THE DESIGN OF THE NEW €2 COIN — AN INAPPROPRIATE IMAGE REVEALING A NOSTALGIA FOR THE EMPIRE?

Diarmuid Breatnach

The new €2 coin design is now published and the coins will themselves be put into circulation in the New Year. Designs were submitted and the winning design for the ordinary currency coin is by Emmet Mullin, while the design for the gold and silver special editions is by Michael Guilfoyle. Both designs incorporate the statue of “Hibernia” and that name is prominently displayed on one of side of the coin and although Guilfoyle’s design incorporates some words from the 1916 Proclamation, they are in the background to the representation of “Hibernia”. The image is taken from a the centre one of a trio of statues erected on the GPO in 1814, while still under British occupation.

Hibernia €2 coin 2016

One side of the new Irish coin

“Hibernia” was regularly used as an image to represent Ireland by “Punch”, a satirical racist British publication and she was always

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British penny showing the image of “Britannia” — a martial female wearing a crested war helmet, carrying a shield and holding a trident (perhaps to indicate domination of the seas).

shown as a pretty younger sister of “Britannia”, in need of her older sister’s protection (usually from the rebellious Irish, the despair of poor “Hibernia”). She was never in martial garb, unlike Britannia herself who was usually represented as a majestic and martial figure, with a crested war-helmet and shield and sometimes carrying a trident (perhaps to indicate domination of the seas).

That representation of Britannia appeared not only in the cartoons of “Punch” and other publications but also in sculpture — for example at the top of Somerset House, in the Strand, London – and also on many mints of British penny coins.

Of course, in British history the most likely model for the representation of a female fighter was Boudicca (“Boudicea”) who, after her humiliation and the rape or her daughters, raised her formerly pacified tribe of the Icenii against the Roman occupation and came close to driving them out of Britain. The irony is that the whole of Britain at that time was Celtic, as were Boudicca and the Icenii. But the English ruling class appropriated Boudicca into their English iconography as they did also with King Arthur and the Round Table knights.

Romanised and civilised

Ireland had many names among the Gael but “Hibernia” was not one of them. “Hibernia” was a late Latin name for Ireland, which the Romans had previously called “Scotia” (yes, “Scotland” originally meant something like “the land the Gael have invaded and settled and defend”).

The Roman linguistic connection is interesting – Irish Anglophiles and some English lovers of Ireland have been wont to bemoan the fact that Ireland was never conquered by the Romans. These commentators have tended to see Romanisation as civilising, forgetting perhaps the words of Rome’s own greatest historian, Publius Tacitus (or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus; c. 56–after 117 AD) who said that “they have created a desert and call it peace.” Calling Ireland “Hibernia” might be a way to bring that Roman conquest belatedly to the unquiet isle, to make her more “civilized” — in fact more like her neighbour and therefore more accepting of her neighbour’s domination and of her ways.

When John Smyth designed the statues to go on top of the General Post Office building in Dublin’s main street, then Sackville (but now O’Connell) Street, Dublin was widely considered the second city of the British Empire, next to London. The building opened to the public in 1818 but Dublin’s slow decline in status had already begun. Since the abolition of the Irish Parliament by the Act of Union in 1801, following the suppression of the United Irish uprising three years earlier, the Irish Members of Parliament had to go to London to take their seats, taking a great deal of political, commercial and social life with them. Irish landlords deserted their Irish estates in greater numbers, leaving them in the hands of their often rack-renting agents as the owners demanded more and more rents to keep them in their homes in Britain and their lifestyle there and in Europe. Throughout the 19th Century the social focus slowly followed the political to England – except where a militant nationalist one arose.

Hibernia only GPO

Statue representing “Hibernia” on top of the GPO, a martial female wearing a crested helmet, holding a spear and a harp.

Britannia Statue, Somerset House, Strand

Sculpture representing Britannia on top of Somerset House, The Strand, London city centre. She is a martial female wearing a crested war helmet, carrying a shield and holding a trident.

Submission or subversion?

Perhaps the representation of Hibernia by John Smyth, reflecting that of Britannia, was meant to show Ireland as equal in grandeur to her dominant neighbour. The Society of the United Irish had been part of a wider cultural movement that sought to explore and appropriate an older Gaelic culture for the colonists, many of them settled for generations on Irish land. Assertions of autonomy and complaints about English political and commercial restrictions had been part of that movement too and had found sharpest expression in the republican and separatist ideas of the United Irish. Some aspirations remained, severely modified. Perhaps it was John Smyth’s intention to show Hibernia as grand but there was no mistake about who was really in charge in Ireland, Hibernia or Britannia.

As if to underline the relationship, Smyth placed a statue representing “Fidelity” on Hibernia’s left on top of the GPO. What could that fidelity be, except to the Empire? Some suggest that because Fidelity holds the Key and is with the Dog, that she really represents Hecate. I know nothing about Smyth nor have I the time to research him at the moment but it is possible he was being somewhat subversive in that representation. Hecate had a number of earlier and later interpretations and the key seems to have appeared later – the key to the household perhaps but also to Hades, the Underworld.

On Hibernia’s right, John Smyth erected the statue of Hermes, known to us as the messenger of the gods but also representing commerce. Commerce, then as now, was the backer of military and political initiatives, indeed often the driver. Of course, many of the Irish bourgeoisie, both native and colonist in origin, wanted a successful commercial Ireland. But after 1798 and 1801, they were not going to get it. From then on, most progress for Irish finance would be made through investing in the Empire rather than in Irish industry and trade.

Whether the representation of Hibernia was intended as some kind of subject of Britannia with pretensions to something grander or was in fact just aping her better, dressing in her mistresses’ clothes when the lady was away, is a moot point. What is certain is that neither the image nor the name itself is of native origin.

The names for Ireland

As noted earlier, among the many names of the Gael for Ireland, “Hibernia” does not appear. The clan-based resistance had used Irish names to describe the land and this continued in the wars against Cromwell and William, with “Ireland” being the most common name when speaking in English by both sides of the wars.

The United Irishmen, a late 18th Century republican movement for independence led mostly by descendants of colonists and largely English-speaking, called the land “Ireland”1 or “Erin” (a phonetic representation of the Irish-language “Éireann”, the dative case of “Éire”). These names, along with “Éireann” later, continued to be those most often used by nationalists of the 19th Century, the Young Irelanders, the Fenians, the Land League, as well as by the various advanced nationalist and revolutionary organisations in the early years of the 20th Century2.

"Ireland" is named in a banner of the Irish Transport & General Workers' Union in October 1914, with the Irish Citizen Army parading outside.

“Ireland” is named in a banner of the Irish Transport & General Workers’ Union in October 1914, with the Irish Citizen Army parading outside.

This continued to be the case during the War of Independence and by both sides in the Civil War and was the case with the setting up of the 26-County state and with the various national resistance movements to that state of affairs since then. One finds “Hibernia” in the Ancient Order of Hibernians, of course and in the Hibernian Bank but they are exceptions – it is “Éire”, “Erin” or “Ireland” over all – and has been so for many centuries.

“Hibernia” is a foreign colonial import, both in terminology and in concept. She is poor image of her big sister on “the mainland”, the real boss. The use of her image and of her name is inappropriate to commemorate the 1916 Rising but their use may signify much more than an error – they may reveal a subliminal desire to return to the Empire, or at least the Commonwealth, in the psyche of those who were never all that sure they should have left it.

End

Links for sources:

The design of the new €2 commemorative coin: http://www.joe.ie/news/pic-take-a-look-at-the-winning-designs-for-irelands-new-2016-coins/511479

The GPO building and the statues: http://archiseek.com/2010/1814-general-post-office-oconnell-street-dublin/ among other on-line sources

Hecate: https://archetypicalwitchcraft.wordpress.com/2014/01/24/understanding-hekate-part-5-the-meaning-of-her-ancient-symbols/

About origin and personification of Hibernia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hibernia_(personification) http://victorianvisualculture.com/2010/10/13/hibernia-as-the-other-ireland/ and despite perhaps its name and appearance a good concise but short summary in http://www.proud2beirish.com/Irelands-Name-Origin.htm

1“From my earliest youth I have regarded the connection between Ireland and Great Britain as the curse of the Irish nation …” Theobald Wolfe Tone

2Inghinidhe na hÉireann, Na Fianna Éireann, The Irish Citizen Army, The Irish Transport & General Worker’s Union, The Irish Volunteers, Óglaigh na hÉireann. Also, when the Abbey Theatre was founded by W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory in 1904, they declared it was “to bring upon the stage the deeper emotions of Ireland”.

THERE IS ONE ROAD FOR US AND NO THIRD WAY

Diarmuid Breatnach

As we enter the New Year, be prepared for attempts to engage us with a whipped-up excitement of elections and “new” ways of doing things. A diversion — something like a cross between those periodic shows like the Eurovision Song Context and the Lottery. And like the lottery, there will be a winner but it won’t be us. Whichever party or combination of parties succeeds, it will be the ruling class that wins.  A diversion in the other sense too, in that it seeks to divert us from our path.

There is no third way, there are no alternative routes, short cuts, slip roads. There is the revolutionary road and the other.  The other leads to the continuation of capitalism.  But the other road is often represented as a number of different roads, and the only difference between them is in the degrees of exploitation and repression it will deliver. The non-revolutionary road can  NEVER lead to social justice.

To be sure, there are many slip roads and byways on the non-revolutionary road but none of them lead to revolution; therefore they do not lead to socialism and therefore nor do they lead to overcoming the capitalist attacks on the working people and the continuing penetration of imperialism into our way of governing ourselves and our social provision, into our natural resources and into our labour power.

Every now and again, a “new” road is proposed, in which “new alliances” are sought, projects to “build a broader front” away from “clichés” and “slogans of the past”. And it turns out that there is nothing new in these roads except the words being used and sometimes not even those. There is talk of accumulation or summation of forces, for which some objectives must be dropped, for which descriptions must be toned down, for which slogans that mean many different things to different people have to be adopted. Well, either they are heading (and wanting us to follow) for capitalism or they are heading for socialism – there are no other destinations. And if they are heading for socialism, why do they not say so? Why do they not reveal their full program?

There are those who say we can reach socialism by building this wide movement with deliberately unclear slogans and program, building on the hostility towards the present state of things and the dominant political parties. How can that be, if there are basically only two roads? How can this wide movement of discontent displace the ruling class and their system, if it is not consciously heading up the road of revolution? It seems that at some point the curtain will be whipped aside by the socialists in these wide movements and the masses will be shown the monster of capitalism and will realise it is so horrible that it must be killed. And of course they will do it. How? Ah, that’s a step too far, comrade, stick with us, trust us, we’ll tell you when the moment comes.

One can see the fates of Syriza in government in Greece and of Podemos in opposition in the Spanish state to see the enormous expectations that are raised and then cruelly dashed. We have seen the like before in our history in Ireland and we will see that again. As we go into 2016 we will have such illusions of a possible electoral socialist future dangled before us, though on a smaller scale.

Elect Sinn Féin and we’ll have a really different situation, a real change – or so we are told. Nonsense – a party that has never seriously confronted capitalism, a party in fact whose President says publicly (and without correction by his party) that it does not have a problem with Capitalism. A party tried in government of a kind already, albeit in a colonial statelet, that has demonstrated itself unwilling to make a determined stand for social justice in welfare and education and which has maintained a colonial repressive police force. This is also a party which has openly welcomed leaders of US and British imperialism and signaled its acceptance of the treason of the ANC leadership to the South African masses. In the 26-Counties this party showed its eagerness to impress the ruling class with how “responsible” and “law-abiding” it is, so much so that they are not even willing to endorse the civil disobedience tactics of refusal to register for the Water Charge and refusal to pay the charge.

Perhaps, once in the Dáil they might become a revolutionary socialist party? One can of course hope (or pray) for miracles but one has no right to expect them.

Another illusion being dangled before us is the election of some kind of “Left-wing coalition”, whether it would include SF or not. We have a Dáil of 166 seats so it would be necessary to elect no less than 84 to have an absolute majority – a coalition of 84 independents, TDs from small socialist parties and whoever! And what program will this “Left-wing coalition” have that all 84 can be expected to adhere to? We don’t know and we have no revolutionary mass movement which has put forward the demands to incorporate into such a program. There is no need to even consider what measures the ruling capitalist class would take should there ever be a Dáil majority with a revolutionary program – we are not within an ass’ bray of such a moment.

Yes, I said we have no revolutionary mass movement — but I was not dismissing (nor “dissing”) the movement of resistance. For two years we have had a wide and numerous movement of resistance to the Water Charge or Tax, carrying on from the previous movements against the Household Tax and the Property Charge. With regards to the latter two, the first was successful but the second was successfully bypassed by the State  by changing the law, enabling the State to collect the charge directly from our income. Whether this was illegal or not is beside the point – they did it and anyway, to whom does the law belong if not to them? Certainly not to us!

With regard to the remaining one, the movement of popular resistance to the Water Charge continues, even without much central leadership, without the practical support of the trade union movement. Those absences may have prevented it being completely taken over by opportunists and careerists and state agents but it has also prevented it from waging a campaign of sustained resistance, of presenting an agreed slate of demands of sponsors and of candidates for election, of putting real pressure on the trade union leaderships and of regular mobilisation of numbers to defend resisters being hounded through the courts and threatened with imprisonment. Nevertheless, the resistance continues.

But we should not fool ourselves that the campaign is revolutionary – it does not have as an objective the overthrow of the capitalist system. To be sure, some and even many of its supporters may wish for that – but it is not an objective of the campaign. In fact, even the demand of the abolition of the Water Charge is not a revolutionary demand — that can be achieved without overthrowing the system.

For revolutionaries, reforms and partial gains are not things to be ignored. We take our stand on them with regard to a number of criteria. In the case of the Water Charge, the great thing is that it was and is being resisted by civil disobedience and if this tax should be eventually defeated through this tactic we should celebrate the victory. We should proclaim that resistance does work, that breaking the law of the State is necessary when it impedes our progress. And that the campaign has exposed the role of the State – legislature, police and courts in repression and service of capitalism. But we should be clear with the movement that it is, however great, a temporary victory – the system remains and while that is so we are open to many, many other attacks which we can safely predict will follow.

The victory of the movement of civil resistance can be put to use for revolution – in terms of tactical and strategic lessons learned by individuals, communities and organisations. The pool of revolutionary activists can be enlarged. This can best be done in the context of a revolutionary movement which is not something we have but which it is not beyond our capabilities to build. But it will not be built by elections nor by electoral campaigns.

As the elections approach we will be gabbled at from nearly every quarter: Vote for Us! Vote Against Them! Vote for Me! Then there will be the shrill “You Must Vote!” and “You Have No Right to Criticise If You Don’t Vote!” And even the fewer but also shrill voices that shout “Don’t Vote!” and “You’re Supporting the System If You Vote!” Really, what a lot of nonsense all of that is. The system will neither be changed by us voting in its elections nor will it overthrown by us not voting in them. Nor will voting in them strengthen it significantly, except in the case of a popular boycott which is not even on the political horizon.

There is an Irish Republican tradition of standing in elections and not taking seats in the Dáil and whether one is a genuine revolutionary or Republican (choose whichever label you prefer) is judged by whether one takes that seat or not if elected. This seems to me to be a false test. There have been revolutionaries who took seats in parliaments on the one hand and on the other, reformists within revolutionary and resistance movements who worked away without taking parliamentary seats. While it is true that opportunists and careerists often wish to enter parliaments in order to further their careers and to pay off their senior party supporters, there is no guarantee that not doing so will prevent activists from being corrupted and co-opted. There are so many other rewards the system has to offer – a secure job, seat on a company board, status and recognition, special awards, publication of writings, career advancement, jobs in various institutions and civil service, funding of one’s project as a non-government organisation, paid expenses, paid travel ….. along with safety from the danger of arrest, the dawn raid, the assassin’s bullet, torture, years in prison.

We can of course vote for individuals in order to keep other individuals out or to put someone we like in or to maintain a useful few voices in the Dáil. But let us not fool ourselves that is really making a difference to the system as such. Only revolution can do that. Of course the revolutionary road is not without its switchbacks, potholes and blind turnings. Nevertheless, it is the only viable road and if we are not heading up it then we are not going to bring about any real or lasting change.

Vote or don’t but the crucial thing is to organise resistance, to contribute to it practically and ideologically. And the latter does mean not spreading illusions.

end

THE GLOBAL-HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE 1916 RISING

This is a timely and interesting article by Liam Ó Ruairc about the significance of the Easter Rising beyond our little parish.

Apart from that, it would seem to suffer a little from a terminology problem with regard to “imperialism”. In the world today this is not an insignificant issue. At the time of the 1916 Rising it was common for commentators to conflate the words “colonialism” and “imperialism” — and why not, since we had the British Empire, the French Empire etc. However, that same year, VI Lenin completed his work “Imperialism — the final stage of capitalism” which he published the following year but exchanging, for the censor, the word “highest” for “final”. Lenin described imperialism as the merging of finance with industrial capital and its export to the underdeveloped world and also explained how its colonialism was undermining British industrial capacity and competitiveness by starving it of capital which was instead being invested in the colonies for quick return of superprofits.

He showed that imperialism could be practiced where the developed state did NOT have colonies but instead had influence.

Decolonisation was indeed one of the big processes of the early to mid-21st Century, as quoted in the article, but it was accompanied by an increase in imperialist expansion, with the USA becoming the world leader and displacing the former colonial powers of Britain and France. By and large this was achieved without occupying countries and setting up colonies of UStaters within them.

Lenin also showed that imperialism leads to war; colonialism did too but not on the scale that imperialism has.  Colonial wars were largely limited by the amount of people available to occupy colonies whereas imperialism fights most of its wars through proxies (with some notable exceptions such as Vietnam, Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan, involving large committal of its troops but even there, proxies have been/are also used).

Those regimes that imperialism cultivates were later classified by national liberationists as “comprador (buyer) capitalists” or “neo-colonials”. Such an analysis of Ireland today would have to conclude that the Six Counties are a remaining British colony and the Twenty-Six a neo-colony.

In the “comment” section of the article there is a reference to another article on the same theme of international importance which is also of interest.

the irish revolution

imagesby Liam Ó Ruairc

In less than six months, the one hundredth anniversary of the 24-29 April 1916 Easter Rising will be commemorated throughout Ireland. What is striking about the so-called ‘Decade of Commemorations’ is how insular its outlook is: the 1912 Ulster Covenant, the 1916 Rising or the setting up of Northern Ireland are seen as a purely Irish phenomenon, divorced from global trends. As Edward W. Said once noted, while the Irish struggle was a ‘model of twentieth-century wars of liberation’, “it is an amazing thing that the problem of Irish liberation not only has continued longer than other comparable struggles, but is so often not regarded as being an imperial or nationalist issue; instead it is comprehended as aberration within the British dominions. Yet the facts conclusively reveal otherwise.”[1]  This article will argue that the significance of the 1916 Easter Rising lies less in its 

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DUBLIN REPUBLICAN MEETING HEARS KURDISH REPRESENTATIVE, INDEPENDENT TD, GARVAGHY ROAD VETERAN AND REPUBLICAN PARTY LEADER

Diarmuid Breatnach

Breandán Mac Cionnaith, Erdelan Baran, Clare Daly and Brian Leeson took turns to address a meeting in Wynne’s hotel on Saturday. The speakers addressed a large audience in the open part of the conference following the internal Ard-Fheis (annual congress) of the Éirigí Irish Republican party and covered the Garvaghy Road campaign, the history of the Orange Order, the Kurdish struggle (in general and in Rojava/ Kobane in particular), Garda corruption, military use of Shannon airport by US imperialism, theft of Ireland’s natural resources, international imperialism and capitalism versus socialism. The meeting was chaired by Angie McFall.

Meirge mór AF eirigi

Main banner in the meeting room. located behind the panel during the meeting

Breandán Mac Cionnaith is General Secretary of the éirigí party and prominent as a residents’ activist and leader in resisting Loyalist parades through nationalist areas, in particular the Garvaghy and Ormeau Roads and with regard to the Drumcree siege. Until 2007 he was prominent in Sinn Féin but left the party that year after SF had agreed to support the colonial police force, the PSNI (formerly the RUC).

Preceded by the screening of a video of resistance to Loyalist marches in the Garvaghy Road, Mac Cionnaith gave an account of the formation of the Orange Order and its role from the inception of the Order and through its development. He also gave a detailed account of the long history of Orange marches through the Garvaghy Road and other areas, the siege of Drumcree and the people’s resistance, answered by sectarian murders of Catholics in the area.

Ardoyne protest 12th July 2000

Ardoyne protest 12th July 2000

The talk revealed that the Orange Order had been created at a time of revolutionary unity between sections of Protestants and of Catholics and that its purpose was to fracture that unity, which it carried out. It was from the beginning a sectarian, reactionary organisation serving the interests of the colonial ruling class in Ireland.

Along with its allied organisations such as the Apprentice Boys, the Order has a long history of provocation of Catholic areas through triumphalist marching, a practice defended by the colonial police force and in modern times until recently by the British Army. In one confrontation, Mac Cionnaith used available statistics to demonstrate that two British soldiers had been deployed for every resident of the area.

People protesting Loyalist marches on Garvaghy Road being attacked by the PSNI in 19977

People protesting Loyalist marches on Garvaghy Road being attacked by the RUC (forerunners of the PSNI) in 19977

After the break, the Cathaoirleach welcomed and introduced Erdelan Baran, a representative of the Kurdish National Congress. Erdelan’s command of English is excellent and he presented his talk well, using a few slides on an electronic display to emphasise his points, including a map showing the Kurdish population and its spread over the borders of the states of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.

The audience heard that the religion of most Kurds had been Zoroastrianism but that this had been reduced by Islamicisation. The Kurds had not been recognised as a separate nation or even really as a separate ethnic group by regimes ruling them and had suffered much repression in each of those states.

Erdelan Baran focused in particular on the development of the PKK, a party founded in 1978 by Kurdish students led by Abdullah Ocalan in a village not very far from the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in the south-east of the Turkish state. The party named itself The Workers’ Party of Kurdistan and combined communist ideology with struggle for an independent state. It was subject to repression which increased dramatically after the 1980 right-wing military coup d’état, with imprisonment and executions of its activists and others fleeing to Syria.

Less Photogenic Kurd Women Fighters

Women unit fighters of the PKK during the 1980s

The PKK developed its armed struggle which included women’s units (Erdelan showed a slide of PKK women in uniform bearing arms).

Oҫalan was captured in 1999 and imprisoned on an island in the Turkish state. He since called for a change in objectives, i.e for the movement to seek confederalism instead of a state, a system of self-determination for each area and not based on any ethnic group or national territory. Erdelan pointed towards the administrations which had been set up in Rocajava as an example of this and also of equality towards women – 80% of representation was required to be in equal gender balance.

Since the emergence and attacks of ISIL in Syria, the YPG, a development of the PKK, has been fighting fierce battles against ISIL and established liberated areas in which other groups such as the Yazidis and Turkmen have taken part in defence and administration.

Erdelan mentioned very briefly the peace process espoused by the PKK and the refusal of the Turkish government to engage in it.

Female YPD fighters in Rojava

Female YPG fighters in the Rojava area

Erdelan finished his presentation to strong applause and the Cathaoirleach indicated that there was limited time for questions. Four people addressed comments and questions from the floor one of which criticised aspects of the PKKs policy and three of which were complimentary (see final part including Comment for further details), to all of which Erdelan responded,

A break was called again by the Cathaoirleach and when the conference reconvened, she announced that Clare Daly and Brian Leeson would speak one after the other, without time for questions from the floor.

THE BARREL OF ROTTEN APPLES

A short video about popular opposition to the water charges was played showing éirigí in action before the Cathaoirleach introduced Clare Daly as the next speaker, referring to her as an Independent socialist TD. Daly took the lectern, joking that she was obviously “a warm-up act for Brian Leeson”.

Clare Daly spoke with passion about a long history of cases of Garda corruption, saying that an earlier perception of there being perhaps “a few rotten apples in the Garda barrel” had changed over the years and that now perhaps instead people believed that there might be a few good apples in a rotten barrel. Daly pointed towards the forced resignations of Alan Shatter (as Minister for Justice) and of senior Garda officers and to the whistle-blowers within the force who had used the issue of exemptions on penalty points to highlight corruption within the Gardaí. She predicted that there would be further scandals.

Clare Daly (centre, in denims) and Mick Wallace (end right) on picket line recently outside Dept. of Justice, Dublin

Daly commented on how when in the Dáil she and Mick Wallace began to expose Garda corruption they were treated as some kind of shockingly disgusting people and that even those TDs concerned with civil liberties counseled them not to take on the Gardaí. But the perception of the Gardaí publicly has now changed and this has had its impact on the Dáil. It was the struggles of the people – in particular perhaps around the water charge – and the behaviour of the Gardaí against local communities resisting – which had led to the general change of public opinion. This had facilitated and been strengthened by the exposure of a number of scandals.

Turning to the use of Shannon Airport by the US Military on its way to invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, in violation of Irish neutrality, Daly gave examples of some of the evidence available, not only from observers outside the airport but also from staff inside. One of these declared that he had stolen a gun from a plane in US military use at Shannon and of course, he could not be arrested for that since “How could he have stolen a gun from a plane the Irish Government claims is not carrying any weapons?” The planes in use are not only military planes but also chartered civilian ones and Daly gave statistics on the huge amount of US military traffic of weapons and soldiers through the airport, quoting also from a US document (part of the Wikileaks) confirming the importance of Shannon airport to their Middle Eastern military operations.

Daly accused the Irish Government of complicity with US imperialism and its war crimes. A lot of the evidence outlined and more was presented in the trial of Daly and Wallace following their arrest on 22nd July 2014 as they went on to restricted areas of the airport without permission from the authorities. They were there to carry out an inspection of US planes but were arrested and despite the evidence, in April were fined €1,000 each or 30 days in prison. Both declared then and Daly reaffirmed in her talk that they had no intention of paying the fine and await their arrest at any moment.

“There’s not much a small group of left-wing TDs can do in the Dáil to change what’s happening in the country”, said Daly, although she declared herself satisfied with the opportunity to use that forum to publicly expose a lot of what has been going on. Daly declared however that it was with the people that real impetus lay and hailed their resistance, including that of people in the room, in recent years.

THE NEED FOR SOCIALISM

Clare Daly finished her talk to a storm of applause as Brian Leeson, introduced by the Cathaoirleach as Chairperson of the éirigí party, rose to take her place at the lectern, joking that rather than being “a warm-up act” for him, Daly had “stolen his thunder”.

Leeson began his speech by outlining the need for a socialist society and suggested those who say that “Socialism doesn’t work” should be asked whether they think capitalism is working. He pointed to continual economic and financial crises, unemployment, housing crises in various forms, cuts in social welfare and health care …. and war. Wars, Leeson declared, were an inevitable part of imperialism, which is capitalism’s struggle to control natural resources and markets.

Brian Leeson speaking at an earlier meeting

Brian Leeson speaking at an earlier meeting

“This hotel and these rooms have an important place in our history” said Leeson, relating that a decision to found the Irish Volunteers had been taken in Wynne’s hotel in 1913 and in 1914 Cumann na mBan had been founded there. Commenting on recent and forthcoming centenary commemorations, Leeson said that it was people like those in the room and outside in resistance who had made that history and that the state set up in on the back of those struggles did not represent either the ideals the people had fought for or the wishes of the majority of people in the country now.

Going on to attack the economic policies of the Northern Executive in the Six Counties, Leeson castigated Sinn Féin and the SDLP who he said had given up the only area of financial control that they had and passed the buck on to the British Government. They had the opportunity, he said, to stand resolutely for a budget against social welfare and health care cuts but they passed the buck to the British Government, which implemented those cuts instead. It was essential that the Northern Irish Executive should not collapse, apparently. Leeson questioned why this should be thought so – surely the only justifiable reason to be in any government or Executive was to represent the ordinary people and the disadvantaged!

Leeson also talked about the theft and giving away of our natural resources such as oil and the planned privatisation of water which he said belonged to the people and that no government had the right to give them away nor any company the right to own them.

Leeson paid tribute to Clare Daly who was prepared to advocate for Irish Republicans in prison and had given much support to Stephen Murney and Ursula Ní Shionnaigh. He also made a particular point of welcoming Erdelan Baran and of supporting the struggle of the Kurdish people.

Commenting on discussion around a forthcoming general election in the Irish state (the 26 Counties), Leeson criticised those who talked of campaigns to elect some kind of left-wing alliance. The conditions did not exist for that to be viable project, he said, and to raise people’s hopes only to dash them was cruel and would be demoralising. People should continue their resistance and éirigí would continue their part in that as they had done up until now.

The audience gave Brian Leeson strong applause as he concluded his speech.

There were no questions and answers called for afterwards and the meeting concluded, people standing around talking, purchasing from the merchandise stall, departing or retiring to the nearby bar which had just opened.

COMMENT

Attendance, Organisation, Speeches, Participation

The room was large and full, with accents to be heard from across the country and éirigí will probably be pleased with the level of attendance. The public meeting appeared to be well organised with door security (an invited/ registered list on which my name was not but thankfully I was recognised by several and that formality waived) just outside the meeting while inside, merchandise stall, chairperson, ushers, seating, projector and screen for videos and slides, sound amplification, and professional banners (one bilingual and one in Irish only).

I saw only one photographer whom I assumed to be éirigí’s and, thinking other photos of the attendance might not be permitted, restrained myself to photographing the banners only.

Mac Cionnaith’s talk was somewhat over-long in my opinion and he is also softly spoken, which makes parts difficult to hear – and I was in one of the front seats. He also speaks without a great deal of inflection or emphasis in his delivery which militates against giving him continuing close attention. This is a pity because the content was extremely interesting and contained a lot that was new to me. I was also impressed by the amount of information that he clearly had in his head, since he rarely had to consult his notes.

Such a long talk however is unlikely to be followed by questions and answers and this proved to be the case, with the Cathaoirleach calling a break at the conclusion of Mac Cionnaith’s talk, to be followed by the next speaker on resumption of the conference.

Mac Cionnaith told me later that he usually gives this talk in two parts and with a break between them. I urged him to write and publish it as a pamphlet and I sincerely hope he does so.

Clare Daly’s and Leeson’s talks were clearly audible and well-presented and the meeting was in general well-chaired. I would offer the criticism that the time-tabling did not permit sufficient audience participation in terms of questions and answers or contributions which only occurred, briefly, after the Kurdish speaker – i.e none after the other three speakers.

All the speeches had interesting content and were relevant to political life in Ireland today. Given the organisation’s policy on abortion I would not have expected a talk on that subject, albeit the issue is a very important ongoing one in Ireland. A stranger important omission I thought was the issue of repression of Irish Republican activists both outside and inside the prisons, including the practice of internment by false charge and remand. Stephen Murney, himself an éirigí activist in Newry, had been an important example of victims of this abuse of civil rights.

Another factor was the total absence of spoken Irish from the panel of speakers or the Cathaoirleach (even to the ritual “cúpla focal”) and I am aware that some éirigí activists did express their disappointment at that (both Leeson and McPhall are Irish speakers) after the meeting.

Ideology & Political Policy

The internal part of the meeting had taken place earlier and I was not present at that so these comments refer only to the open public part of the meeting.

It was understandable perhaps that, addressing a conference organised by a party known to have rejected that process in Ireland, the Kurdish speaker skated quickly over the question of Ocalan’s and the PKK’s espousal of a “peace” process. What is less understandable is that from éirigí, no-one rose to criticise it, that being done only by one contributor from the floor, who – after thanking Erdelan in Kurdish — pointed out that such processes do not bring peace and are instead pacification processes, traveling from people in struggle from one country to those in another, subverting their struggles as with South Africa, Palestine, Ireland and now being proposed for the Kurdish people, the Basques, the Colombians, Filipinos …1

The same contributor, while expressing his great admiration for the struggle of the Kurdish people over the years, in support of which he had travelled to Kurdistan in the early 1990s as part of a trade union delegation, raised another two issues of concern to him, which were what he perceived as the elevation of Abdullah Ocalan to iconic status within the main Kurdish movement and that the YPG had declared themselves in alliance with the western coalition in Syria.  Making it clear that he was not a supporter of Assad, the contributor asked the speaker whether he thought the imperialists would hand over control of the country when their current enemy had been defeated?

The contributor’s remarks and question were greeted with scattered applause from the audience.

,Erdelan made no reply at all on the issue of a peace process but replied at length to the issue of Ocalan’s leadership and the use of his image and to a lesser extent to question of alliance with the imperialist coalition.

“Ocalan does not seek to be a leader,” said Erdelan, “and has often said ‘If anyone else wants to take on this job let him have it.’” Aside from the fact that Ocalan’s leadership per se had not been criticised except in promotion of a peace process, this reply and subsequent arguments did not address the issue of the proliferation of Ocalan’s image within the movement, the issue that had been raised by the contributor from the floor. Furthermore, the Kurdish speaker must have been aware that Ocalan had publicly argued against his threatened execution by saying that a peace process was necessary with the Turkish state and that only he could lead the movement towards it. Going on to talk about Ocalan’s 15 political publications, as Erdelan did if anything served only to confirm the adulation in which his person is held by many in the movement. The policy of confederalism is also one developed by Ocalan while in captivity, after he renounced the policy of seeking a Kurdish marxist-leninist state and, subsequently, also renouncing the policy he developed of seeking Kurdish regional autonomy within the Turkish state.

In his reply on the issue of alliance with imperialists, Erdelan was likewise quite disingenuous. He emphasised the success of the fight against ISIL and the gender equality which their administration had brought to their liberated areas, which had been in part lauded already by the contributor from the floor but which did not directly address the issue in any case. Moving on, he referred to the need for survival of the Kurds and beleaguered people and their need for weapons.

After some more of this the contributor objected to the “arms for defence line”, saying that the overall military commander in the Rojava area had publicly stated that the YPG were not only joining the coalition for arms for survival but were going to join in an offensive to overthrow the Assad Government. At this point the Cathaoirleach silenced the contributor from the floor, pointing out not unreasonably that there were others waiting to speak.

The next contributor from the floor welcomed Erdelan to Ireland. He lauded the struggle of the Kurds and the leadership of Ocalan and stated that he and a few others had picketed the Turkish Embassy when the Kurdish leader was under sentence of death. He stated that in Ireland we also often display images of leaders and heroes such as James Connolly and that we do that in order to display our support for their ideals. He lauded the administration of the Rojava areas and stated that he wished to disassociate himself from the comments the previous contributor from the floor had made. He received strong applause.

A visual affirmation of the Irish language displayed at the Ard Fheis this year.

A visual affirmation of the Irish language displayed at the Ard Fheis this year.

This contributor seemed unaware of the difference between the way and the degree to which images of James Connolly are displayed in Ireland and the way in which images of Ocalan are displayed among Kurdish supporters of the PKK. He also missed the most important difference – Connolly is dead and Ocalan is alive. Whatever errors a dead leader made he can make no further ones whereas a living leader can make many more (as history in general and ours in particular has shown) and the iconisation of a living leader makes challenging his/her mistakes within a movement extremely difficult and viewed as something in the order of sacrilege.

Another contributor from the floor asked for some more explanation of the policy of confederalism. In the course of his reply, Erdelan said that it was a democratic system that would preclude territorial expansion and that, for example, the issue of whether someone wanted a nuclear reactor in their area would be entirely a local decision. This reply in fact outlined one of the problems of confederalism in this stage of history since if local people voted in favour, for example with promises of safety and cheap power, the decision would nevertheless potentially affect everyone within a radius of thousands of kilometres – but no-one seemed to pick up on that.

The same member of the audience, responding, enthusiastically commended the Kurdish organisation on their confederalism policy and said that we should have the same here in Ireland. He (and certainly at least some in the audience) appeared unaware that a type of confederalism had been a central part of Sinn Féin’s and Provisional IRA’s progam for many years. The “Éire Nua” was such a program, originally proposed by then SF’s President Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Dáithí Ó Conaill and strongly supported in practice by Des Fennel. This policy had encountered some opposition within the Provisional movement, particularly from supporters in the Six Counties who feared being left under regional domination of — or in constant contention with — Unionists.

The “Éire Nua” policy was overturned at the 1982 Ard-Fheis (annual conference) of Sinn Féin in what was seen by many as a victory of the Adams group within the leadership over the Ó Bradaigh one. Subsequently the policy of Sinn Féin has been for a united 32-County state and that is also part of éirigí’s policy today. Only Republican Sinn Féin and Cumann na mBan among Republican organisations in Ireland today retain a federal policy.

Overall, it seemed that the majority of the audience either did not feel equipped to engage with the issues in a critical fashion or felt that they would be going against their party (or hosts) to do so. It was highly unlikely that the majority supported the aspiration for a peace process and there must have been at least some disquiet on the issue of joining an imperialist coalition. But they remained silent. There was also of course the cultural issue of hospitality to an invited guest which may have played a part.

However, these are serious questions affecting the revolutionary movements around the world and need to be engaged with critically.

End.

FOOTNOTE

1    Is mise a rinneadh sin. I also took part in actions for the removal of the execution threat to Ocalan while having a number of discussions with Kurdish activists on the issue of iconisation. In general I worked for a number of years in London in Kurdish solidarity with people who supported the PKK and some who did not, including submitting motions to trade union branches and going on that delegation around much of northern Kurdistan in the early 1990s when it was still a war zone there. In Ireland I took part in a few pickets with Kurdish comrades and was discussing setting up a solidarity network here but some of the principal activists left the country.

While I was conscious that some others who I know would have had similar views to the concerns I expressed kept away from me, some activists did approach me during the break to express their approval of my comments, in particular on the issue of making an icon of a living leader. They had experienced a similar process with the promotion of Gerry Adams within Sinn Féin before leaving the organisation to join éirigí or to become independent activists. Nobody likes isolation and I was grateful not only for their comments but for visibly approaching me in the meeting area in view of anyone who cared to see.

MY BASQUE FAMILY AND MUSHROOMS

Diarmuid Breatnach

Maribel Eginoa Cisneros died on the 13th of this August in the Santutxu district of Bilbao. She was many things – a democratic Basque patriot, dancer, choir singer, herbalist, mycologist, carer, wife, mother ….

I and two of my siblings travelled to attend the funeral. For me it was a farewell to a warm, intelligent and cultured person who, along with her husband, two of her daughters and a son-in-law, had been very welcoming to me. More than that or because of that, I thought of them as “my Basque family”.

Somewhere I have a Basque family related through blood and marriage but I don’t know them. Different loyalties and some German blood during the Spanish Civil War took my mother out of the Basque Country; the ties were cut and left behind. My mother became a woman in Madrid, where she met my father soon after.

Although they never met, it was because of my mother that I had first met Maribel. My mother, Lucila Helmann Menchaca (the Basques spell it Mentxaka), was born in Algorta, in the Getxo district, not far from Bilbao and spent her early childhood there. How her parents met is another story but Luci grew up bilingual in Castillian (Spanish) and German, with a Basque mother who hardly knew any Euskera (Basque) and a German father. All of Luci’s children, the five boys and one girl, knew of their mother’s childhood in the Basque Country and as we grew older, a desire grew with it to see where she had been born; each of us individually making the pilgrimage.

ONGI ETORRI – BASQUE WELCOME

I was a total stranger and low on funds on my first visit to the Basque Country. I had one contact, a woman I had met only a couple of times when she worked as an au pair in Dublin; she promised to help me get based and I arranged to phone her when I arrived. But the flight was delayed and then could not land at Bilbao airport – too much cloud, the pilot said – and we would land instead at Zaragossa, over 154 miles (248 Km) away. There the passengers had to wait for a coach and eventually arrived in Bilbao in the early hours of the morning. Of course, I had not booked an hotel, so the driver of the last taxi available tried a few without success and then brought me to the Nervión, a four-star hotel over its namesake river, dark and unlovely with a nightly rate that hit me in the gut.

Maribel and Ziortza on a visit to the Cantabrian coast

Maribel and Ziortza on a visit to the Cantabrian coast (Photo from Maribel’s family)

Next morning I phoned my contact, Ziortza and she came to the Nervión and waited while I checked out. I expected to be brought to a cheap hotel or hostel but was instead brought to her family’s home and there, for the first time, I met Ziortza’s parents, Maribel Eginoa and Josemari Echeverria (women don’t change their surnames now when they marry there). I was welcomed, fed and shown to what was to be my room during my stay. It was Ziortza’s, who moved in with her parents – the other two sisters lived in their own apartments with their partners and children. I was fed wonderfully every day too.

I was stunned by the depth of the hospitality from people I did not know, a trait I have encountered again and again among many Basques I have met. Nor was that all. Ziortza took me on her days off on excursions to some different places and towns and her sister Gurrutze and husband Gorka took me on a tour along the Bay of Biscay before turning uphill to iconic Gernika (Spanish spelling “Guernica”). Ziortza also gave me instructions on how to get to Algorta by local train, where my hand-drawn map could take me to where my mother had lived, a trip I preferred to make alone.

The next occasion I returned to Bilbao, this time to begin to know the southern Basque Country, I stayed in their apartment again, in the same room, but this time without discommoding them, since Ziortza had moved out to her own place.

 

THE UNEXPECTED ONE

Maribel and Josémaria were fairly comfortable and retired when I met them but they had some hard times behind them. Josémari’s father had been a Basque nationalist and fought against Franco, a fact that did not escape the victorious Franco authorities. When it came to time for the Spanish military service obligatory for males (much resisted in the Basque Country and now

Only a few months before her death (hard to believe) -- Maribel Eginoa

Only a few months before her death (hard to believe) — Maribel Eginoa (photo Maribel’s family)

abolished throughout the State), they sent Josémari to one of the worst places to which they could send the son of a Basque nationalist – Madrid. His superior officers took pleasure in reminding him of his father and of what they thought of Basque nationalists (or even Basques in general). For the couple, it was a difficult separation but they married as soon as he was finished with the Spanish Army. Maribel was 21 years of age.

Pyrenean landscape in Iparralde ("the northern country"), the part of the Basque Country ruled by France.

Pyrenean landscape in Iparralde (“the northern country”, the part of the Basque Country ruled by France). (photo from Internet)

In their early years together they often travelled to Iparralde (“the northern country”), the Basque part under French rule, with a Basque dance group called Dindirri. The French state has no tolerance for notions of Basque independence but does not harry the movement as does the Spanish state in Hegoalde (“the southern country”). Maribel was fluent in French as well as in Castillian.

Born ten years after the most recent of another four siblings, Maribel was the result of an unexpected pregnancy. “It was destiny,” commented one of her daughters. “The unexpected one would be the one to take care of everyone in the future.” One of Maribel’s siblings had died after a few days, another at the age of 19 due to surgical negligence, another had cerebral palsy. Maribel’s sister herself had an intellectually challenged boy and, when she emigrated with her husband and daughter, left him in Maribel’s care. As Maribel’s mother grew old and infirm, she took care of her too. Her brother with cerebral palsy, although in a home for his specialist care, spent weeks at a time in the family home. And another relative came to stay with them too, for awhile. Maribel looked after everyone.

Of course, her husband Josémari helped, as did her daughters. And they all accepted that this was how things were. And to add to that, the couple visited friends and neighbours in hospital.

LANGUAGE AND POLITICS

When I met Maribel and Josémari, I heard them speak to their daughters in Euskera — the Basque native language. But they themselves had not been raised speaking it – they went to classes to learn the language and raised their children with it. Speaking or learning Euskera was illegal under Franco except for some dispensation to Basque Catholic clergy. It was the latter who founded the first illicit “ikastolak”1 to teach Euskera and later these were set up by lay people too. The ikastola, teaching all subjects except language through Euskera, is now the school type attended by the majority in the southern Basque Country and is mainstream in the Euskadi or CAV administrative area, encompassing the provinces of Bizkaia, Alava and Guipuzkoa.

Most of "my Basque family: Front R-L: Aimar and Markel, Gurrutze's sons; Back R-L: Gurrutze, Maider, Josemari, Maddi & Ziortza.

Most of “my Basque family: Front R-L: Aimar and Markel, Gurrutze’s sons; Back R-L: Gurrutze, Maider, Josemari, Maddi & Ziortza. (Photo from Maribel’s family)

Under Spanish state repression the old Basque Nationalist Party was decimated and although still in existence, its youth wing became impatient with what they perceived as the timidity of their elders.  The PNV youth found a similar impatience among leftish Basque youth who had picked up on the vibrations of the youth and student movement of the 1960s. These youth brought to the table the narratives of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles, mixed with socialist ideas of the Cuban and Algerian revolutions. Thus was Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Homeland and Freedom) born — doubly illegal, as they espoused Basque self-determination and socialism. And so they were spied upon by the Guardia Civil, harassed, arrested, tortured, jailed … after nine years of which ETA took up arms.

Of the Spanish state’s main political parties today, the ultra-right Partido Popular and the social democratic PSOE, the first receives very little electoral support in the CAV administrative area and the second always less than the total of Basque parties. Maribel and Josémari, like most of patriotic Basque society, were presented with the choice of supporting the PNV (Basque Nationalist Party) or the Abertzale Left, the broad political movement of which ETA was a part. The PNV was known for jobbery and corruption and collusion with the Spanish state so of course Maribel and Josemari raised their family in loose allegiance to the Abertzale Left, attending many marches of the movement, public meetings, pickets and now and then hearing gunshots and explosions, hearing of people they knew going into clandestinity and others arrested, tortured and jailed. Everyone knew someone who became a political prisoner (and that is still largely the case) — a neighbour, work colleague, a past pupil. One of Maribel’s daughters saw most of her quadrilla – a small circle of Basque school friends who typically stay close throughout life – go to jail; part of her life is now organised around making visits to jails throughout the Spanish and French states, thanks to the cruel dispersal policy.

At the funeral service in the packed Iglesia del Karmelo in the Bilbao district of Santutxu, I remembered Maribel’s warm personality and hospitality. In fact it was around that hospitality that I unwittingly caused a rift between us. By the last time I returned to stay with them, I had become active in Basque solidarity work in Ireland. Beset with communication difficulties with the organisations in Euskal Herria (the Basque Country) and desperate for regular sources of accurate information, I was essentially based at their home while seeking out and establishing contacts every day. Maribel, as a considerate Basque hostess, wanted to know in advance whether I was going to be available for meals and I sometimes forgot to tell her when I was not. I also didn’t get into the Basque rhythm of lunch, supper and main meal. In my focus on finding needed contacts I just didn’t appreciate the distress I was causing and that it might have appeared, as one daughter told me, that I was treating her parent’s apartment as an hotel. In subsequent annual visits to Bilbao, staying with others, I tried to make amends but though we remained friendly, it was never as before. Some rips you can darn but the fabric is never what it was.

Iglesia del Karmelo, in Santutxu, Bilbao (photo from Internet)

Iglesia del Karmelo, in Santutxu, Bilbao

In Maribel’s funeral service, the daughters led the singing of the “Agur Jaunak”2; I had the words printed out but didn’t recognise the air at first so by the time I caught on, was unable to find the place to join in. The first time I heard it, sung in performance by Maribel and Josemaria in their choir in another church, the song brought tears to my eyes. The couple belonged to two choirs and had even performed abroad; for many years choirs had been a big thing in the Basque Country but are not so popular now. The Agur Jaunak is a moving piece of music and the final words of farewell, now laden with additional meaning, brought forth my tears at the funeral too (and in fact bring some to my eyes now even recalling it).

When I got back to Dublin I decided to write an article dedicated to Maribel. And to the Basque love of mushrooms. Maribel and her husband were both mycologists (students of fungi) and she was a great cook too. At the time the urge to write struck me, it was autumn, the optimum time for fungi, when the weather is still fairly warm in much of Europe, but also damp.

 

MOUNTAIN PEOPLE AND MUSHROOMS

The Basques imagine themselves in many forms but the most enduring is probably as a mountain people. Not all the country is mountainy, of course – it has lowlands along most of its coastline (yes, they sometimes see themselves as mariners too) and even some highlands are plateau rather than mountain. But. Mountain people, nevertheless. My mother told us that Basque patriots when they died were often cremated and their ashes carried up the mountains inside the ikurrina, the Basque national flag. On reaching the top, the flag would be shook out, consigning the ashes to the winds. The Basque irrintzi cry, like yodelling, is typical of methods that use the voice to communicate from mountain to mountain. Climbing is a popular sport and so is hill walking, often also done as a form of youth political and social activity.

Mundaka coastline in Bizkaia province on south-eastern coast -- with mountains visible behind

Mundaka coastline in Bizkaia province on south-eastern coast — with mountains visible behind (photo Wikipedia)

Even among Basques living on the coast or other lowlands, it is hard to meet a native who has not been to the mountains and high valleys and many go there regularly, sometimes in organised groups. One of the reasons they go, apart from reinforcing their cultural affinity, is to pick edible fungi. I am told that there are 100 edible species known in the Basque Country and that “between 40 and 50 varieties are eaten regularly”.3

As opposed to other regional administrations, a fee does not have to be paid in the CAV administration (three of the southern Basque provinces) to collect these mushrooms, although breaching rules can cost between 30 and 250 euros in fines. The regulations specify a collection limit of two kilograms per person per day and one is obliged to use a knife to remove and a wicker basket to store.

Sadly, illegal commercial operations have cashed in on the love of mushrooms in the Spanish state and gangs have been discovered recruiting poorly-paid migrants or unemployed natives to collect without a licence in administrations where such is a requirement, breaching conservation rules and running the risk of arrest. These gangs are less likely to succeed in the southern Basque Country, a society highly organised on a voluntary and local basis and in general quite conscious of the importance of conservation.

Display of edible fungi from the New Forest, England, showing the conservation-friendly collecting basked and knife

Display of edible fungi from the New Forest, England, showing the conservation-friendly collecting basked and knife (photo from Internet)

Further northwards, 25 km. from Iruňa (Pamplona), is the Harana (valley) Ultzama, a natural reserve, over half of it thick woodland. It is in Nafarroa (Navarre), the fourth southern Basque province.

A mycological park over 6,000 hectares has been marked out, a great luxury for mushroom-lovers. …. The park’s information point, in the municipality of Alkotz, indicates the routes where these mushroom can be found as well as information about the species and how to identify those that have been collected throughout the day.” The collection permit costs €5 per day and is available from the information office or on their website.4

The Basques go in family groups or groups of friends, knowing the edible types (or accompanied by at least one who knows) and they bring baskets, not plastic bags. The idea is that the spores of picked mushrooms will drop through the weave as they walk and so seed growths of new mushrooms further away from where the parent fungi were picked. It is actually illegal to go picking with plastic bags and though there are not many of them, the forest police will arrest people who break that law. In a nation overburdened with police forces, that force is the only one that seems free from popular resentment.

The best mushroom sites are kept secret by those who know and the location of those sites is sometimes handed down through generations. In a peninsula renowned for its types of food and preparation styles, Basque cuisine lays claim to the highest accolade. Yet it uses hardly any spices or herbs. Sea food is high on the cuisine list of course but so is the ongo, the mushroom.

On a Sunday in October 2010, I was present in Bilbao when Maribel and Josemari’s mycological group had an exhibition in a local square, where they also cooked and sold fungi. Josemari and Mirabel worked all day in the hot sun and then had their own feast with their group afterwards, though by then I imagine many would not have had a great appetite.

I was staggered by the number of different species of fungi native to Euskal Herria and their variety of shapes and colours — I was told by the couple, and can well believe it, that their association had exhibited just over 300 species in that exhibition, between edible, inedible and poisonous. This figure was down on the previous year, when they had exhibited 500! Apparently there are over 700 species known to the country.

I tried to imagine how many Irish people would attend such an exhibition in Dublin, even on a sunny day such as we had there — perhaps 20, if the organisers were lucky. The square in that Santutxu district of Bilbao was full, as were the surrounding bar/cafés. There were all ages present, from babies at their mothers’ breasts to elderly people making their way slowly through the crowds. The food was all centred around cooked edible fungi: shish kebabs of mushroom, peppers, onions; burgers made of minced mushrooms and a little flour; little mushrooms with ali-oli on top, served on small pieces cut off long bread rolls; big pieces of brown mushroom almost the size of the palm of one’s hand.

Street in the Casco Viejo medieval part of Bilbao, showing decorations for the Bilbo festival in August

Street in the Casco Viejo medieval part of Bilbao, showing decorations for the Bilbo festival in August (photo D.Breatnach)

The people queued for the food and those selling it couldn’t keep up with demand. And the people also, including children, queued to see the fungi being exhibited. Unlike the Irish, who doubtless also have varieties of edible native fungi in their land but have largely shown an interest in only the common white cultivated kind and, among certain groups of mostly young people, the ‘magic’ variety, the Basques love their fungi.

I ate some there in that square and again, with other food also, down in the Casco Viejo (the medieval part of Bilbo city), where some new friends took me de poteo (from bar to bar) and wouldn´t let me buy even one round. Many bars serve pintxos, small cold snacks, some plain enough and others more involved – normally one eats and drinks and pays the total before leaving. But some of those bars have a room upstairs or to the side where meals are served and one had an excellent restaurant where we ate well and, of course, my friends wouldn’t let me pay my share of that either. True, I had organised some solidarity work for one of their family in prison but all the same ….. When it comes to hospitality, in my opinion the Basques deserve the fame even better than the Irish, who have been justly known for that quality too.

Some of the company had been the previous day in the town of Hernani, where a rally convened to call for Basque Country independence had been banned by the Spanish state. Despite the judicial order, thousands of young people had participated in the rally and had been planning to attend the rock concert afterwards. The Basque Region Police had attacked the peaceful demonstration with plastic bullets and then baton-charged the young people. Many were injured by the plastic bullets, by batons, and by being trampled in the narrow streets when people tried to flee the charging police. It was an object lesson in the drawbacks to regional autonomy or “home rule”. However, the resistance had been so strong that the police eventually had to retreat and allow the rock concert to proceed without further interference. But that too is another story.

AGUR — SLÁN

But five years later, outside the church after Maribel’s funeral, I waited with my two brothers on the margins of the crowd. I saw some youth among the mourners, including Goth and punk types, presumably friends of Maribel and Josemari’s daughters. Most in attendance were of older generations, however. It was noticeable how prominent the women were – garrulous and assertive. There were of course representatives of various branches of the movement, who knew the couple personally.

Small section of the funeral crowd outside the church (photo D. Breatnach)

Small section of the funeral crowd outside the church with Gorka in the foreground in white shirt (photo D. Breatnach)

Inside the church I had already conveyed my condolences to Josemari, who had seemed amazed, amidst his grief, that I had travelled from Ireland for the funeral. I was surprised, in turn, that he would have expected any less; for me, there was no question – I’d have borrowed the money to go if necessary. His son-in-law burst into tears when I hugged him and that was it for me, my composure crumbled and we cried in one another’s arms. Now I waited for the crowd to thin so I could hug the daughters, the two who live in Bilbao and Maider, who lives in Gastheiz (Vitoria).
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I stayed in a friend’s house a couple more days, renewing contacts and making a few new ones, meeting some old friends and then it was back to Dublin once more. Agur to Euskal Herria and agur to Maribel Eginoa – a loss to her family, to her nation, to me and to humanity.

End.

Footnotes

1  “ikastola” = school or college; plural “ikastolak”

2  Agur translates as “goodbye” but can also be a greeting. The Agur Jaunak’s lyrics are short and simple; the song is performed usually a capella, in giving honour to a person or persons and traditionally everyone stands when it is sung. The provenance of the air is a matter under discussion but it is only the Basques who are known to have lyrics to it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNMaMNMpYEk is one of the best versions I could find on the Internet although there is a somewhat cheesy bit by one of the performers in it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7Z8E-xhYTU is vocally another lovely interpretation sung unusually high although I dislike the crescendo at the end which is not the traditional way of singing it, which is to end on a low note.

3  http://www.micologica-barakaldo.org/Micologica_Barakaldo/index.html