Palma, Discreto, San Patricio, Fotos: Pere J. Bergas Palma, Discreto, San Patricio, Fotos: Pere J. Bergas | P. BERGAS / MICHELS


There is no Saint Ponsa, and there never was a Saint Ponsa. Santa Ponsa, if you want to be grand, is a pseudo-hagiotoponym - a made-up saint’s name. But the two components were real enough, though it can depend on your preference as to the explanation of the name. “Sant” and “pont” were both Celtic words. The Celtic origin of Santa Ponsa lay with something like a marshy wetland. There again, where is the evidence that the Celts had anything to do with Majorca?

Still, it’s a neat hypothesis for giving some ancient context for the present day, which means - as it does each year - that Ireland’s primary patron saint is honoured in Santa Ponsa to an extent that he is nowhere else in Mallorca. Saint Patrick of Ponsa is a de facto patron.

The closest connection that Saint Patrick has with Mallorca is to be found across the sea in Murcia. Mallorca, with the exception of Santa Ponsa and bars across the island that need little excuse for a special party, has only a remote association with Patrick on account of his being a Catholic saint, albeit one was never canonised. In Murcia, however, Patrick is the patron saint. Not, it has to be said, that Patrick ever ventured as far as Murcia.

The patronage stems from events on St. Patrick’s Day in 1452. The Muslims from Granada had been attacking Cartagena. This came to an end on March 17 that year - Juan II of Castile defeated the Muslims. In Lorca, a city of almost 100,000, they would have played the Irish national anthem yesterday. They do so each year in the Colegiata de San Patricio, the Collegiate Church of Saint Patrick.

Although the saint may not loom large in terms of celebration on the island, it’s not as if Mallorca doesn’t have a significant Irish legacy. This said, the history of Irish immigration, fragmented as it was, has never been the subject of coherent research, possibly because there were distinct phases in the migratory flow from Ireland to Spain between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

Of the Irish who arrived in Mallorca, some were assimilated through adaptations of their names. Hence, O’Leary became Oleó and O’Donnell Udunell. For others, there wasn’t quite the same change, if any. The O’Ryans arrival in Mallorca was as a direct consequence of the Treaty of Limerick in 1691, which brought an end to the war between the Jacobites and William of Orange. Cornelius (later Corneli) O’Ryan was from an Irish noble family in Cashel, Tipperary. He left Ireland in 1693 and his son, Juan O’Ryan y Mahoni, definitively established the family home and what was to become a Mallorcan noble dynasty.

Another noble family were the O’Neilles or O’Neylles. Their connection to Majorca was not as direct. The move from Ireland followed the Treaty of Limerick but it was to elsewhere in Spain, where a Felix O’Neille was to rise to the rank of captain-general of the royal army. It was his son, Juan, who founded the O’Neille house in Mallorca, and it was Juan’s grandson, Joan O’Neille i Rossinyol, born in 1828, who was to become famous as Mallorca’s first genuine landscape painter.

So we have an Irish legacy, we have a saint (Patrick), and we have a place that sounds as if it was named after a different saint (but wasn’t). But more is needed to explain how Santa Ponsa came to be Irish. Much more, and it wasn’t just by luck. It was strategic.

Over fifteen years ago, the Irish broadcaster RTE posted an article on its website. The opening sentence read: “If Santa Ponsa did not exist, Ireland’s holiday culture would have had to create it.” Ireland created Santa Ponsa? Well no, as the basis for what became the Santa Ponsa of the tourism boom had been in the 1930s. Two Germans, Heinrich Mendelssohn and Max Säume, were instrumental in the development prior to the Civil War.

Calvia town hall earmarked Santa Ponsa for expansion in the 1950s, as it did other coastal areas, the final one having been Magalluf. The resort therefore grew, but in the 1970s, enter one Joe Walsh. His company, Joe Walsh Tours, was to be the most influential Irish tour operator in putting down Irish holiday roots in Santa Ponsa. One of the first establishments that Joe Walsh hooked up with was the Deya Apartments.

Joe Walsh was also active in the religious tourism market. In a way, it might be thought that he combined this with his sun and beach tourism drive. But that wasn’t so, as Santa Ponsa wasn’t saintly. It maybe had something to do with the sort of holiday colonialisation that occurred and which made, for example, Magalluf predominantly British and Arenal German.

But whatever the strategy and whatever historical links one might look for, St. Patrick’s Day in Santa Ponsa was born in the 1970s.