Why are there so many Irish street names in Spain’s Canary Islands?

Next time you pay a visit to the Canary Islands, keep your eyes peeled for the abundance of Irish street and square names - they tell a fascinating story.

Why are there so many Irish street names in Spain’s Canary Islands?
Born in Tenerife but of Irish lineage,Leopoldo O'Donnell was a Spanish military man before serving as Prime Minister of Spain. Images: Wikipedia

Spain and Ireland first officially established diplomatic relations in 1529, when the Ambassador to King Charles V of Spain visited Irish shores and signed the Treaty of Dingle.

This gave citizenship rights and other privileges to Irish exiles and migrants in Habsburg Spain and other Habsburg territories from the 16th to the early 20th century.

Spain had in effect become a powerful ally of the Irish, they shared the same Catholic beliefs and a common enemy in England.

Gaelic leader Hugo O’Neill even offered the Irish crown to Philip II of Spain as a means of staving off the English, but the Spanish King turned the offer down.  

What Spain did do was stick to its offer of refuge to Irish rebels during the 100 Years War, as it did in 1607 in the exodus of Irish leaders that’s known as the Flight of the Earls, and later during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the 1640s.

And so began the most important first waves of Irish migration to Spain, most of which were well-to-do families whose descendants were to have a considerable impact on Spanish and in particular Canary politics.  

As documented in the General Archive of Simancas in Valladolid, they mainly came for religious and political freedoms – particularly to escape persecution from the English, but also to seek new commercial and merchant opportunities.

Many important Irish families migrated to Spain’s Canary Islands from 1651 onwards for this very reason. 

The White, Power, Molowny, Meade, Kelly and Murphy families, whose surnames are seen in streets and square placards in the archipelago to this day, set up shop in the biggest towns of Las Palmas, Puerto de la Cruz, Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Santa Cruz de La Palma.

By the 18th century they’d established themselves as some of the most powerful merchant families on the islands for their trade with the Americas. 

Some of the most prominent of these Spanish-Irish figures – who by that stage were combining a Spanish name with Irish surnames in impeccable exotic style – was José Murphy y Meade. 

Born in 1774 in Tenerife’s capital, he is known as the “Father of Santa Cruz de Tenerife” for getting Spain to allow the city to become a free port, something which enabled the archipelago to prosper as a trading post, and has no doubt played a part in the Canaries still having an independent VAT system to this day. 

A statue of José Murphy in Santa Cruz’s San Francisco square. Photo: Koppchen/Wikipedia


Then there was Leopoldo O’Donnell (pictured below), also born in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, and who served as a general and statesman before becoming Prime Minister of Spain. Madrid residents will be interested to know that that Irish sounding metro station is named after this very O’Donnell. 

Leopoldo O’Donnell, a Spanish Prime Minister with Irish roots. Painting: Museo del Ejército, Toledo, España (Public Domain)

Dionisio O’ Daly, a merchant who was born in Cork but moved to the island of La Palma, made history after his campaigns led to the first democratic town hall elections in Spain ever.  

And on the arts front there was Teobaldo Power, born in Tenerife in 1848, a renowned composer of the time who’s remembered as one of the Canaries’ most important historical figures. 

Bust of Teobaldo Power at Santa Cruz’s Fine Arts Museum. Photo: Koppchen/Wikipedia


Other prominent Canary figures of Irish roots include brothers Agustín, Manolo and Totoyo Millares Sall – renowned poet, painter and musician respectively, or Canary president in the late 80s Lorenzo Olarte Cullen.

The list can go on with Irish surnames, or ‘Spanishised’ versions of them, still prominent in Canary society – testament to perhaps the finest example of Irish integration in Spain.

READ ALSO: Where do Spain’s Irish residents live?

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Belchite: the open wound of Spain’s Civil War

Like many Spanish villages, Belchite was devastated by Spain's 1936-39 Civil War. But it is the only one which looks largely as it did at the end of the conflict, with piles of rubble strewn about, the clock tower barely standing and mass graves.

Belchite: the open wound of Spain's Civil War

“Here we found men, women and children,” said Ignacio Lorenzo, a 70-year-archaeologist as he exhumes the last skeletons from a mass grave in this village in the northern region of Aragon.

“Their crime was to have voted for left-wing parties or to be members of a union,” he said.

The siege of Belchite was part of a Republican offensive in 1937 to capture Zaragoza, the capital of Aragón, from the Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco.

Franco went on to win the war and establish a dictatorship that lasted until his death in 1975.

The repression of Belchite by Nationalist forces at the start of the war resulted in the execution of 350 of its roughly 3,000 residents, according to witness testimony from survivors.

The grandparents of veteran Spanish singer Joan Manuel Serrat were among those killed.

Lorenzo and his team have so far found the remains of 90 missing Republicans in the cemetery, some of them with their hands and feet bound. Others displayed signs of having been tortured.

British historian Paul Preston, author of “The Spanish Holocaust”, estimates that 200,000 Spaniards were killed far from the front lines — 150,000 in areas controlled by Franco’s forces and the rest in Republican areas.

Franco’s regime honoured its own dead, but left its opponents buried in unmarked graves scattered across the country.

“There are still 114,000 disappeared,” mostly Republicans, Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said earlier this week. Only Cambodia had more missing people, he added.

His government has drafted a law that, for the first time, will make exhumations of those who disappeared during the war a “state responsibility”. The bill faces its first parliamentary vote on Thursday.

Belchite was devastated during “the Battle of Belchite” in the Spanish civil war in a series of military operations confronting loyalist Spanish republicans and General Franco’s nationalists forces between August 24th and September 7th 1937. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP)

‘Forget it’

Belchite was captured by Franco’s forces shortly after the start of the war, then taken over by the Republican camp a year later before being recaptured by the Nationalists.

The fighting left at least 5,000 dead and completely destroyed the village.

After the war, Franco visited Belchite and ordered it to be abandoned and preserved in its ruined states for propaganda reasons. A new village was built next door for the surviving residents.

The ruins of Belchite are now fenced off and can only be visited via a guided tour.

belchite spanish civil war

Volunteers from several countries work to clean up and restore the streets of the old town of Belchite. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP)

“A rupture took place after the civil war, the past was left behind,” said Mari Angeles Lafoz, a socialist councilwoman in Belchite.

Domingo Serrano, the mayor of Belchite between 1983 and 2003, strove during his mandate to preserve what was left of the old village but lacked any real means.

He himself was born in 1946 in “old Belchite”, in one of the few houses that had survived the war.

“We let it go downhill,” said Serrano. “It’s as if we thought it was better to forget it.”

But the €7 million ($7.0 million) recently earmarked by the government for “old Belchite” were coming “40 years too late,” he said.

View of the village of Belchite, south of Zaragoza, which was totally destroyed in battle in August 1937. Following the battle Franco ordered that the ruins be left untouched as a “living” monument of war. (Photo by CIFRA / AFP)

‘Sensitive issue’

The ruins of Belchite — which include a cathedral pockmarked with bullet holes and gouged by mortar shells — were visited by 40,000 people in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted travel.

It has been dubbed “Spain’s Pompeii”, after the Roman city frozen in time when it was buried under ash from a volcanic eruption in 79 AD, said archaeologist Alfonso Fanjul.

The 48-year-old president of the Spanish Association of Military Archaeology heads a team of volunteers from around the world who clean and restore the village’s original cobblestones.

“I think it’s really one of the only places in the world that can this starkly remind you of something that has happened like this,” said one volunteer, Ellie Tornquist, a 24-year-old student from Chicago in the United States.

But the civil war continues to divide Spain.

While leftwing parties want to rehabilitate the memory of the Republican victims of the conflict, the right accuses them of seeking to open the wounds of the past.

The current mayor of Belchite, Carmelo Pérez of the conservative Popular Party, admits the war is a “very sensitive issue”.

But the village “is a unique place in Spain” where we can “restore dignity” and create a place of peace, he said.