Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Saturday 24 August 2019

'A noble fighter for democracy'

Radical bohemian educator Pamela O'Malley is being honoured for defying Franco to campaign for equality

Bohemian educator: Pamela O'Malley
Bohemian educator: Pamela O'Malley

Sarah MacDonald

'I am not a teacher, but an awakener," wrote the poet Robert Frost. It's a description that encapsulates Dr Pamela O'Malley, a Dublin-born educator and political activist who took on the Francoist authorities to campaign for social justice in her adopted country of Spain.

She was described by her friend Seamus Heaney as "a noble fighter for democracy", and her contribution to Spanish society was honoured earlier this year when a street was named after her in Madrid.

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O'Malley - who married the man on whom the disreputable main protagonist of The Ginger Man was based - is featured in a new exhibition at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin. 'Irish Educators Abroad: Building Something Wonderful' is sponsored by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Many of those featured are nuns and clergymen, an indication of the inextricable link between education and the Christian churches up to the second half of the 20th century.

Dr Angela Byrne, the historian-in-residence at EPIC, who did the research for the exhibition, says the nuns and priests played a "vital role" in "establishing education in far-flung locations around the British Empire and in places where the Irish diaspora was strong".

These include Sr Gabriel Hogan, who founded the first Catholic school for the deaf in New South Wales in Australia, and Sr Julia McGroarty, who founded one of the first women's colleges in the USA, as well as schools for immigrant and African American children. "Prior to the late 20th century the picture of Irish people working in education is in large part one associated with religious orders," says Byrne.

She highlights the effect of the marriage ban introduced in 1932, which required female primary school teachers to resign on marriage, saying: "That targeted women in the workplace in a profession that was female-dominated. A woman who wanted to have a career in teaching had a much better opportunity if she was in religious life than she had if she remained in a civic role."

O'Malley stands out among all these pious people. A bohemian and a radical, she challenged the sexual mores of the conservative Ireland she left behind and the even more conservative mores of Francoist Spain, where she got involved with the underground communist resistance.

She was arrested several times by the Spanish authorities for her political activism. Even while she was imprisoned for possession and distribution of communist propaganda, she managed to put her vocation to good use by teaching some of her fellow inmates to read and write.

While championing a more equal society and education for all, she taught for 34 years at Madrid's British School.

Born in Dublin in 1929, O'Malley was raised in Limerick and saw Spain for the first time in 1947 when her father sent her, along with her brother George, to visit the family's sherry suppliers. According to the Dictionary of Irish Biography, she was struck then by the fact that Spain was an even more puritanical place than Ireland at the time.

At UCD she was drawn towards literary and bohemian circles. She was a friend of the writers Kate O'Brien and Brendan Behan. She fell madly in love with an American divorcé, Gainor Crist, but was unable to marry him in the Ireland of the 1950s, so she took the daring decision to openly cohabit with him.

Crist was the model for JP Donleavy's "brawling, boozing, hooring" hero Sebastian Dangerfield in his 1955 novel The Ginger Man. The couple moved to London in '52 and then on to Barcelona in '54 before settling in Madrid following their marriage in Gibraltar.

She ramped up her political activism. In the '60s she became a founder member of the education branch of the then illegal workers' commission, an underground trade union movement.

Her fervent belief in equal access to education was mirrored by her second cousin, Fianna Fáil Minister for Education Donogh O'Malley, whose introduction of free second-level education in Ireland in 1966 had far-reaching consequences for economic development, social mobility and cultural change in this country.

In 2004, Pamela O'Malley was made president of the Asamblea de Cooperación Por la Paz, promoting anti-racism and building schools in developing countries. Her contribution was recognised with awards from two Spanish ministries. Her doctoral thesis focused on educational movements under Franco was published as 'Education Reform in Democratic Spain' in 1995.

But her influence went wider than her work in education. She hosted regular gatherings at her apartment for intellectuals, writers and bohemians to meet and exchange ideas. Following her death in 2006, Madrid-based Irish poet John Liddy wrote in a tribute in the Sunday Independent that Pamela "packed many lives into one and lived each with such intensity".

Another poet who came within her sphere of influence was Heaney, who described her as a "noble fighter for democracy" and an "amicable, intellectually springy, intoxicatingly companionable Irishwoman, capable of banter and laughter but equally capable of passionate argument and advocacy". Heaney had learned of the eruption of the Troubles in 1969 while he was in Madrid with O'Malley, learning about artists in the Prado Museum. A manuscript of Heaney's poem 'Summer 1969' was one of O'Malley's prized possessions.

In Ireland, she is being celebrated as one of the most influential Irish educators abroad in the late 20th century; and earlier this year, Madrid Council named a thoroughfare Calle Pamela O'Malley.

Liddy said, "The people who walk this street, now and for generations to come, will look up and see Pamela's name on a sign. They may even explore further and learn how she dedicated her life to (Madrid's) people through educational, humanistic and political activism."

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