Culture & History

Bernardo Valois: An Irishman in Between Islands

La Laguna is an extraordinary place. As the tram ascends from Santa Cruz, the endless ensemble of low industrial buildings does little to prepare you for what is to be found at the top of the hill. The local at the intercambiador where the journey began had not done much to promote it either, probably betraying the rivalry between both towns when warning me that ‘there isn’t much to see there, just the one street’.

La Laguna is one street. After another. It is an entire reticulate town where extreme care has been taken to preserve every single corner as it would have stood during colonial times when the place was a hub for traders and entrepreneurs from all over Europe. The stunning work of conservation, which granted it World Heritage status, has nothing of artifice and much of the authentic flavour that the place would have distilled in the 17th century.

A Street in La Laguna, Tenerife. Photograph by the author

A House Turned Museum: The Casa Museo Cayetano Gómez Felipe

La Laguna is surprising from the moment you abandon the avenue of grey, modern buildings where the tram stops to enter the endless rows of noble houses, with their elaborate lintels and their tidy façades, some of whose entrances are not willing to betray the secrets of the stories that lie behind them.

Indeed, there is barely anything more promising when it comes to finding travel treasure than a large door opening into a dark corridor, at the end of which light bursts again into the partial shape of a courtyard. And that is exactly what you find as you approach the Casa Museo Cayetano Gómez Felipe, where the deep tones of leafiness framed by the historical stone and wood façade do nothing but lure you into discovering what this magnificent residence is all about.

Its most recent owner, which the house-museum is now named after, was a prominent collector during the 20th century, whose possessions bear witness to the historical role the islands played in linking the Old and the New Worlds.

After you walk down the corridor while trying to take in every detail of the brief ceiling and walls, another surprise awaits in the panel that greets visitors with an introduction about the history of the building: the house was built by an Irishman from the 17th century, a trader named Bernard Walsh, known in the island as Bernardo Valois.

The Casa Museo Cayetano Gómez Felipe in La Laguna, Tenerife. Photograph by the author.

A Trader and a Traveller

Bernard Walsh’s story speaks of a turbulent time in Ireland when name changes and family tree amendments were necessary to escape religious and political persecution.

The experiences of Irish traders, who ventured further south beyond the Iberian Peninsula to reach places such as Tenerife, are richly portrayed in Bernardo Valois’s memoirs. In them, he offers a meticulous account of the most noteworthy facts of his personal and professional life, annotated with references to the European political situation at the time.

He mentions the building of his house in 1703, opposite the Iglesia de la Concepción, but he also shows he is aware of the plight of others when he refers to the lack of bread for poor people in 1721.

A detailed description of his estate, various prayers and a curious list complete the work. This list is an inventory of people that have been ungrateful to him, and he does not hold back when it comes to describing some of them as “crazy”, “destructive”, “undeserving, proof that he has Galway blood”. To our relief, some margin annotations tell us he actually reconciled with some of them (unsurprisingly, not with the man from Galway).

But his inquisitive nature also means he delves deeply into his impressions of precious island experiences, such as visiting the Guanche mummies and reaching the top of the Teide at sunrise.

Valois is not a passive traveller. In the Teide, he marvels at the presence of some water, which he takes the time to collect in his brandy bottle so he can show physicians. It turns out to be sulfuric acid, which he refers to as sulphur liquor, as alchemists called it.

He also refers to the height of the Teide based on its shadow over the islands of Hierro and La Gomera. His descriptions of both the peak and the caves he subsequently travels to are detailed and expressive and include reliable facts about their history which he must have obtained from his guides. The successive volcano eruptions on the island can also be traced through his accounts and all this information gives a fresh scientific tinge to his observations.

That does not mean historical events escape him and, in addition to referring to political changes as mentioned, he makes sure to record different rebellions that take place on the island and the reasons behind them.

Priceless accounts

As is well known, the English colonization and the Penal Laws from the end of the 17th century caused an Irish diaspora that found in Spain a place to live, trade and learn freely. Often, we know of the endeavours of these individuals in places such as Salamanca, Valladolid or Madrid. It is not as frequent, though, to hear of their Spanish pursuits beyond the Iberian Peninsula, in this case, in the Canary Islands, and that is what makes Bernardo Valois’s account incredibly precious.

His memoirs offer not just a confirmation of the Irish experience abroad from a trader’s point of view, but they also bring in plenty of colourful details about the specifics of the Irish community on the island of Tenerife.

Mount Teide in a sea of clouds. Photograph by the author.

And remember…

You can read more about the history of Irish entrepreneurs in Madrid here.

Thanks for reading!

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