A fiddler on the steps—
tertulia in Café Literarios.
The open door casts a yellow path
on the flagstones: to warm voices,
points closely-argued,
dark-haired men standing, laughing

—and then 19th century beards,
friends meeting daily at the coffee house
mightn’t be that far.

I stop to listen,
then go on.
A man runs past, like a fugitive

the cathedral’s towers far above him.
Islamic moon, Jewish star.
Tower of contradictory heart.

Old ladies pant, linking arms
climbing the hill of Costa Vella.
A black cat sits watching
almost in schadenfreude.
In the Obradoiro
the stone is still warm from the sun.

At the five star hotel,
a waiter looks out, closes the door,
making the quiet come closer.

To the west, a spectrum
of blue-black, red-green, darker red,
where the sun is going down.

(11th April)

© David McLoghlin, 2017


As far as this writer is aware only one book– excluding works focused on the Camino de Santiago– had recounted the life of an Irishman living in Santiago de Compostela. This was Luís Seoane‘s 1959 play O Irlandés Astrólogo. Set in 1622, the Irishman in question is one Patrick Sinot- an astrologer who has fled religious persecution in his homeland. Describing a condition he knew intimately, Seoane’s protagonist is seen struggling with the effects of exile, before ultimately being driven from this place too.

Though a much less traditional chronicle of an Irishman’s time in the Galician capital, David McLoghlin‘s latest collection Santiago Sketches still gives rewarding insight into life in the city almost four centuries on.

The cover of Ediciós do Castro‘s bilingual edition of O irlandés astrólogo (1980).

As one might have guessed by his name- Galician is neither McLoghlin’s  native nor creative language. Nor was his arrival as an Erasmus student as dramatic as that of Sinot’s. Yet, where the former tried to come to terms with the loss of what he had left behind, McLoghlin is captivated by the culture which, as his closing poem states, “was given to me” in the city. It is this awareness and embracing of the language and culture surrounding him that makes this worthwhile for readers of AoBS.

For McLoghlin’s is very much a Galician city– observing at one point in the collection a young woman requesting a bus driver stop at “Praza Roxa, por favor”, before:

“A man with a black moustache
growls in Castilian:
“¡Plaza José Antonio Primo de Rivera!”

Setting aside the underlying politics of this linguistic “correction”, the poet’s choice of Castilian over Spanish– a likely deliberate act of detachment, equating the language solely with the central regions of the country– is undoubtedly an alignment of himself with the young Galician-speaker (Spanish is referred to as castelán” in galego).

This affinity between Ireland and Galicia, however, stretches further back than McLoghlin’s bus trip or even Sinot’s exile. According to the Lebor Gabála Érenn– a pseudo-history of Ireland and the Irish from their origins through to the Middle Ages– it was the Galicians who ultimately populated the island. Since then, there have been many writers from either shore who have found inspiration in the other (like Lois Pereiro, elsewhere on this blog). As the Galician translator Plácido Castro wrote of the Dingle peninsula in his account of traveling through the island, Un galego en Irlanda (A Galician in Ireland):

Un galego síntese aquí máis preto da súa terra ca en moitas rexións que só distan de galicia uns centos de quilómetros.

A Galician feels here closer to his land than in a lot of regions that are just a few hundred kilometers away. (sic)

Though McLoghlin was in an urban rather than rural environment, one senses that this feeling was beginning to take hold of him. He reports in one poem of spotting where an Irish pilgrim wrote “El Dinguel de Santiago/ in the book of arrivals”– the Dingle of Santiago. In his notes, the poet draws our attention to the evidence of a medieval pilgrimage sea route from the region to A Coruña, where pilgrims would then continue on foot to Compostela (Fittingly, there was a church of Saint James (Santiago, in Galician) built in Dingle by Spaniards around this time). McLoghlin’s uncovering of traces of Ireland in the city– as above, or through a young woman with “West Clare/ in her cheekbones”– developing in tandem with his experiences of the city.

Church of Saint James in Dingle.

“Evening, Quintana” is in many ways the result of this growing familiarity between poet and place. As he himself has stated, the poem:

“came out of the almost-daily walks I went on when I lived in Santiago de Compostela […]

I went for walks, sometimes for hours at a time. This involved sitting in squares, observing, walking out of the city, through its suburbs, its squares, visiting churches, cafés, and jotting down ideas and observations in the little notebooks I carried everywhere, which was how all the poems survived and became Santiago Sketches twenty-three years later”

In this way the poem simultaneously reflects McLoghlin’s process of writing the city, as well as the city itself. Beginning outside Café Literarios, we see him make his way through the Quintana of its title (a large square behind the cathedral) before eventually passing the luxury Hostal dos Reis Católicos in the iconic Obradoiro square. Yet there is much more than its landmarks in this poem– we see its culture (“A fiddler”, the “tertulia”– a kind of artistic gathering); the role the reconquista played in its development (“the cathedral’s towers”, “Islamic moon, Jewish star”); and its inhabitants (“dark-haired men standing, laughing”, “old ladies […] linking arms”).

Most striking of all, however, is the final stanza. This deceptively simply portrayal of “blue-black, red-green, darker red, where the sun is going down” ties together what would otherwise be just a loose string of impressions. With these words our minds are instead cast back over the images that precede it, and are asked to repaint them in the unmistakable evening light of the city. Whether it was the poet’s intention or not, he has given shape to a phenomenon that cannot be directly translated from Galician. Serán, is defined by the Real Academia Galega as:

Parte do día que vai desde que comeza a pórse o sol ata que se fai noite.

The part of the day that lasts from when the sun begins to set until it becomes night.

Knowing this, the reader is invited to imagine this poem beginning with the sun’s descent, before finishing on the cusp of night. We are not told in as many words, but this could be interpreted as the poet beginning to assimilate the culture he has been merely observing until now.

The cover of Santiago Sketches, depicting Santiago’s Rúa das Hortas. [Val McLoghlin]

Similar to my own experiences and those others have shared with me, the discovery of Galicia and galego had an unforeseen consequence for McLoghlin. Through his discoveries in the pilgrim city at its heart, the influences of its poets (particularly Uxío Novoneyra and Celso Emilio Ferreiro), and the people from all over the globe met through its language, he– in his own words:

regained a sense of my own tradition, which had been lost to me.

The poet, unlike Sinot, had not dwelt on the place he had left behind. But in opening himself to Santiago, he would find much more than the just city “was given to me”.


• For more of these ‘sketches’ (in English/Spanish), click here.

• For more on Patrick Sinot, and Seoane’s play (in English), there is an excellent article here