A Meal On A Spanish Tramp Steamer – By Liam O’Reilly

“Caught in the throes of a revolution, I found myself at the Spanish port of Valencia after a tedious 16 hour train journey. After six days and nights a tramp steamer put in, and I succeeded in getting taken aboard to enjoy (sic) the pleasures of a cruise to Liverpool.

I wish the boat wouldn’t roll so much! Down she goes, now she is up again. Still I do not think the rolling is as bad as yesterday, so I will get up and try the Spanish breakfast.

“Buenos Dias” Captain,

“How are you this morning?”

“Oh! Not so bad. I feel I can eat a little to-day”.

“Si, it is nice now”.

The table is set, with places for the captain, first and second mates, and myself. There are two decanters of Spanish wine, a plate of rolls in the centre, and ranged around these are several small dishes. At each place there is a knife, fork, and soup spoon (the same knife and fork is used for all the courses), and four plates, one being for soup.

The “entremeses” or entrée this morning consists of sardinas (sardines), anchoe (anchovy), and hamon (raw ham). Having tasted a little of each, we really started the meal.


The second course is “Sopa de ajo” in a large earthenware dish, and all that meets the eye at first is about a dozen-and-a-half eggs joined together and lightly fried.  Having taken three or four eggs you find underneath a coloured liquid, which is oil, and pieces of bread and garlic. You put this on your soup plate, mix it up, and eat it with your soup spoon. (The boat seems to be rolling more now that I have tasted this dish).

And now for “Bacalao,” or Swordfish, follows. This is served in another earthenware dish with oil or sauce. You eat the fish with bread and wash it down with wine.

While the captain and the others are eating this I take a course in Auto-suggestion, and I find the boat must be now in a calm spot, she is so quiet.

Here is something I can try to eat, it is named “Abichuela con Verza.” This is really a very simple dish, although the name is long, and the recipe is: baked beans decorated with large slices of fat.


We are slowly coming to the end, as I find I have only one plate left in front of me. At last something I will feel at home with, “Patatas y Cerdo” (chips and pork). But I am afraid there is something wrong, because it is definitely not the same as Irish pork – still, I can get my teeth into it.

“Yes! I will have some Membrillo” (this is a type of solidified jam, and it is cut into small pieces, and placed – not spread – on the dry bread).

“Queso?” (cheese).


“Frúta” (fruit)


“Ouva” (grapes), “Manzana” (apples), “Melcotones” (peaches), Castañas (roasted chestnuts).

“Ouya, por fabor (please).

To conclude this early morning feast we will have some black coffee, and a Spanish cigarette, which must be tasted to be known – and will be known at a range of 20 yards ever afterwards.

It is now 10.45a.m., an hour and three-quarters since we sat down, so I’ll finish my cigarette in the air.


I am glad I was able to eat some breakfast because the next meal is timed for 4 o’clock in the afternoon. It is an “old Spanish custom” that you only get two meals per day when at sea. When I eat again, if I am able to, I shall spend about two hours at the table, for at the later meal there will be two other dishes in addition to those I have mentioned.

This article appeared in the newspaper the Irish Weekly Independent on November 24th, 1934. It was written by my father Liam O’Reilly who was 21 years old at the time of writing.

Travelling in the Basque region of northern Spain my father Liam O’Reilly became caught up in the turmoil that was the Asturian miners’ strike of October 1934, an armed uprising by miners and other workers in the mining towns of Asturia in north west Spain, known as the Revolution of Asturias, which developed into the class and regional conflict that became the Spanish Civil War two years later.

In response to a call by opposition anarchists and communists opposing the rising power of the catholic and right-wing Confederation of the Autonomous Right (CEDA) party, on October 4th the armed Asturian miners occupied several towns, while the provincial capital Oviedo was taken by October 6th.

The revolt was finally crushed on October 19th by hitherto unknown General Francisco Franco y Bahamonde. 3,000 miners were killed in the fighting and another 30,000 taken prisoner. Convinced the revolutionary uprising had been meticulously planned by Moscow, General Franco felt the brutal use of colonial Morrocan regulares and the Spanish Foreign Legion troops from Morocco, and the Spanish Navy to repress the revolt (including the torture, rape, and summary execution of Spanish civilians) was wholly justified.

A Meal On A  Spanish Tram Steamer - By Liam O'Reilly: Asturias-miners
October 1934 – Asturian Miners surrounded by troops

Comparable to my own experience in Beijing in June 1989 (read more at http://wp.me/p15Yzr-r), it is easy to imagine the turmoil, fueled by the Spanish Navy’s bombardment of the Asturian port of Gijon, rumours and counter rumours of port blockades, frontier closures, troop movements, and escalating general strikes which would have caused my father to take flight for the eastern port of Valencia: His Tiananmen Square moment.

My modern day equivalent of a Spanish Tramp Steamer was a Cathay Pacific Boeing 747 from Beijing to Hong Kong (to evacuate about 10 members of the Irish community in Beijing). Unfortunately I don’t recall the menu!

Related reading: ‘4.15pm May 8th 1973’ http://wp.me/p15Yzr-y recalls the day my father Liam O’Reilly went to meet his maker.

Steamer typical of the tramp ships operating between south European ports and Liverpool in the early 1930s
Steamer typical of the tramp ships operating between south European ports and Liverpool in the early 1930s

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