Unconventional activist who made Spain her home

Pamela O'Malley - Irish Times obituary, 18th Feb. 2006


Pamela O'Malley: Pamela O'Malley de Crist, who died suddenly last Sunday in Madrid aged 76, lived a full life in several worlds, and graced all of them with her courage, intelligence, kindness and humour. Her parents were Kathleen and Patrick O'Malley of Limerick. Her father was a wine importer, a successful business inherited by her late brother, George. She was a second cousin of the late Donough O'Malley, the legendary Fianna Fáil minister for education, and she remained close to his nephew, Des O'Malley, despite their contrasting political philosophies.

Pamela was a marvellous raconteur, and she relished stories which explode stereotypes. When she was still a student in UCD, a tall beauty with a great mane of flaming red hair, she announced to her parents that she intended to live with her lover, without benefit of marriage. Her parents brought her to a priest to set her straight.

"Do you know that what you propose to do is a mortal sin?" the priest asked her. She did, she replied. "And do you still want to do it?" I do, she said. "With all your heart?" persisted the priest. "Yes," she said, "with all my heart."

"Then, my daughter, do it you must," this unorthodox priest concluded, to her baffled parents' outrage. Her lover was Gainor Crist, an American studying in Ireland under the GI Bill. To Pamela's mild irritation, he became the model for the protagonist of JP Donleavy's novel The Ginger Man, a rather misleading label that has proved hard to shake off over the years.

The couple went to London in 1952, where she made lifelong friends, before moving to Barcelona two years later. They got married in Gibraltar and made their final home in Madrid. Gainor died in 1964. He was the love of her life, and she never remarried.

Pamela became a respected and beloved teacher at the British School. Many of her pupils were the children of prominent Francoists, but she was attracted to the opposition, and was soon a significant figure in the illegal Communist Party of Spain.

She joined that party, she said, because "it was the only body sufficiently well organised and coherent to form an effective underground opposition to Franco". She was particularly impressed with its strategy of "national reconciliation" which promised to promote democracy while avoiding a repeat of Spain's civil war. She was as independent-minded as she was loyal: she was expelled from the party twice, but then twice accepted invitations to rejoin. Her last party affiliation was with the now defunct Democratic Party of the New Left.

She was a founding member of the communist-backed Workers' Commissions in the field of education. She talked in the most matter-of-fact fashion about those years, despite the ever-present risks of arrest and torture. After two brief detentions, she was charged with possession and distribution of communist propaganda, and sentenced to six months by a notorious military tribunal. The general who sentenced her also told the school to reinstate her once she got out: "She is the best teacher my daughters have ever had." After the reintroduction of democracy, the same general was killed by the Basque terrorist group Eta. Pamela attended the funeral, and was summoned to the coffin by his widow. "You were always a Red," declared the grieving woman, "but you always said that this kind of thing was wrong."

Pamela saw that the general's son, an army officer, was weeping abjectly by the coffin. She learned that he had sought a transfer to the Guardia Civil, and was serving in the Basque Country. She feared he might be seeking revenge for his father. She was relieved when she later heard that he had fallen in love, and was going to rejoin his old army unit, far from the conflict zone. But before he could make that move he, too, was killed by Eta.

For Pamela, the story summed up her belief that violence was futile, and that reconciliation was the only worthwhile political path.

It was no surprise, then, that she spent much of her retirement working tirelessly for a Spanish peace group, the Asamblea de Cooperación por la Paz, of which she was president at the time of her death. She was granted a doctorate for a thesis on education in the Franco period and edited a book on education reform.

The Spanish labour ministry recognised her work with a gold medal, and the ministry of education awarded her the Alfonso X el Sabio prize.She returned to Ireland frequently, to visit her many friends in Dublin and Limerick. She holidayed on her beloved Achill every summer, and enjoyed the Merriman Summer School and the Kate O'Brien Weekend.

For her Irish friends, she will be remembered more for culture than politics, and most of all for her exuberant and generous sense of life. She was a mentor to many visitors to Madrid, and introduced the young Seamus Heaney to the paintings of Goya and Velázquez in the Prado. A manuscript copy of his poem about that period, Summer 1969, had pride of place on her wall.

She was a true aficionado of bull-fighting, and knew and loved every stone of Madrid's old quarter. To share these pleasures with her was a privilege and an education, always rounded off with wise and witty reminiscences over a bottle of good wine and tapas. The Spanish capital will be a duller city without her.

She is survived by her step-daughters Mariana and Jane, her niece Siobhán and her nephews Brendan and Conor. Pamela Kathleen Mary O'Malley de Crist: born July 12th, 1929; died February 12th, 2006

© The Irish Times

The oration at the memorial service by Manus O'Riordan and a tribute by Seamus Heaney.