Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Spanish Cultural Institute in Dublin

The incredible journey of José Antonio Sierra, and his 50 year battle

Fifty years ago in Ireland, there were only around 300 Spanish residents, with the majority being young au-pairs who would spend a few months and then return to their home country. Fast forward to today, and it marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Spanish Cultural Institute in Dublin. Over the years, thousands of students have passed through its classrooms since its inception in 1972.

One of the institute’s initial endeavours included offering classes for the children of Spanish residents in Ireland, along with English classes tailored for young au-pairs who were working in the country. At the helm of this visionary project, which eventually led to the creation of today’s Cervantes Institute in Dublin, was none other than José Antonio Sierra.

He boasts a diverse educational background, holding degrees in Philosophy and Letters, Journalism, and Social Psychology. Mr. Sierra’s teaching experience spans across Spain, France, and the United Kingdom. He played a pivotal role as the founder and director of the Cervantes Institute in Dublin, and he also served as the cultural attaché of the Spanish embassy in the Irish capital. Additionally, he contributed to the field of journalism, having worked for both the EFE agency and La Región Internacional.

Today, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Spanish Cultural Institute’s establishment in Dublin, it’s essential to reflect on its origins.

I, personally, arrived in Ireland in September 1968 after spending two years in Brighton, United Kingdom, and three years in Lyon, France, as a Spanish teacher. My purpose in Ireland was twofold: to assume the role of a Spanish Reader at Trinity College Dublin and to delve into the significance of the Spanish language in Ireland, as well as explore the historical connections between the two nations through the influence of Irish schools in Spain.

Jose Antonio Sierra

Soon after my arrival, I noticed certain gaps that needed to be addressed. For instance, I observed that only Spanish newspapers were available for purchase in a supermarket in the heart of Dublin. Additionally, the books used for teaching Spanish were not sourced from Spanish publishers, and my students possessed limited knowledge about Spain. It was in response to these observations that, with the invaluable support of “The Language Center of Ireland,” an English academy, and the general directorate of Cultural Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I took the initiative to establish the Spanish Center for Documentation and Cultural Exchanges. Among its noble objectives, the center provided free admission to Spaniards interested in working or studying in Ireland.

During my stints in France and the United Kingdom, I volunteered my efforts to assist Spanish emigrants, all while conducting research on the Spanish colony as part of a human geography course at one of Lyon’s universities.

My role in the creation of the Spanish Cultural Institute in Dublin was pivotal. In 1969, I presented the idea to the Spanish Government, proposing the establishment of a Spanish cultural institute in Dublin, much like the existing German, French, and Italian institutes. I conducted a comprehensive campaign in both the Spanish and Irish press, emphasizing the Institute’s potential to foster cultural, educational, commercial, and tourist relations between the two nations, benefitting both countries.

In my quest for support, I reached out to Adolfo Suarez, who was then the general director of Radiotelevisión Española and later became the President of the Government. He granted me an interview on RNE to introduce the project, marking the first program on the importance of the Spanish language in the world. My visits to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were numerous, and I became acquainted with the office staff during this process.

Jose Sierra

The opening ceremony was graced by the presence of the Ambassador of Spain in Ireland, Don Joaquín Juste Cestino, and the general director of Cultural Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Don José Luís Messía. Distinguished representatives from the artistic and cultural circles of Eire, along with members of the Spanish community in Dublin, were also in attendance.

During his inaugural address, the Minister for Education spoke in Gaelic, Spanish, and English. He highlighted the historical ties between Spain and Ireland, the integration of the Spanish language into the Irish educational system, and the influx of young Spaniards attending English courses in Ireland during the summer. He concluded his speech by acknowledging the significant educational efforts of the Cultural Institute, catering to students at various levels, including those just starting to learn Spanish, advanced students, and teachers seeking to enhance their knowledge of Spanish and stay updated with new expressions and vocabulary.

In its early days, the Spanish Cultural Institute in Dublin offered a wide range of services and established short-term objectives. These included:

  • Language Courses: The Institute provided courses in Spanish, Catalan, Galician, and Basque. Notably, it became the first cultural center of Spain abroad in 1975 to include these co-official languages in its academic program.
  • Library Cooperation: The Institute signed a cooperation agreement with the Public Library Coordinating Center of Dublin City Council to create Spanish language and culture sections in local libraries.
  • Spanish Music Service: It offered a service related to Spanish music, likely including music appreciation and cultural events.
  • Commercial Information: The Institute provided commercial information services, helping individuals and businesses with Spanish-related matters.
  • Newspapers and Magazines: It offered access to Spanish-language newspapers and magazines.
  • Cultural Tourism Information: The Institute provided information about cultural tourism in Spain.
  • Spanish for Children: Courses were offered for children to learn the Spanish language.
  • Business Spanish Courses: Specialized courses for business-related language skills.
  • Resource Center: A resource center was established to assist Spanish teachers in their teaching endeavors.
  • Collaboration with Madrid Pedagogical Film Center: A collaboration agreement was signed for the screening of educational films.
  • Cultural Events: The Institute organized various cultural activities, including the first week of Spanish cinema and the first international guitar festival.
  • Collaboration Agreements: The Institute forged collaboration agreements with prominent cultural institutions and societies in Dublin for joint activities related to Spain.

Additionally, the Institute took steps to promote the study of Ibero-America in all universities in Ireland since its inception in 1972, and it emphasized a self-financing policy to avoid being a burden on taxpayers.

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The creation of the Residents’ Council of Ireland was also promoted by the Institute itself. This initiative stemmed from the Institute’s early activities, which included classes for children of Spanish residents and English classes for young au-pairs. As a result of social concerns and work experience, it was deemed essential to establish a Residents’ Council as soon as the required number of registered residents was met. This Council aimed to advocate for the rights and interests of Spanish residents in Ireland, and it became an important platform for community support and engagement.

Spanish immigration to Ireland 50 years ago was nearly non-existent in terms of a substantial community. At that time, there were fewer than 300 Spanish residents in Ireland. The primary form of “immigration” was the presence of hundreds of young au-pairs who came to Ireland for short periods, typically a few months to a year, before returning to Spain. Additionally, during the summer months, thousands of young individuals would visit Ireland to study English, mainly in July or August. Spanish residents were primarily concentrated in major cities like Dublin, Cork, or Galway, and it was challenging to find Spanish residents outside these urban areas.

Comparing this to the current situation, there is a significant contrast. Presently, there is a thriving Association of Spanish Speakers in Ireland, a Council of Spanish Residents, and the Spanish Association of Researchers in Ireland. These organizations have contributed significantly to the integration of Spanish residents into Irish society and have showcased the diversity of professions and trades among Spanish residents.

Currently, the number of Spanish residents in Ireland has surged to nearly 15,000, encompassing a wide array of professions, including those in the travel industry, hospitality sector, education, engineering, healthcare, science, business, and technology. This stands in stark contrast to 1970 when Spanish imigration to Ireland was minimal, and the Spanish community was primarily composed of temporary visitors.

The Spanish Cultural Institute played a pivotal role in making Spain known in Ireland through various means. It occupied a prominent place in the media, and its activities were considered newsworthy. The Institute actively participated in cultural, political, and social conferences, forums, and colloquiums. It also collaborated towards the transition to democracy in Spain and adopted a policy of cooperation with Irish associations, cultural services, institutions, and official departments to present its activities in collaboration with those of Ireland. The Institute aimed to be a shared, cooperative entity, contributing to cultural exchange between Spain and Ireland.

Some notable aspects of the Institute’s establishment in Dublin included promoting the idea that Spain is a diverse nation with various languages and cultures. It sought to dispel stereotypes about Spain’s climate, emphasizing that it had rainy days, cold weather, and more than just sunny days. The Institute aimed to integrate itself into Irish society and culture, with locals affectionately calling its director Antonio, simplifying the pronunciation for them. Additionally, the Institute made an effort to engage with the local community by sending greetings in Gaelic, English, and Spanish and implementing a no-smoking policy within its facilities.

The Institute faced challenges as well, including a protest incident in March 1974 when an incendiary device was thrown against its door as a sign of protest against the executions of two anarchists in Barcelona. Thankfully, there were no casualties or injuries, but it demonstrated the complex political climate at the time. The Hispanic Studies departments of Dublin’s universities expressed solidarity and condemnation of the attack through letters and signatures sent to the media in Ireland.

When questioned about why the building of the Spanish Cultural Institute was not protected, the response given was that police protection should not be necessary for the purpose of teaching the languages and cultures. This sentiment reflected the belief that cultural exchange and education should be open and welcoming, without the need for security measures.

Twenty years later, the creation of the Cervantes Institute marked a significant development.

Personally, it brought me great satisfaction, as I had already outlined the project and purposes of what the Cervantes Institute should be in 1985, six years prior to its establishment.

Jose Antonio Sierra

The Spanish Cultural Institute of Dublin, from its inception in 1972 until its transition to the Cervantes Institute in 1992, played a significant role in promoting Spanish music in Ireland. It was responsible for nearly 200 Spanish music concerts during that time. On the occasion of its 100th concert, it received congratulations from Don Fermín Colomé, the general director of Cultural Relations of the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 2024, as a tribute to the Spanish Cultural Institute’s contribution to the dissemination of Spanish music in Ireland, the 50th anniversary of the Institute will be celebrated during all concerts of the group Euphoria, dedicated to the Irish group U2.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Spanish Cultural Institute’s official inauguration, I would like to express my gratitude to all the staff of the Institute, the numerous students who passed through its classrooms at 58 Northumberland Rd, Dublin 4, and the various Irish institutions that collaborated and supported the Institute’s work. I extend my personal thanks to the Irish people and the Sandymount neighborhood of Dublin, where I resided for many years.

In 2024, health permitting, the focus will be on promoting cultural relations between Spain and Ireland, underscoring the enduring importance of historical and cultural connections between the two nations.

By Jose Antonio Sierra

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