Today, the Camino de Santiago, an increasingly popular pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, not only attracts over 200,000 hikers a year, but is also enshrined on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Irish actor James Nesbitt starred in a film based on the pilgrimage called “The Way”. Although many people mistakenly believed that the pilgrimage to Santiago had been going on uninterrupted since the Middle Ages, the trek did not experience a resurgence in popularity until the late 1950s, thanks in large part to the Irish scholar Walter Starkie, whose 1957 classic “The Road to Santiago” became the first modern popular work written in English on the pilgrimage, but he made many other important contributions to Spain and its culture.
Although Starkie is now a forgotten figure in his native Ireland, Spain still remembers him for the many contributions he made as a teacher, translator of Spanish literature and as founder of the highly influential Institute British during World War II. He was, however, much more than an academic. A charming wanderer who was fluent in four languages, he was most proud of being called “the man who knows the gypsies”. Few men have been more successful in combining respectable academia with vagrant life. His popular travel books described his vacation away from academia, when he slung his violin over his shoulder and roamed the roads of Europe, living with the gypsies as one of them and paying his way with his violin.
It is perhaps hard to believe that this fiddle-playing wanderer, beloved of Europe’s Roma community, was in fact a scion of privileged Irish Protestant ancestry, albeit raised Catholic. Born in Ballybrack, Killiney, Co. Dublin, Starkie was the son of a famous Greek scholar and translator of Aristophanes, and the last resident Commissioner of National Education for Ireland under British rule. During his days at Trinity, Republicans accused him of being a “Western Briton”.
Starkie graduated in 1920, with first-class honors in classics, history, and political science. An accomplished violinist, he also won first prize in violin at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in 1913. Due to his severe asthma, he was rejected for service in World War I, but joined a band entertaining the forces in Italy, where he married an opera singer and complicated his legacy by supporting the early stages of Mussolini’s fascist regime.
He was a friend of William Butler Yeats, who asked him to serve on the advisory board of the Abbey Theatre. Starkie was often at odds with the other board members and failed to convince them to direct Sean O’Casey’s anti-war drama “The Silver Tassie”, which led O’Casey to abandon the abbey. He became a Fellow of Trinity College in 1926 and its first Spanish teacher in 1926. One of his students at Trinity was the Nobel Prize-winning playwright Samuel Beckett.
Starkie’s life would change with his first trip to Spain in 1924. He lectured at the Residencia de Estudiantes, where some of the giants of 20th-century Spanish culture studied, including the playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca, for whom he plays the violin, director Luis Buñuel and painter Salvador Dali. The Spaniards quickly fell in love with him as he appeared as a figure of a bygone era, in which the wandering scholar had a solid knowledge of languages, music and literature.
A great storyteller who loved his wine and his music, Starkie loved the Spanish fiestas the most where the music took center stage and people went into spontaneous flamenco. He charmed the Spaniards by going for his food at the tables of the cafes of Antequera or by walking around Madrid with his violin slung over his shoulder. He would shock some of his more staid Irish and British friends with the effusive greetings given to him by wild-looking gypsies who loved his music. Few people recognized him as a teacher. Once, appealing to the Basque painter Ignacio de Zuloaga, he looked so disheveled that the painter’s servant slammed the door. Starkie responded by sitting on the painter’s doorstep, pulling out his violin and playing the painter’s favorite Basque tune, to which the painter responded by opening the door, laughing and greeting him with a hug. bear.
In the 1930s he wrote a few successful travel books, “Spanish Raggle-Taggle: Adventures with a Fiddle in Northern Spain” (1934) and “Don Gypsy: Adventures with a Fiddle in Barbary, Andulusia and La Mancha” ( 1936). Due to the many influences of his youth, Starkie donned very different personas in his travel diaries: sometimes Irish, sometimes English, sometimes just a wandering minstrel or fiddler. These works chronicle his interactions with all classes of people in Spain, something few other travel writers did at the time. He also spent a lot of time with Andalusian gypsy musicians, chronicling their music and listening to their stories. Writing allowed him to indulge his passion for travel and music; for example “Don Gypsy” is subtitled “Adventures with a Violin in Southern Spain”.
Walter Starkie’s lasting ties to Spain took root most firmly during the years 1940-54. Like many other Irish Catholics, Starkie was a supporter of Franco during the Civil War and because of his support for the Falangist movement, the dictator had no objection to his appointment in 1940 as British Council representative in Spain. Starkie founded the British Institute in Madrid and was also appointed British Cultural Attaché. The Institute thrived on Starkie’s stunning personality, in stark contrast to the haughty British Embassy staff, who did little to foster warm bonds with the Spanish people. His many Spanish admirers quickly acclaimed him as the most dynamic and productive Goodwill Ambassador to ever serve the Spanish and English speaking nations. On any night of Starkie’s tenure at the British Institute, one could encounter Madrid’s cultural elite, including Pio Baroja, future Nobel Prize-winning novelist Camilo Jose Cela, painters like Ignacio de Zuloaga and many others. He founded branches of the British Institute in Barcelona, Bilbao, Valencia and Seville, taught comparative literature at the University of Madrid, and lectured at almost every other university in Spain.
Thanks in part to Starkie’s outsized influence, Spain remained neutral during the war. During the war he also helped set up and operate an escape route for British airmen shot down over France. Starkie and his wife also allowed their large apartment at 24 Calle del Prado to be used as a refuge for fleeing Jewish refugees.
Starkie helped popularize Spanish literature in the English-speaking world, publishing his translation of “Don Quixote”. He was fascinated by the image of the Andalusian pícaro, the hoodlum or chancellor who made his living by plotting.
In 1954, he reluctantly left for the United States where he taught at several universities, but he still kept a home in Madrid, where he planned to retire. He returned to Madrid in 1970 and lived there until his death in 1976. His body was taken back to Ireland and now rests in the family tomb in Dublin.