couple of books herself, she was told that Kate O’Brien, when asked at Customs whether she was a relation of Edna’s replied, “No, but would like to be.”

Edna O’Brien was due to speak at last year’s festival but was unable to travel at the last minute due to an illness. This year, she came all guns blazing and gave a wonderful talk covering the discipline of writing, the power of Shakespeare, the meaning of home, the loss of innocence, the skills of storytelling, the Wallander series, Philip Roth, Van Gogh and censorship. If I were to highlight just one thing it would be her work ethic – she has never stopped working and she spoke of getting back home to finish her next book in 14 days. That was last Sunday – I bet she made her deadline too! Sean Rocks was a great interviewer. His voice usually wafts above the smell of garlic and olive oil in my kitchen every weekday evening courtesy of RTE’s Arena arts show which I listen to online. It was extra nice to sit and see him in action with Edna O’Brien (no whiff of garlic in the Lime Tree Theatre that Sunday morning)

Limerick Literary Festival Kate O'Brien writer Ireland Spain Santander Farewell

Sean Rocks interviewing Edna O’Brien with Kate O’Brien overlooking the proceedings! Image courtesy of the wonderful Sean Curtin

And in between the solid bookends that were Joseph O’Connor and Enda O’Brien, were a great many more wordsmiths. One familiar voice (although I didn’t work it out at the festival – I had heard Mary on RTE’s Sunday Miscellany radio programme and read her blog) was Aosdana poet and writer Mary O’Donnell. You can listen to her being interviewed by Sean Rocks here on Arena.  Mary co-edited an Irish-Galician collaboration ‘To the Winds Our Sail’ – where five works by ten Galician poets were translated into both the English and Irish languages so she is a fan of Northern Spain. You can read more about the collaboration on the Cervantes website here.

And there were many names that were new to me. I won’t go into a review of the festival but suffice to say my reading list now includes work by Orfhlaith Foyle, Nick Barlay & Audrey Magee too. Orfhlaith is an Irish writer who has grown up on the move while London-born Nick and Irish-born Audrey were confronting exile from Hungary and wartime Germany in their sessions so I was in my element. And in between the international themes, I was transported to the Ireland I used to know so well by the poet Martin Dyar’s lines. You can hear ‘The Group Scheme’ on Arena’s podcast here. I also enjoyed talking about my grandfather Sean O’Connor and the merits of the graveyard shift with the multi-talented Niall MacMonagle who delivered a stormer interviewing Irish actresses Cathy Belton and Ingrid Craigie on the Saturday. See here for the full programme.

In case it sounds like it was all work work work, well actually it was. I had taken on a new commission the week I was travelling. I filed the piece on the Thursday and the festival started on the Friday so in between the sessions in Limerick I grabbed a chance to read through my own talk – here’s a snap from South’s in Limerick of the work in progress. I sought out the snug for piece and quiet. Actually I wasn’t the only speaker to enjoy South’s hospitality – Nick Barlay told me he managed a sneaky pint over there too.

Limerick Literary Festival Kate O'Brien writer Ireland Spain Santander Farewell

I made sure to squeeze in a glass of the black stuff and a packet of crisps in one of Limerick’s many great pubs. I was of course reading over my talk 🙂

Back in Spain and talking about Kate

Since I’ve been back in Spain, I’ve been asked about my trip and the talk. “Muy bien,” I say. “What did you talk about?”, they ask. I’m often a bit tongued-tied when I try to describe the writer Kate O’Brien. I usually describe her as an Irish writer who spent some time in Spain and wrote about it well. I add some context explaining that she spent her first year here as governess or ‘institutriz’ to the well-known politician and diplomat Jose Maria de Areilza (1909-1998) in Portugalete, Bilbao. I say that she documented this period of her life in the fictional novel ‘Mary Lavelle’ and remind whoever I’m speaking with that the teenager she encouraged to read the classics in 1922-3 went on to become Spanish Ambassador to Buenos Aires, Washington DC and Paris and private secretary to Don Juan de Borbon – who would in time become King Juan Carlos I. The person I am speaking with then proceeds to tell me about the role Areilza played in what is now called the ‘transition to democracy’  – he was minister for Foreign Affairs in the first transitional government. The more literary types will remind me that he was a member of the ‘Real Academia Espanola’. And the medics speak fondly of his father (and Kate O’Brien’s employer) the surgeon Enrique Areilza Arregui.

Kate O'Brien Jose Maria de Areilza Bilbao Portugalete Mary Lavelle

de Areilza’s talk at the Kate O’Brien weekend in 1989 was published in John Logan’s ‘with warmest love’ in 1994

When the conversation settles a little, I say that Jose Maria de Areilza wrote an article about Kate O’Brien in El Pais newspaper in 1985. Read the same piece translated into English by poet John Liddy. Jose Maria Areilza spoke at the 5th Kate O’Brien weekend in 1989 (as the Limerick Literary Festival was then known) and his talk about his Irish ‘Miss’ was very touching. His words were reprinted in the Kate O’Brien Weekend Committee publication edited by John Logan ‘with warmest love’ (pictured above) and his affection and respect for Kate O’Brien is moving: “She was the one who revealed to me the essence of art, or rather, the understanding of the world, the meaning of life and the superiority of human love over other feelings.

When I finish with the Bilbao connection, I get a bit stuck again. Kate O’Brien is a difficult person to describe and that’s probably why her readers find her so fascinating. She would be a nightmare for a publishing house to promote now – as she really never (not than any writer ever does) fits into a category. I push ahead and describe the book I am most familiar with, ‘Farewell Spain’. I say that it’s a travel book written on the eve of the ‘Guerra Civil’ that features a chapter on Santander. I say that she loved the North of Spain. I mention some of the places she wrote about in Santander and her observations of the city and the philosophy of tourism in the 1930s. Then we get talking about old photographs. Or a particular building she liked. Those who are interested in the politics of the time will ask me which side she was on. I explain that although she found fault with all sides, she was most critical of Franco. Her criticism came at a price, I say, she wasn’t able to return to her beloved Spain until 1957.

Limerick Literary Festival Kate O'Brien writer Ireland Spain Santander Farewell

Eye candy for the Kate O’Brien fans at the festival – I love coming across the early publications and picked up a first edition of Farewell Spain (the American print) for myself. You’ll find most of these titles in their reprinted paperback form in good bookshops in Ireland.

What I Forget to Say

Maybe it’s because I think it’s obvious, but I always forget to say that this is a writer I identify with. A woman from Limerick who went to Spain for some life experiences and was touched by that country. Perhaps I’ve become comfortable now – living here – but I remember the pain I used to feel – the heavy heart I would have when I walked to the departure gates and towards my plane to Dublin, London or Amsterdam. And the excitement I felt on my way back to Spain, arriving at the airport – the rush of heat if I had landed in Summer – the smell of Spanish tobacco in the Arrivals Hall and the glamorous cleaning ladies who looked like they should be the ones embarking on a journey. The onward trip to Santander – perhaps stopping off at Hoznayo to break the journey if I flew into Bilbao, meeting up with friends in the city, having a ‘cuarto’ in Bar Soto. Trying to understand everybody and almost achieving that (it was always tricky after a few months being tipped into the deep end). Standing in one of the many bars or squares and talking until my legs ached and then more. Late to bed or was it so late it was early? Waking for lunch – hoping I’d understand everything again. Reading Kate O’Brien’s books, articles and diaries remind me of that yearning. And she never lost her love for Spain. I thoroughly enjoyed reading her later articles and papers on her return trips to Spain in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. This was post-Torremolinos and she wrote about this new wave of tourism very passionately.

A Crazy Idea?

It was my father’s suggestion so I’ll blame him! In my talk, I said that there are still 30 monuments or street names associated with Franco’s regime in Santander. At lunch, overlooking a beautiful if choppy River Shannon, my father suggested that Santander could re-name one of these streets after Kate O’Brien. When I mentioned this on my return to Santander – I was told of the existence of a Bronte Sisters Street (Calle Hermanas Bronte) behind Llamas Park in Santander. Hmmm, I thought. Never heard of the Brontes being in Santander or writing about the place. Maybe Calle Kate O’Brien in Santander isn’t such a far-fetched idea after all. How fitting to associate a street that was linked to perhaps, a military general, with that of a writer who loved this land and its people before the sad events of the Civil War.

Kate O’Brien already has two streets named after her in Castile. The first, in 2008, is in the village of Gotarrendura, where Teresa of Avila was born exactly 500 years ago. My uncle Derek (pictured below) was at the unveiling which was a great affair by all accounts. And the second street was in the city of Avila in 2011. What’s the connection with Avila, you ask? Kate O’Brien published a biography of Teresa of Avila in 1951, during that period when she was not able to enter Spain. When she was given a visa to enter the country again she spent many months in Teresa’s Castile and in Avila in particular. Her biography on Teresa has been translated into Spanish for the Saint’s Quincentenary this year. I went to the lively book launch in Bilbao hosted by Bilbao’s Mayor Ibon Areso and the then Irish Ambassador Justin Harman last year. You can read Dr Aintzane Legarreta Mentxaka’s words on Kate O’Brien in Spanish here.

Limerick Literary Festival Kate O'Brien writer Ireland Spain Santander Farewell

Thanks again to Sean Curtin for his pic of Roslyn Molloy, Derek Cahill (my uncle) and myself…


There are many memories I’ll treasure from this year’s festival. I really enjoyed getting to know the other speakers and meeting the attendees – especially the many keen Kate O’Brien fans. Of course, there were plenty familiar faces and blasts from the past. I want to thank a few people for their help and support before I go:

  • First up is Marie Hackett and the rest of the Limerick Literary Festival Committee who make this event happen every year. Thanks for including me in this wonderful gathering 🙂
  • Thanks to Sean Curtin for allowing me to use his beautiful shots of the festival. You’ve probably seen his images on the national and regional media but you might not have spotted the Camino de Santiago images taken with his other half Kate that are published on their blog. Together they capture the colour and atmosphere of Northern Spain beautifully.
  • Cheers to Ken Bergin, Head of Special Collections at the Glucksman Library UL who helped me negotiate the remarkable Kate O’Brien archive. I can’t think of a better place for readers of Kate O’Brien to spend some time. And if you haven’t already checked out their WW1 blog It’s a Long Way to Tipperary you should!
  • Gracias con todo mi corazon a CDIS. The Centro de Documentacion de la Imagen de Santander (CDIS) is the city’s amazing photography archive. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed exploring your 1930s images and learn so much about this great city through your black & whites.
  • Finally virtual hugs to everybody who shared the event on social media and  – to everybody I cajoled to come along – you really really made my day 🙂

Farewell Limerick – Hello Santander

In case you guys in Santander think you are getting off the hook, I’ve been asked to dust down some slides for a talk at Libreria Gil in Santander this Spring. You can check the bookshop website and Facebook page for listings and I’ll be tweeting dates on @cahillpamela too 🙂


  1. Once again a fascinating post Pamela! Great to hear about your talk at the writers’ festival. Congratulations! Thank you too for some hints for authors to look out for. ❤ Barbara

    1. Thanks so much Barbara! It’s lovely to think of you in Australia reading some of the work that was discussed in Limerick 🙂

  2. Well done Pam! Sounds fantastic, you should be so proud. Great post too

    1. Thanks Aileen for your kind words – here’s hoping our paths cross in Limerick or somewhere else soon. All my best 🙂

  3. A Crazy Idea? No, no, it is a great Idea !! I am convinced that Kate O’Brien deserves a street in Santander with his name. I think this would be a great project. Because the Cantabrian Mountains for centuries Cantabria and Asturias isolated from the rest of Spain, the villages of the Cantabrian coast, Santander included, provided they had a better interfacing with the British Isles and Ireland across the sea. At least one street named Kate O’Brien this would provide a permanent reminder of Ireland in Santander.

    1. Thanks Ramon. You’re right about the sea being a uniting force before. And I like the way you suggest the re-named street would be a permanent reminder of Ireland in the city. I can’t think of many people more deserving than her…

  4. I have re-blogged this terrific post Pamela, hope that’s OK!!

    1. Completely fine. Thanks for sharing it Barbara 🙂

      1. Sounds like a great idea to grant Santander street name Kate O’Brien, as I said in the previous comment. But it need not be necessary to replace the already established name of a street, but can also be a new street. In this way would avoid potential political sensitivities, and that could hinder the adoption of the name Kate is recognized in this city, which is the real goal. I found on the Internet the following anecdote about Kate O’Brien and a Englishman. To avoid misunderstandings, I transcribe the text in Spanish, and you can then translate into English with more fidelity.

        “Hay una anécdota al respecto en su libro de memorias y viajes, Farewell Spain (Adiós, España), publicado en 1937, que ofrece una buena muestra de su cariño casi visceral por España. Ella habla de su encuentro con un inglés que, como ella, había pasado el invierno de 1922 a 1923 viviendo en Bilbao. El hombre comentó que no le había gustado Bilbao: “Tanto lodo… y ese sentimiento de pasiones a flor de piel”. Y ella escribió: “Aquel a quien no le gustaron los lodos y las pasiones a flor de piel de Bilbao, es inglés, y yo soy irlandesa. El lodo era tema corriente en Irlanda cuando yo era joven, y las pasiones, siempre y cuando no sean sexuales, nos resultan familiares. Así pues, las dos cosas que a él le parecieron nuevas y crudas, supongo que eran las que yo más di por sentadas y más familiares me resultaron”

      2. Hi Ramon, thanks for your updates. I agree Kate O’Brien would be delighted with any street – new or old. I’ll transcribe the ‘muddy’ paragraph later from Farewell Spain. I don’t have the book beside me at the moment…

  5. Jude Crowther · · Reply

    Great post Pam. Well done at the festival. You more that deserve that pint and bag of crips. 🙂
    Ive just added a few more names to my list of authors to try out too.

    1. Thanks Jude. It was a great experience. It looks like I’ll be giving a version of the talk here in Santander on May 22 at Libreria Gil on Plaza Pombo. I’ll keep you posted closer to the date 🙂

  6. In case anybody is reading this link to find out what time the talk is on today May 22 – it’s at 7.30pm in Libreria Gil, Plaza Pombo in Santander. I’ve been thumbing through my English-Spanish dictionary this week in preparation and have just read the article that was published in the local newspaper about the conference. Looking forward to giving the talk now 😀

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