The tribute to an empty coffin that unites Valladolid with Ireland (El País)

Valladolid (Spain), October 11th 2023 (EL PAÍS) By Juan Navarro.

The Castilian city recreates in its streets the funeral procession of the famous Irish hero Red Hugh O’Donnell, who died there 400 years ago

The horses’ hooves echo on the stone cobblestones. The crowd, expectant, remains silent. The fire dances on the torches that surround the hearse. The people of Valladolid crane their necks to look at the coffin, preceded by bagpipes and Irish horses and guarded by four monks and more equestrian knights. An Irish flag covers the coffin. Inside there is no one beyond the heavy memory of Red Hugh O’Donnell, an Irish leader who died in Simancas (Valladolid) in 1602. This hero has linked the Castilian city with the homeland of the warrior, revered by his people for his fight against the English invaders. This struggle brought him to Valladolid, the imperial capital, to ask for help from the common enemy. There he died and a legend was born, whose funeral procession is reproduced 421 years later to recover ties. The last edition was held on Monday night.


The story embraces around the city and its red-haired visitor. People crowd in front of the Royal Palace, where Felipe III established his court when Valladolid was the capital, also the birthplace of Felipe IV. The spectators, who understand processions for a while, attend with the utmost respect as the coffin and its companions parade, as if behind the seat of the carriage lay a sculpture by Gregorio Fernández and not an empty coffin of an Irishman whom many of the public do not know . “…Because they buried this gossip,” he slips between the conversations on the street to explain the funeral to others who are equally lost, but who at least ask. “El chisme este” travels through the places where the lustrous history of the Empire was woven, as it passes in front of the Pimentel palace, through whose side window Philip II emerged to be baptized in the majestic church of San Pablo.


Some red hair can be seen among the thousands of people who attend the funeral recreated in the streets of Valladolid, as if Felipe III had once again ordered the honors to this ally. Some children wave through the window of an academy decorated with the green, white and orange banner. O’Donnell died there, without clarifying whether it was due to poorly resolved gastroenteritis or because he was poisoned by an English henchman. That remains in the air, like the smell of fuel burning towards the Valladolid skies while dusk gives solemnity to the procession. The destination, a plaque installed on a street where the stranger was supposedly buried, although his body never appeared.


The president of the Hispano-Irish association of Valladolid, Carlos Burgos, narrates the adventures of the warrior. The hero was born in Lifford (Ireland) and died in nearby Simancas (Valladolid), whose archive remembers O’Donnell’s relationship with Philip III, to whom he asked for help against the English invasion of Ireland. It all began, Burgos indicates, with some works on Constitución Street in 2020, used to excavate where the Chapel of Wonders of the immense convent of San Francisco once stood, the place where the Irishman asked to be buried and where 100 years before Christopher Columbus was buried. They located 20 bodies, but none matched him. “We don’t know for sure where his remains will be. Given the character, he raised tremendous international curiosity and a great information campaign about Valladolid, it appeared in 60 major international media,” celebrates the association’s coordinator. “We have received letters of gratitude from the Irish Foreign Minister and from many Irish in the United States, Irish people come to Valladolid and ask the association for advice on seeing the commemorative plaque or the Simancas archive,” adds Burgos, happy to “unite two towns in times of conflict.

After the pandemic, the previous City Council (PSOE and Valladolid Toma La Palabra) placed a plaque in honor of Red Hugh on that same street after celebrating the first public tour of the coffin in 2022. A connection with Ireland was also initiated by naming it as a guest country at the Seminci film festival, the book fair or folk festivals. The new local government, of PP with Vox, has maintained the celebration, maintains the Councilor for Tourism, Blanca Jiménez (PP), to “generate new milestones of interest”: “This crosses borders and has the potential to open a path with Ireland, “We want a historical event to become a cultural and tourist attraction and attract the Irish public.”


The affection for Valladolid in Ireland, according to its ambassador in Spain, Frank Smyth, makes it “the emotional capital” for many Irish. “Ireland is grateful to preserve the story of Red Hugh O’Donnell. It is a commitment to memory and the links between Valladolid and Ireland for more than 400 years,” explains the high representative. “His story is one of persecution. By sheltering him at a very difficult time in Irish history, Spain showed great generosity, there is a lot of gratitude in Ireland towards that shared heritage,” he values, and praises Carlos Burgos as a “modern link to a long and deep history.”


The procession brings joy and surprises to the surprised pucelanos. Dogs bark at equine neighing; some girls look absorbed at the paraphernalia amidst bagpipe music; A man tries to blend in with his surroundings by wearing a Guinness Irish beer t-shirt and a clueless lady wonders. “Maybe there is something against the amnesty, at least there are Spanish flags, which can no longer even be taken out,” he reflects on a street with several reddish windows on the windows. Others admit to not knowing the deceased illustrious neighbor: “Oh, the coffin. Whose will it be?” If the absent Red Hugh O’Donnell raised his head… he wouldn’t hit the cover.






Juan Navarro


Collaborator for EL PAÍS in Castilla y León, Asturias and Cantabria since 2019. He learned at esRadio, La Moncloa, in corporate communication, looking for a life and hitting the streets. Graduated in Journalism from the University of Valladolid, master’s degree in Multimedia Journalism from the Complutense University of Madrid and Master’s Degree in Journalism EL PAÍS.

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