Camino de Santiago



No letters today.

The lottery ticket seller

in the glass booth with venetian blinds

braille-counts a roll of 5,000-pesetas notes.

My lungs’ harsh residue.


“¡Vamos, hombre!” an old man says

to the rheumatic Alsatian straying behind,

as if to a friend.


Four o’clock. Waiters in white jackets and Brilliantine

in El Paradiso nod to old women

as they incline, pouring Earl Grey.


Two female students link arms

under their umbrella.

A street sweeper in navy overalls,

luminous white stripes at her ankles and sleeves,

a witch’s broom sweeping trajectories.


The junkies shelter

under the arches in the Toural.

Old men stand beside the police.

The police ignore them, the old men

keep nodding as if they were included.

(21st February)


Like many regional Spanish cities in the 1990s, Santiago de Compostela was startling for the way in which the poor and the destitute were cheek-and-jowl with the middle class and the affluent. Back then, Galicia was one of the poorest regions in Spain, and probably the most overlooked. Certainly, it was off the beaten path. Santiago itself, as the regional capital, was and is still is a city of students, government bureaucrats and functionaries, and now more than ever it survives on revenue from pilgrims and tourists. (The number of guest houses and "digs" was startling, and the landlords and restaurant and bar owners were "great characters", as we say in Ireland.) What was a trickle in 1993 and 1994 has now built to a roar. 1993 was one of the first Holy Years - when St. James's Day falls on a Sunday - where a big government-sponsored campaign got behind advertising the Camino de Santiago and was exceptionally successful. Tourism in Santiago during my year there followed the way of most smaller European cities in the 1990s: in the autumn, you still saw tourists; in the winter, less and less. And in January and February, none. These short pieces are from one of those days when the city's residents went about their normal day, whether shivering under the arches, or drinking a cup of exotic Earl Grey in a lady's suit, with bouffant hairstyle, served by posh waiters. (Tea in Spain back then was associated with "English style" - it was exceedingly difficult to get a good cuppa, and it may still be.) The residents went about their day, observed by the Erasmus students, one of them writing feverishly in a notebook. Finally, the lottery ticket seller referred to above was part of, “ONCE” , the “National Organization of Spanish Blind People”. ONCE uses its lottery system to raise funds to employ and give benefits to the blind. The ONCE ticket sellers who sold tickets on the street, and not in booths, were the foot soldiers, and their plaintive call, "ONCE para hoy", and their tickets pinned to their chests, twinned with their blindness, gave them a lugubrious, almost medieval quality that I touch on in this poem, "Lamed".

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This poem is from my second book, Santiago Sketches, which is entirely set in the pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. You can read more poems here, in Spanish and in English. You can buy the book on Amazon here, or if you'd rather buy local, order from your bookshop. More information is available on my website.

This post gives the background on the editing of Santiago Sketches, which was distilled from perhaps 100 little pocket notebooks, which were shaped from being carried around in my trouser pocket.

Portico of Glory

Portico of Glory  


Ahead of me, under heaven’s musicians

—a trad session in ecstasy—

Christ’s lineage carved above us,

a pilgrim is fitting his fingers

into the impression

centuries of hands have made

on the tree of Jesse. I slot my hand

into the invisible

hand—a faith negative.



Among the proud walkers, each one his own Napoleon

—only briefly perturbed as a 6 foot 4 blond German

passes in rope sandals—go the ones hobble-walking

through the drizzle of medieval streets.

And apart from a briefcase and beige gabardine,

the small man with the four-inch black orthopedic

platform shoe could be medieval

—that sense of the afflicted.


Nowadays in Spain you barely see it, but in the early 1990s it wasn't uncommon to see people with difficulties like this man. Although most Spanish people didn't seem to notice, to me at least there was a sense of otherness about these people: both their own sense of being isolated, and the general society's sense of them. The social tableau felt, at times, like Rilke's novel of alienation, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Briggewhere the young Danish nobleman Malte (Rilke, really) fears the people whose bodies are the texts where the terrible vulnerabilities of their inner selves are written. (He fears that his own porous sense of self will be overwhelmed by their pain and difficulty.) And, at times, the old-fashioned medical solutions really did have that sense of continuity from medieval times: that time of the hunchback, and the mockery of crowds.

(The poem is from my second book, Santiago Sketches.)


Colexiata do Sar

Colexiata do Sar


Half past two in the afternoon: metal shutters

slamming down. Shade this side of the street.

A greased-back black-haired guy—smoker’s cough—

goes by. Cars, then silence of a side-street

on Saturday afternoon. Flap of a pigeon’s wing.

A dark-eyed girl in purple slippers with her boyfriend.

This suburb, almost countryside. In the shade of the Romanesque

church: wedding rice. A white terrier barking at me.


The Romanesque church of the Colexiata do Sar, or the "Collegiate Church of Santa María a Real do Sar" is located to the south of Santiago's new town, to the south east of the railway station, just beyond the inner ring road, the Avenida de Lugo. In 1993-94, the area had that delightful feel of where the city abruptly ends and countryside begins. The Saturday I happened upon it, all was quiet, apart from a friendly terrier.


[From my book, Santiago Sketches (Salmon Poetry, Ireland, 2017).]