Could 400-year-old mystery of Irish rebel chief lie in Spanish chapel?

Forensic experts will begin testing 15 skeletons uncovered at an ancient Spanish chapel this week to see if any belong to 16th-century Irish rebel chief Red Hugh O'Donnell.

Could 400-year-old mystery of Irish rebel chief lie in Spanish chapel?
An archaeologist works in an excavation carried out by the Hispano-Irish Association in a ruined chapel in Valladolid. Photos: AFP

The discovery of the chapel in the northwestern town of Valladolid where O'Donnell was buried with full honours in 1602 has sparked a wave of interest among historians in Spain, Ireland and beyond.

Known as Red Hugh, the young Irishman led a rebellion that nearly ousted Elizabeth I's English troops from Ireland, sparking a nine-year war which the rebels ultimately lost, despite help from the Spanish crown.

Just 29 at the time, O'Donnell quickly sailed to Spain to seek further support for their cause but died en route to Valladolid, the capital at the time.

He was buried in St Francis' monastery in the prestigious Chapel of Wonders.   

But for centuries, the location of the chapel — where Christopher Columbus was initially buried 100 years earlier before being moved to Seville — has remained a mystery, until archaeologists began excavating a site in the town centre in mid-May.   

“It's been confirmed that this is the chapel where Christopher Columbus and Red Hugh were buried,” said Carlos Burgos, head of the Hispano-Irish association and spokesman for the dig.

“What hasn't been confirmed is whether any of the 15 bodies that have been found are Red Hugh O'Donnell,” he told AFP.   

“There is one body which is bigger and stronger than the rest and seems to be a foreigner because it's taller than normal and may have been a fighter.”    

Although O'Donnell's remains might have quickly been identified by the fact he lost both big toes to frostbite during a winter escape from prison in Dublin Castle, Burgos said most of the corpses did not have feet.

“There was only one with the feet intact, and that had its big toes,” he told AFP, saying the experts would run DNA testing.   

'Emblematic place'

To date, only around half of the chapel has been excavated — around 50 square metres — with another 40 square metres extending underneath the nearby Santander bank.

Burgos said talks were under way with the bank to secure access to the rest of the site. Ana Redondo, who is responsible for culture and tourism in Valladolid, described the chapel as “an emblematic place”, writing on Twitter at the weekend that it would become “a place of pilgrimage and an important place for the history of Ireland”.   

If the chapel was confirmed as O'Donnell's last resting place, it would be “very important” for both Spain and Ireland, Burgos said.    

For Ireland, he was “a very important leader” and for Spain it would reinforce its historic alliance with the Irish people.    

“Many Irish come to Valladolid asking about Red Hugh and until now, there's been nothing except for a plaque that was put up a few years ago,” he said.    

“It's important that we try and create a respectful and visible memorial for those who want to know more about his history.”

By AFP's Hazel Ward

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Why Spain is still in the wrong time zone because of Hitler

As Spain again prepares to put the clocks forward on Saturday night, we look at the fascinating reasons why the country has been in the wrong time zone for the last 75 years, the possible effects of this historical blip on Spanish society, and why there's still no sign of it changing.

Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)
Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)

Why is Spain in the wrong time zone?

Madrid lies directly south of London. Spain is geographically in line with the UK and Portugal. It makes sense, then, that Spain was in the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) zone until around 75 years ago.

But that all changed in 1940. With Nazi Germany occupying Belgium, Holland, and recently invading France, Spain’s own facist dictator, Francisco Franco, travelled to the French border to meet with Hitler, the man he and many other believed would go on to dominate Europe.

The momentum was clearly with the Nazis, at the time, and Italy had already pledged its support to Hitler. Although he wanted the same from Spain, Franco, however, didn’t have much to offer. With the country ravaged by its own recent Civil War – in which Franco’s victory was heavily supported by Hitler –  Franco felt obliged to make a gesture of some sort.

Although ultimately remaining neutral in the war, Franco decided to show his support for Hitler by agreeing to put Spain’s clocks forward by an hour in an act of solidarity with Nazi Germany. 

Spain has remained in the Central European Time zone ever since, in line with countries as far east as Poland. That means that Madrid currently has the same time as Warsaw in Poland 2,290km away but is one hour ahead of Lisbon which is only 502 km away. 

The consequences of Spain being in the wrong time zone

But Franco’s decision all those years ago isn’t just a quirk of Spanish history, or testament to the extent to which the legacy of that period still looms over Spanish society, it was a decision that, experts say, has had a lasting impact on Spanish culture and society that underpins everything from Spaniard’s sleep cycles and meal times to the country’s birth rates and economic growth.

In recent years there have been calls to make the switch back to GMT because many believe the time zone quirk is affecting Spaniard’s productivity and quality of life. In 2013 a Spanish national commission concluded that Spaniards sleep almost an hour less than the European average, and that this led to increased stress, concentration problems, both at school and work, and workplace accidents.

Some experts believe this explains the Spanish dependence on siestas – that is, that the lack of sleep makes them necessary – but in reality the siesta has been a consistent feature of Spanish life for centuries for many of the same reasons it still is today: in southern Spain, the fierce summer temperatures make it necessary to stay at home during the afternoon. 

Spain's most famous clock is the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr
Spain’s most famous clock is at the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr

One effect of the siesta however is that the break in the day means Spaniards work the most hours in Europe yet at one of the continent’s lowest levels of productivity. A lack of sleep contributes to siesta taking which, in turn, means Spaniards work later into the evening and could partly explain Spain’s notoriously nocturnal lifestyles and late meal times. 

Despite the country running on CET, Spaniards’ eating patterns roughly mirror GMT. Many Spaniards eat lunch at what would be 1 or 1.30pm in London (the traditional 2 or 2.30pm in Spain) and dinner at a reasonable 8pm in London (but 9pm or even 10pm as is customary in many parts of Spain).

Making the change and returning to GMT would, according to Nuria Chinchilla, professor at Spain’s IESE business school, help Spaniards “return to the natural order of our circadian rhythm (our 24-hour physiological cycle) that goes with the sun… and the sun in Greenwich, not Germany”.

“If we don’t (change to GMT) we lengthen the day, eat very late and then don’t sleep,” she added.

Why hasn’t Spain moved to the right time zone yet?

The debate about which time zone Spain belongs in was reinvigorated following recent proposals at the EU level to scrap entirely the daylight savings custom. 

In 2018 the EU Commission announced a proposal to abolish the custom after polling showed that 80 percent of Europeans are in favour of staying permanently on summer time.This debate naturally had many in Spain wondering about whether they were in the right time zone.

But owing to a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, and various other bureaucratic difficulties, the proposal was shelved. Member states cannot decide unilaterally on the question of daylight savings, but they can decide which timezone they want to be in. 

Spain has had various commissions over the years exploring the impact of daylight savings and timezones, but no concrete proposals over a return to GMT have ever been made, despite the benefits experts claim it could bring.

Although the government’s focus has been drawn by more pressing issues in recent years – and the issue of time and daylight savings shelved at the European level – expect discussion of whether Spain is actually even in the right time zone this weekend when the clocks do go back, or if the linked issue of daylight savings is eventually taken off the shelf at the European level.

Article by Conor Faulkner