Culture & History

Fitting In: How The Irish Became Spanish

In our previous article, we discussed how the Irish came to Spain. It was a eulogy for the death of Gaelic Ireland and an essay on the uncertain future of those newly arrived Gaels.

Immigrants in any time period tend to be resilient, and despite the challenges faced by the Irish at this time, assimilation and integration did occur. It was not always easy, it rarely followed a coherent plan, as Spanish authorities struggled to react to a problem with ever-changing characteristics, but the Irish eventually shook off their Munster and Irish identities and became Spanish.



To analyse this divesting of the old and the assimilation of the new, I will be focusing on three key areas: the army, language, and marriage.

Military Service & Mounting Debts

At this time, Spain was caught up in the sweep of the Ottoman-Habsburg wars, a conflict which spanned two centuries. The Turkish empire had become a threat to the European powers, and Spain, like others in Europe, lost some of their colonial possessions.

In various battles against the Turks, men from Munster – such as O’Sullivan Bear – had relatives either killed or captured, with the latter group spending two to ten years as prisoners before they could be ransomed.

Through death or imprisonment, many Irish men were lost in the military service of their new home.

Overall, the situation for the immigrants was precarious and fraught with financial uncertainty. Payment from the king to his troops could be a decade late, and the plethora of wills that abound – on account of the aforementioned point about the mortality rate of Irish soldiers – show how much of a concern it was for those that were left behind.

To counteract this problem, loans between the new Irish, and between them and the local Spanish, were common. In addition, the Irish colleges briefly set up a banking system to help the community.

Thus, through blood and commerce, the Iberians and Hibernians became more tightly bound.

Language & Papers

The new arrivals didn’t do official documents, coming as they did from an oral tradition, and they were shocked when they were asked to produce papers that proved their identities. Over time, the bureaucratic adjustments were made and even the Irish without a lick of Spanish had their relevant documents drawn up in the local language.


In the first decade of the 17th Century, the level of literacy was generally low, and correspondingly, the level of spoken Spanish was poor. Translators from the Irish side were not well understood in the Spanish Court.

As the century wore on, even Gaels that communicated in pidgin Spanish preferred to do so rather than use their native Gaeilge. This was obviously a matter of practicality, but the loosening buds of the language on Irish tongues caused the fevered wringing of hands back home, and some of the Irish in Spain were requested to return to their island lest they forget their language entirely.

The truth was simple: the new Irish generations in Spain preferred to learn Spanish and other European languages; for them, Irish was not the language of their contemporaries or of opportunity.

Marriage & Babies

In the initial phase of the Irish arrival, marriage and births were almost exclusively a Hibernian affair, with the majority of unions being between Irish people. Between 1610 and 1620, this insularity was chided by the locals, and this physical distance was held in deeper suspicion because of the events of the time, which saw the expulsion of the Moors.

Integration was expected.

Up until this point, the Gaels were a little laissez-faire in their approach to ceremony, with few of the babies baptised, granted godparents or registered with the local parish.

The locals brought pressure to bear on two points: on a simple level, this was simply a disengagement from social norms, but it was also seen through the prism of Catholicism. What kind of Catholic, after all, would not baptise their baby?

‘Borders Are A Pain In The Ar*e’

So says Shane MacGowan, anyway.

Borders are polemic nowadays; toxic trending topics that expose deep-rooted fears on one side of the literal and ideological fence. But if there is one lesson to take from the lost Irish washing up on Spanish shores, it’s that despite the initial chaos and confusion, finances being stretched and moral soul searching, riding that immigration wave will eventually see it settle. Once that happens, people will want to contribute, give back and make a life for themselves. Sometimes out of a genuine desire, other times because of the prevailing attitudes of their new land.

That today, immigrants are people – like the Gaels after the 9-years war – who flee insecurity in search for safety.

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 the gentrification of modern Ireland.

Thanks for reading!


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