On the platform at Mundaka there are only a few to catch the 9.18 a.m. train to Bilbao. Mundaka is a popular coastal resort town in Bizkaia province, southern Basque Country. “Egun on” (“good day”), I greet those on the platform in Euskara in passing, the Basque language, and they reply the same.
A young couple with two little boys come on to the only platform (for both directions) and I think I hear the woman speaking to the boys in Euskara. But soon, I make out some Castillian (Spanish) words; however it is not unusual to hear some Castillian words and even phrases scattered through Euskara conversation, in the southern Basque Country, at any rate. But no, I can tell now that the conversation between mother and child is definitely all in Castillian – I must have been mistaken earlier, when I thought they were speaking in Euskara.
“Miao, miao” says the smallest boy, pointing at some feral cats dozing near the platform. “Bai, katua” replies the mother and a flood of Euskara follows, both boys and mother and occasionally father too conversing in Euskara. And so they continue until the southbound train arrives and everyone gets on, except one man, presumably waiting for a northbound train to Bermeo.
On our journey southwards, soon passing alongside salt marshlands, I note that the names of the stations are in Euskara only: Itsasbegi-Busturia, Axpe-Busturia (in the broad estuary of the Urdebai river), San Kristobal Busturia, Forua, Instituto Gernika, Gernika….
The Wikitravel entry for Gernika translates it to the Castillian “Guernica” and opens with this: “Basque town which was the site of the first airborne bombing attack on a civilian town during the Spanish civil war. The bombing, by the Condor Legion of Germany’s Luftwaffe in 1937, inspired Picasso to paint the landmark cubist work Guernica, now on display at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid.”
Well, yes, but one might add for clarity that it was done as part of Franco’s fascist offensive and that the fascist press later blamed it on Asturian Anarchist “fire-bombers”. And one might update it by commenting that the Basques have asked for Picasso’s painting to be located in Gernika itself, a request which the Spanish state authorities, the political descendants of the fascist victors of that war, have refused.
Onwards again, the next stop is Lurgorri-Gernika. At the next after that, Zugast station, a middle-aged man gets on with Berria, the all-Euskara newspaper, under his arm. This periodical, being in many ways the replacement of another newspaper, Egunkaria, has a noteworthy connection with history.
Founded in 1990, Egunkaria was the first all-Euskera daily newspaper in the world; it had a left-nationalist editorial line and a journalistic outlook, which led it to report ETA statements alongside those from Spanish unionist political parties and from the State. The Basque language was no longer illegal or banned since the transición, post-General Franco, when the fascist Spanish oligarchy brought the leaderships of the social democratic party and the Communist Party on board, along with their respective trade union leaders — and called it “Democracy”.
But on 20th February 2003, the Spanish State’s militarised police, the Guardia Civil, raided the newspaper’s premises, seized records, machines and closed down the periodical. They also raided the homes or arrested at the building a total of ten people associated with the newspaper, at least four of which were tortured subsequently. For one of those, the manager, a gay man, the torture included sexual violation.
Massive protest demonstrations ensued from an outraged Basque population. The arrested were released on bail.
On 15 April 2010, seven years later, the defendants were finally acquitted on all charges relating to ‘terrorist’ connections and the judges added that there had been no justification for the closure of the newspaper in the first place.
By then, Egunkaria was beyond recovery and anyway Berria had stepped in to occupy the niche (apparently with the blessing of the Egunkaria team). The case against the State for compensation for the loss of the newspaper and also for torture remains open, sixteen years later. The Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg found the Spanish state guilty of not investigating the manager’s complaint of being tortured and ordered compensation paid. It did not, however, as it usually does not, find the state guilty of the torture itself. Of course, torture is difficult to prove, particularly when the state in question keeps political detainees for five days incommunicado, without access even to independent medical practitioners, while its police goes about getting their “confessions”
On the train journey now, the next stop has the delightful-sounding name of Muxika. This causes some amusement to a teenage boy in a nearby seat, accompanied by an older woman – they have been talking in Castillian only since they got on. I wonder are they aware that in June 2013 José Mujica, President of Uruguay until last year, visited the townland that gave rise to his surname. Mujica was presented with a key to the town by the Mayor, who is of the Basque Abertzale Left party Bildu.
The train pulls out of Muxika, then on to Zugastieta-Muxika station as we continue running southward through thick woodlands, occasional industrial parks and small allotments where an occasional middle-aged man tends to his large tomatoes, the small elongated sweet peppers of the region, courgettes, climbing beans …..
Onwards to Morebieta Geralekua before the line takes a sharp twist north-eastwards to more woodlands, rivers, streams and mountains at Lemoa, Bedia, Usansolo, Zuhatsu Galdakoa. Now the built-up areas of Ariz Basauri followed by the contrast of the picturesque Etxebarri before a southward curve to Bolueta and then eastward, to run along the Nervion river to Atxuri station in Bilbo (Bilbao), journey’s end.
All of the stations along this route were named in the Basque language – not one had a Castillian version showing (although there will be plenty of that in streets and squares in Bilbao). The public announcements on this train, as on their counterparts in the Irish 26 Counties, are bilingual but with this difference – on the Basque train, they are always in Euskara first, Castillian second. Likewise with the signage. One is never under any doubt about which language is being given primacy there, nor indeed here, where the English version comes first and, when in text, is in a more dominant type or more contrasting colour.
The Irish language is being derailed even as, to mix metaphors, it is being given lip service. Further down the tracks, unless some urgent repair work is undertaken, lies the final stop – the cemetery of our national language.