Michael Mullan - Domingo García-Sabell


Physician, academic and politician Domingo García-Sabell devoted his life to the Galician language and culture, still thriving in Spain’s north-western Celtic corner. García-Sabell, who has died aged 93, joined the language’s governing authority, the Real Academia Galega (RAG), in 1957 and was its president for nearly 20 years. He also made his mark on the region as a publisher, as one of the senators who steered Spain back to democracy and as the central government’s figurehead in his native region from 1981 to 1996.

Born in Santiago de Compostela, a lawyer’s son, García-Sabell graduated in medicine at the local university, completed his doctorate in Madrid and studied further in Switzerland and Germany. He was prominent in the student movement under the Primo de Rivera dictatorship and the Second Republic. As a young man, he befriended some of the literary icons of the age, like Ramón del Valle-Inclán, Torrente Ballester, Pio Baroja and Miguel de Unamuno.

He spent the civil war years as a hospital intern in Santiago, hoping to become a lecturer thereafter. But the Franco regime had his card marked: blacklisted from university appointments, he practised medicine, developing expertise in digestive pathology and psychosomatic illnesses. Around the same time, he threw himself into cultural activities.

The defence and advancement of distinctive regional identities was an important channel of resistance under the Franco dictatorship. The centralist regime was content for such things to survive in a vestigial or folkloric form, so long as they did not get ideas above their station. García-Sabell instead applied his own multi-faceted erudition and awareness of international trends to encourage a lively and advanced cultural life expressing itself in the Galician tongue, galego.

When the Constituent Cortes sat from 1977 to draw up the constitution enacted by referendum in 1979, García-Sabell was one of three known republicans shrewdly nominated to the Senate by King Juan Carlos. In 1981, the outgoing government of Calvo Sotelo appointed him delegate to the autonomous community. The incoming Socialist administration, to which he was ideologically closer, kept him in office; he resigned when Aznar’s Popular Party won the 1996 election. He had been elected president of the RAG in 1979, and some of its members were unhappy that he did not stand down while in public office. But his two decades at the helm left the academy in much better shape, and he never drew a peseta for his service to it.

His voluminous writings, mostly in galego, included books on Joyce, Van Gogh and Sartre in European culture; on the painter, Luis Seoane; the future of rural Galicia; a prologue to the first edition of El Quixote in galego; and an ‘Existential Analysis of the Sick Galician Male’, among other essays in cultural anthropology. He was a founder in 1950 of the Galaxia publishing house in Vigo, specialising in books in galego.

He shunned the theatre, cinema, café society, even television, to concentrate on reading and writing. “People ask me where I find the time to do so much”, he once said: “I ask, where do they find the time to waste?”

García-Sabell was elected to the Galician Royal Academies of Fine Arts, Science, and Medicine and Surgery. He sat on the jury for one of Spain’s major cultural awards, the Prince of Asturias Prize. His own honours included the regional government’s Galician Prize in Letters and Arts, an honorary doctorate from the University of La Coruña and, oddly enough, the Grand Cross of Military Merit.

He is survived by his widow, Elena Tormo, and daughters, Teresa and Elena. Teresa García-Sabell Tormo, a university linguist, is a Socialist councillor in Santiago in charge of cultural activities.


Domingo García-Sabell, Galician academic and politician; born Santiago de Compostela, 8 October 1909, died La Coruña, 5 August 2003.


Michael Mullan - Obituaries...

Spanish translation by Juan Manuel Grijalvo (pending)...