Castillo San Marcos

Castillo San Marcos
13th-century castle, El Puerto de Santa Maria. That WAS our house to the left and behind the tree!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

History of a Puerto Palace

One of my new-found projects, fascinated as I am by this incredible place we live in, is to understand more about this house.  House is really not the correct word; the registro where all the archival documentation on Puerto’s houses are kept called this a casa-bodega.   But to me, it’s a palace, and I am its queen!

The queen in her castle

Our palace is known as Casa O’Ryan after the Irish immigrant who built it, Thomas Patrick Ryan.  (At this point he was not “O’Ryan,” just regular “Ryan,” but I guess since he was the grandson of the original Ryans from Ireland, he qualifies with the “O”.)  Thomas Ryan was the son of Irish immigrants to Cádiz in the latter half of the 18th century, when England, via Cromwell, was confiscating all of the property owned by the Irish Catholics.  Stripped of their land and possessions, many decided to come to Spain.

Welcome to the palace

Why Spain?  Surprising for me, there is a deeply-felt connection between Spain and Ireland.  Sometime in the early centuries of Christianity, Ireland was supposedly visited by some Spanish guys.  Both Spanish and Irish legend tell of the great leader from Galicia, Milesian, who sailed with his warriors across the ocean to Ireland, where they conquered (after a time) the Irish population and never left.   Or something like that.  Milesian is the Anglization of Mil Espáine, or from the Latin, Miles Hispaniae, “soldier of Spain.”  Back in the 18th century, both Ireland and Spain were familiar with this legend (although it doesn’t appear to be true), and based on it, King Carlos II of Spain declared that “the Irish in Spain have always enjoyed the same privileges as Spaniards,”  which was subsequently confirmed via decree by King Felipe V and King Carlos IV.  Who knew?

Milesian is getting revenge for the Celtic treachery

So Thomas Patrick Ryan was well-aware of his Spanish roots, and decided to put down roots permanently in El Puerto de Santa Maria.  He built this palace in 1773, after marrying Margaret Francisca Terry MacNamara, the daughter of William Terry of Málaga.  Interestingly enough, the Terry family also has Irish (not British) roots, and the current owner is a Terry, though only very distantly related to Margaret.  The Málaga Terrys were quite rich, so this was a big step up for Thomas Patrick.

The inner courtyard

To further boost his standing in society, Thomas Ryan apparently applied for and received a title: Hidalgo.  He had to submit his lineage from Ireland, which seemed to have impressed the Spanish officials enough to grant him his title.  Maybe that’s when he had the coat of arms made for the house?

The latin inscription reads, "Better death than to suffer a stain [dishonor]"

The house (or palace, as I prefer to call it) stayed in the Ryan family until 1844, when one of the children (or grandchildren?) of Thomas Patrick decided to sell it.  By this time the Irish name had been changed from Ryan to Rian, and one Ignacio Alberto Rian sold the casa-bodega to Don Benito Ricardo y Ricardo and his wife, Doña Catalina Paul y Ymas.  They held onto it for the next 50 years. Doña Catalina sold the palace in 1893 and it was resold in 1895, landing in the Don Ramon Jimenez Varela family for the next 60 years.  Don Ramon bought the house for a paltry 25,000 pesetas, or about $4000. What a deal!

Interior front door

The palace stayed in the Jimenez family after Don Ramon’s death as well as the death of his heir, Don Ernesto.  Doña Rafaela Sancho Mateos, Don Ernesto's widow, subdivided the property, splitting the house off from the bodega.  When she died in 1954, the six children quickly sold the palace off to the Caballero Noguera family, another famous Puerto bodega family.  This time the house sold for 35,000 pesetas, but in today’s money and due to inflation, that would be about $700.   If only I’d been around to buy it then!

Where the keys to the palace are kept

The palace stayed in the Caballero Noguera family for the next 20 years.  I keep running into people who knew the house intimately during those years: my compañera de baile, Isabel, spent her summers in this house with the Caballeros, and I’ve met Carlota Caballero, who grew up here. 

Hallway upstairs to Sasha's room
In 1973, Tomás Terry Merello of the Puerto bodega family Terry bought the house, I’m guessing for his bride Ana Rosa Pidel, and began extensive remodeling on the grand, old, falling-down palace.  He moved the main staircase, added an upstairs to the back wing, and moved the kitchen, among other things.  He used antique tiles and other materials to maintain the authenticity of the palace.   Each bathroom has its own tile color: blue, teal, green, or maroon!

Blue bathroom

Much of the wood for the beams and many of the doors in the house is caoba, a South American hardwood that resists wood-eating insects.   Two of the fountains came from the nearby monastery, and many of the lights, doors,  and other details were salvaged from other palaces in the area.

Caoba shutters in the living room

One of the glories of the house is the fresco in the study painted by local artist Juan Lara.  Juan Lara made his name painting in Mexico, where he is better known, but he is a local favorite here in Puerto, with a school named after him!   The fresco is enormous and gives you the sensation that you are looking back into the past.

The 150-year-old chandelier isn't bad, either

When it was built, the central courtyard was open to the air was and closed in later, although the glass structure is still open to allow heat to escape.  The house was originally a summer house, not intended for winter use (note the lack of fireplaces).  

Such a gorgeous space
There is a second courtyard looking out towards the garden, and a third smaller courtyard off of the study. 

Main outside patio, heading to the garden

Small patio off of the study (Juan Lara room)

The art in the dining room is particularly impressive: the main painting is of the Virgen de Guadalupe of Mexico.  The Virgen appeared to an indigena, later San Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, and ordered him to inform the archbishop to build a shrine to her here at this spot.  The archbishop refused, demanding proof of la Virgen’s appearance.  The Virgen appeared again to San Juan Diego, inviting him to climb up to the top of the hill.  Despite the winter weather and the arid climate, Juan Diego found many beautiful flowers, which he gathered.  The Virgen told him to bring them to the archbishop as proof.  He put them in his ayate or tilma (a cloak used for harvesting).  In front of the archbishop, he opened the tilma to shake out the flowers, and inexplicably, there was the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe imprinted on the fabric of the tilma.

Enough room for everyone, with the Virgen looking on

And the kitchen is enormous.  It is a real pleasure to cook there, with plenty of space and storage, a huge pantry, and delightful blue tiling and country cabinets.  No matter that there’s no dishwasher (we installed one back in the laundry room and ferry the dishes back and forth), we have double sinks!  And Tia and Sasha have become expert dish-doers.

The Joy of Cooking

Finally, we have bedrooms!  And bedrooms, and bedrooms,  6 of them, to be exact, and 6 bathrooms, all gorgeous and light-filled.  There’s something for everyone: Elegant, cozy, fun and kid-oriented, young and hip, and Easter-bunny (that would be Sasha’s room!).  It’s a wonderful house to have guests.   

Our peaceful, sunlit bedroom (dark as night with the shutters closed!)

Tia's sanctuary

Sasha got the servants' quarters and painted it cheerful turquoise

Suzi and Ethan's room, with a view to the garden

The boys' room, AKA The Cuckoo's Nest (this is where Todd hides for siesta)

And we even have a guest room!  Ha!  Ha!  

I was lucky enough to spend some time with Carlota Caballero recently, and we walked through the house together.  She reminisced about her days growing up in this palace, riding on the servants’ backs as they scrubbed the floor, running around under the magnolia in the back yard, and jumping from the trampoline into the pool.  She noted the extensive remodeling done by Tomás Terry, including the relocation of the main staircase (including all the marble stair treads!) and the second-floor edition, but much of the house was recognizable to her, in particular the central courtyard.  It was a delight to spend time with someone who knows this palace so intimately, and to share it with her once again.  Such is my good luck here in Spain! 

Todd loves Smokey the cat


  1. Steph, it's wonderfully beautiful!!!!!! I was so pleased to see the PALACE and to see your travels! Thank you, wish I was there to see it and you in person❤️

  2. Love it, Mary! We are so happy here. Thanks for the comment, it came through great!


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