Culture & History

The Troublesome Irish Refugees in Spain

This is the story of the troublesome Irish Refugees in Spain.

Immigration and refugees are two interlinked concepts that seem unmistakably modern.

Yet when the Irish started arriving in Spain during the 16th and 17th centuries, many questions were raised, chief among them was the issue of when they would be going home again.  

The headline-grabbing preoccupations of populists, tabloids, and the fearful of today, have historical precedent behind them.

The Irish ‘hangers-on’ in the court of Philip II were initially welcomed. But sending them back home after their welcome had worn out proved to be a difficult task.

A Common Enemy

Understanding the benevolence shown to the Irish in Spain is simply a matter of knowing one thing: England was the common enemy. Woven into this political reality is the fact the Catholic faith was another reason, perhaps justification, for supporting the Irish.

Two prominent characters driving the initial narratives are the erstwhile Hughes – O’Neill and O’Donnell. They were the peculiar Irish patriots that, perhaps influenced by their earl status, offered Ireland to the Spanish king Philip II.

Predating Philip, Emperor Charles V made a treaty with the Earl of Desmond in Kerry, in 1529; it’s easy to surmise that by the time 17th Century, Hibernian-Iberian relations were in the ether. Thus, it was Philip, and later Philip III, that bought into the idea of offering Spain as a place of political and religious refuge for the Irish during the 1600s and 1700s.

Irish Refugees in Spain: 2,000 Ducats & Men of Ill Repute

Philip set aside a fund for the Irish, with the purpose of supporting the neediest among the new immigrants. Some of those fresh off the boat set up schools and hospitals, while others were marked as ‘undesirables’. What is striking is that even in the midst of this great upheaval and exile, some of the men were scorned for not being noble enough.

Character assassinations abound with choice phrases: ‘a youth of low worth’ or a ‘man of no significance’ betrayed that a few were not considered rich or powerful enough.

And my heart goes out to one ex-soldier, a man who ‘was only fit to keep mules’!

Others did make a name for themselves. David Milan was an apothecary in the royal court, which was a position of no little distinction.

An air of suspicion

The Irish in Madrid were a vocal and sometimes awkward group, and some were even perceived as spies by the locals who received them. The biggest difficulty at this time was the expectation of the newly arrived earls and rebels – they expected Spain to deliver a free Ireland, or at least help their endeavours in this respect, but they lacked the finesse to negotiate these points in the Spanish court, a court that was sympathetic but largely unfamiliar.

By the same token, Spain poorly understood the different factions in the Irish camp, with their messy tangle of aspirations and political ambitions. 

Both sides broadly spoke the same language, one of loosening Britain’s imperial power, but they lacked the perceptible syntax that makes for true understanding. To solve this conundrum, debates in the Spanish court revolved around helping Irish rebels in their homeland, which would, in turn, plug the flow of immigrants into Spain. 

Both policies would fail. 

Emigration & The Spanish Armada

Phase one of the plan resulted in a ban on Catholics entering the country unless they could offer up a special permit at ports. 

Phase two meant war. Philip III dispatched one of his men to Ireland while the spin doctors of the day were putting the gloss on why military intervention would be a justifiable action. In this case, ending piracy and securing trade routes with America were the tools designed to sway public and royal opinion, the twin shots of trade and security reverberating then like they would now. 

In Ireland at this time, the two Hughs were engaged in the Nine Years’ War and the Spanish assessment of the situation was the Irish wouldn’t be able to resist for much longer. 6,000 troops were considered enough to support the rebels, but Spain’s generals dithered over how best to put boots on the ground, and to what extent.

One key issue was they actively encouraged the local Irish to join up with them.

Irish Refugees in Spain: Disaster at Kinsale

Unfortunately, bad winds would force the Spanish to disembark at Kinsale, which was a poorly constructed fort, and it also meant the Spanish were cut off from their Irish allies.

In a future article, we will cover it in more detail, but the catastrophic defeat in the ensuing battle cemented English rule in Ireland and forced many of the Irish earls to flee for their lives. 

And rather than stopping Irish emigration to Spain, the failure against English forces intensified it.


A Complicated Legacy

In the La Latina district of Madrid, there is an Irish street. It’s a narrow, dingy laneway that bears no hint of its former glory, a forgotten artery between two thoroughfares with greater prestige. Walk down it today and a distinctive odour is caught in the wind; bars and drunks empty themselves every night, while nature and the half-pint street share the burden.

It used to be part of a complex – an Irish College and hospital.

In many ways, this street is the manifestation of the Irish experience post-Kinsale: battered yet intact, thriving yet unwanted.

Philip III wasn’t particularly pleased to have an increased influx of immigrants, but he still went about helping them. Money and medicine were set aside to support the Irish, and some had to be brought back from death’s door by Spanish doctors. The unwelcome guests, in turn, were dispersed all over the country in an effort to reduce their influence at court. They were left to hack out an existence, and as we will see in future blog posts, many were quite successful.

And the wait for a free Ireland would go on.  

And remember…

You can listen to our podcast on RadioPublic, the aural place of culture and insight! Also, why not take a look at this article? It’s about a modern Irishman in Madrid. And if you want even more stuff, feel free to check out our video below!

Thanks for reading!


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