The Basques have a saying in their language which means “The first and last words in Euskera” (Basque language: “Lehen eta azken hitzak euskeraz”). The Irish would do well to adopt the slogan or dictum for their own: “Na céad focail agus na focail deiridh i nGaeilge”.
The Basques developed their slogan (the word is from the Irish, slua-ghairm: to call the crowd/ multitude/ troop) in their movement to conserve their native language and spread it among those who had lost it. The Basque homeland (certainly once larger than it is now) is today situated on the north-west of the Spanish state and the south-west of the French one. Their language is considered an older arrival than all other languages extant upon the continent, to be not of Indo-European origin and so not of the same family group as any of the nearby Romance languages: Galician, Asturian, Castillian, Languedoc (Occitan), French, Catalan.
Within the territories they control, Spanish and French state administrations have dominated and suppressed all the languages other than respectively Castillian and French; they have done so through official disregard, censure, shaming, even physical punishment and jail. But the Basques have struggled to keep their language alive and to spread it among those who have lost it. And they have been much more successful at doing so than we Irish have at doing the same thing with an Ghaeilge. The Catalans have done even better yet, certainly in Catalunya itself1.
So, why the slogan of “first and last words in Euskera” and what happens in-between? Is it intended like the “cúpla focal” (“couple of words”) of Irish politicians (and increasingly, not even that many), a kind of mini-lip-service? Not at all, its intention is restorative towards the language and is a practical measure which anyone can adopt — indeed we in Ireland should embrace it for our own language.
When we meet someone, we greet them and, in Ireland, the majority of us do so in English. Having done so, the rest of the conversation is likely to continue in English too. Taking our leave of them, naturally, we tend to do so in English also.
The impression on anyone within hearing of this exchange and so many like it is that Irish does not exist or, if it does, hardly anyone in Ireland knows it or, if they do, don’t use it in their daily life. Not far from the truth, one might comment. Indeed but the reality is that a lot more know the language (or some of it at least) than one might think.
Let’s return to that interaction touched upon earlier, when one person meets another. It could be a customer in a bar, restaurant or shop. One of them says “Hello”, the other replies likewise and from there onwards the verbal communication is all in English. Or another scenario, a friend or acquaintance of one, introduces another in English and both who are strangers proceed in English also.
Perhaps the customer and the shop assistant, waiter or bartender in the first example were fluent Irish-speakers or at least competent – none knows this about the other and they continue in the dominant language, English; each may return home later without having spoken a word of Irish that day. The strangers being introduced to one another by a mutual acquaintance, perhaps at work on in a social setting, may have a similar experience.
THE FIRST WORDS
Suppose that instead the customer or person being introduced had greeted in Irish? The recipient of the greeting now has the choice, assuming some knowledge of the language, to respond likewise. Should this occur, they can now proceed to the limits of their knowledge of the language or of the situation in which they find themselves. Other factors govern the choice being made but we can discuss those later.
What of the impression on those others within hearing? They might be surprised or even astonished, impressed or embarrassed; however everyone is reminded that Irish exists, that it is a medium of verbal communication and that some people in Ireland use it, even outside the shrinking Irish-language reserves.
Of course, that was perhaps only two people heard speaking it in a whole month or even a year. But what if more people did the same? Why, some of those who overhear might even adopt the same habit, na céad focail in nGaeilge! Gradually at first and then suddenly, everybody would seem to be greeting in Irish! Why, it might even be worth learning a little oneself! At least enough to reply and take the conversation a sentence or two forward ….
In addition, sometimes the experience flushes out other Irish speakers too. On the top deck of a bus heading into the city centre one day, I could hear some young lads at the back of the bus (where else!) speaking in Irish. I could tell that they were not fluent but one at least was doing reasonably well. As they passed me to get off in Sráid Uí Chonaill, I remarked in Irish to them that it was great to hear the language being spoken in public. While they stumbled over a reply to me, the man across the aisle from me addressed them also, in fluent Ulster Irish. What an experience that must have been for the young lads but certainly for us, two Irish speakers a few feet away from one another and totally unaware, until that moment, of the other’s existence.
On another occasion at a demonstration in Dublin, I and another holding a banner between us were conversing in Irish – loudly as of necessity. Ahead of us, another group began to call back in Irish too. Spreagann Gaeilge Gaeilge, commented the comrade on the other end of our banner (“Irish [language] inspires Irish”).
AND THE LAST WORDS
What about the last words being in Irish – just a courtesy or a whim of some kind? Well, imagine one greeted the stranger, shop assistant, waiter or bartender in Irish and the reply came in English (which at the moment would probably be the case)? Thereafter the conversation flows in English but, as the Irish speaker is leaving, she says “Slán”. By now, the other has recovered a little from being somewhat wrong-footed by being addressed in Irish and furthermore, since the customer is leaving, is not worried about exposing what he considers to be his shamefully little knowledge of the language, so he replies also in Irish, “Slán”.
Of course, that situation was not momentous for the survival of the language but neither was it totally negative. The Irish speaker draws a little comfort from it. The other feels perhaps a little pride, is maybe even encouraged to respond in Irish should he see that person again or if some other addresses him in Irish. How hard can that be? He’d do it in Greek in Crete, in Spanish in Torremolinos or in Cancun, even though all he has is a few phrases from the tourist guidebook.
Of course, it is not the same. In the first place, the linguistic environment in Greece is Greek, in Torremolinos and Cancun, Spanish. Even migrant workers there will have learned the language. Not everyone around one in Ireland is speaking Irish in public, in fact, in most places, almost no-one is.
Secondly, there is no expectation of the English-speaker to be fluent in Greek or in Spanish. No expectation that the Irish person can speak Irish either, one might think. But actually, there kind of is. Inside the head of every Irish person there is the knowledge that this is their language and a feeling, buried deeply or lightly, that perhaps they should be able to speak it.
This feeling or knowledge can manifest itself in a reluctance to expose one’s limited knowledge of Irish to the perverse but understandable extent of refusing to speak it at all. Or of responding aggressively. Those are possible outcomes but so are more positive ones.
A person who has very little Irish may think: “But if I reply ‘Dia’s Muire dhuit’ and she lets loose with a flood of Irish, I won’t know what she’s saying and I’ll be mortified! Better to say nothing at all and not be so ashamed.” Of course, that is one choice. But it is not the only possible one. He could, instead, after she spoke to him some sentences in Irish he did not understand, reply in a sentence learned off by heart: “Gabh mo leithscéil ach níl ach cúpla focal agam” (“Excuse me, I have but a few words”). She might in turn reply: “Go raibh maith agat, úsáid a bhfuil agat” (“Thanks, use what you have”).
And why should the initiative be only with the person fluent in Irish? The person who knows only a few words is just as capable of making greetings and farewells in Irish — in fact I would go further and say that the language needs them to do that, to make that the norm.
In those kinds of exchanges, there will be a positive outcome for each participant. Not a huge step forward for the language in general but for anyone overhearing, a reminder that the Irish language does exist and perhaps that in this case, a person who did not seem know it well, still chose to learn a few words and use them. All of that goes to the credit side of the ledger in the psychological struggle for the maintenance and restoration of Irish.
An issue that is often raised with regard to speaking in Irish in the company of non-speakers, is one of politeness. It is generally considered rude to speak in a language that other people in the company do not understand. Strangely enough, people tend to think that more about people speaking Irish in Ireland than they do about people speaking French, German or Spanish among themselves here.
The issue must be faced. Neither of those languages is in any danger but Irish is – and in serious danger. Despite the growth of nurseries, primary and some secondary schools teaching through Irish, the actual daily use of the language is in decline. And the Gaeltachtanna — those areas where the language of the home has always been Irish – are shrinking at an alarming rate.
We need to find social strategies for linguistically-mixed company, whether it be occasional translation for the non-Irish speakers, or the tolerance of the latter – or conversing parts in Irish and parts in English. For the sake of the language we cannot allow the rules of politeness to deprive us of every social occasion to speak in the language other than some tiny domains hidden away somewhere, small groups of us meeting like conspirators in places where we are unlikely to meet anyone we know.
Another issue often raised is related to foreigners, whether they be migrants or visitors. I would say that the same rules apply. Most of those have their own language as well and speak it among themselves, in public too. And they must surely wonder why we don’t speak our own. The children of migrants are learning Irish at school and many are competent, some fluent in it. Some of their parents know a few words too: a Nepalese in a bar serves me through Irish and a Pakistani in a shop thanks me or tells me I am welcome, in Irish also.
In the public library, you may wish to greet in Irish and hand the returned books towards them saying: “Isteach”; the likelihood of you being misunderstood is minimal. Then, with the books you are borrowing, “Amach”. In the Post Office, you can ask for “Stampa i gcóir Sasana, le do thoill” or “Stampa i gcóir na hEorpa”. To the question “Payment by cash or card?” when you present your utility bill, you may wish to show notes and reply “Le h-airgead” or, displaying your card, “Le cárta”. “Do you want a bag?” “Níl, go raibh maith agat”, with a shake of the head. Leaving the bus or the taxi, you could say: “Go raibh maith agat, slán”. Sometimes, you will hear a reply in Irish and it will probably lift your heart a little. And the world around you will hear a little too …. and wonder.
None of that on its own, of course, will save the Irish language. But I think it will help. And now, on the crest of a small wave, might be a good time to do it: when the number and percentage of students attending all-Irish language schools is at an all-time high; when a survey of third-level students, whatever their feelings about how it was taught, show a majority supporting the retention of Irish as a compulsory subject on the curriculum. However, studies in the 1980s revealed a pattern of fall-off in Irish competency outside the Gaeltachts as the years went by; they need an environment encouraging the regular use of the language – use it or lose it.
The pro-independence political parties in the southern Basque Country make their public speeches either totally in Euskera or bilingually, in Euskera and Castillian. It is the same with the majority Basque trade unions. Also with the feminist and environmental movements, those against repression, against animal abuse, etc. In their public discourse, all organisations and parties in Catalunya that are not specifically Spanish-unionist (and even some of those), use Catalan first in public and Castillian secondly, if at all.
None of Ireland’s political parties (mainstream or oppositional), trade unions or campaigns (other than those specifically for the language) does anything much to promote the Irish language and some are hostile to it. That means it is up to us as individuals – everything we do for it can help at least a little.
So, as the Basques say, the first and last words in the language.
Do ye likewise; go out and multiply.
1Catalan is spoken elsewhere than in Catalunya, for example in the Paisos Catalans (“Catalan Countries”) such as Valencia and the Balearic Islands, where it is not as strong as it is currently in Catalunya, also in part of Sardinia.
On the 22nd of August 1798, almost 1,100 troops under the command of General Humbert landedat Cill Chuimín Strand, Bádh Cill Ala (Killala Bay), Co. Mayo.
The events are covered in six songs that I know of: Na Franncaigh Bhána; An Spailpín Fánach (Mayo version); Mise ‘gus Tusa agus Hielan Aindí; The West’s Awake by Thomas Davis; Men of the West and its Irish translation, Fir an Iarthair.
Some of the songs, especially the traditional ones from this area, are in Irish, which was the commonly-spoken language of the area (unlike parts of Dublin, Wexford and Antrim, where most of the songs from the period were in English).
The French troops on this occasion — unlike the numbers sent by Napoleon in 1796 but which failed to land at Bantry Bay due to stormy conditions — were insufficient to change the overall insurrectionary situation and though they and the Irish fought bravely, the Rising in the West failed. Most of the French who surrendered were treated as prisoners of war but the Irish who rose were butchered or taken prisoner and hanged. Matthew Tone and Bartholomew Teeling, both Irish but holding commissions as officers in the French Army, were taken to Dublin, tried and hung. Their bodies are reputed to lie in Croppies’ Acre.
Nevertheless the Rising is remembered with pride and General Humbert’s memory held in affection. Sixteen years later he fought the English again at the Battle of New Orleans, taking place between December 14, 1814 and January 18, 1815, this time as a private soldier in the American Army — and successfully. He had settled in New Orleans already and remained there after the war, working as a schoolteacher until his final days.
There is a French military former officer character in Mel Gibson’s film The Patriot (2000), Major Jean Villeneuve (played by Tcheky Karyo). A film commentary on line says his character was suggested by the Marquis de Lafayette, of the French military and Baron Von Steubon, a Prussian mercenary (http://www.patriotresource.com/thepatriot/characters/villeneuve.html.).
But might the character not have been suggested by Humbert? Anyone who knew his story would be eager to put him in the film, one would think. In the film, he fights in his French officer’s uniform at the final battle (unnamed but probably based that on at Cowpens); Humbert, though he fought at the rank of private, also fought in his Napoleonic Officer’s Army uniform at the Battle of New Orleans.
Robert Roda of New Hampshire is listed as the writer of the screenplay. New Hampshire is not known as an Irish-American stronghold and Roda does not sound like an Irish name. But then, it is not only Irish and French people who are interested in Irish and French history.
A generation is passing. Actually they have been passing for some time, the generation of the fighting years of the late 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s and even the 1990s.
They campaigned variously for social housing; civil rights north and south; for human rights; against Church domination; against Unionist sectarianism; for free access to contraception; for right to divorce; for an end to censorship; for national self-determination; for Gaeltacht civil rights; for Irish language rights and Irish on TV; in support of political prisoners; the rights of women; for Irish Traveller rights; protection of heritage and environment; solidarity with many struggles around the world, including Cuba, Vietnam, Rhodesia, South Africa, Chile, the Black Panthers; against drug dealers; for freedom to choose lifestyle; decriminalisation of gay and lesbian life; for community projects in deprived areas including youthwork and, let’s not forget, organised, fought in and supported strikes.
That generation fought many battles, some of which they won and some which built bases for later battles and their story is told only in bits and pieces here and there. They organised, marched, sat in, occupied, wrote, made placards, painted slogans, put up posters and some fired guns; they were watched, raided, beaten, fined, jailed, calumnied, sacked, expelled, kept unemployed, derided from pulpit, press and judge’s bench, some were shot, and not just they but their families made to suffer too.
I am not referring to people of any specific age but of all those who were any age from young to old and active during those years. The causes of death have been many, from simple old age and life lived out to the death penalty.
But the death penalty was not in force in Ireland in the 1960s, you may think? Actually it was, it wasn’t abolished until 1990 in this state. But you’d be kind of correct as in practice no formal execution has been carried out by this state since 1954.
So, then what am I talking about? Maybe referring to the ‘United Kingdom’, since six counties of Ireland are included in that state? Yes, and no. The death sentence still exists in the UK only for “Arson in Her Majesty’s shipyards” but it was abolished in Britain for the crime of murder in 1965 and, in fact, no-one had been formally executed there from the year before. If the judicial death penalty had still been in force, the people in charge of that state might’ve been been spared the embarrassment of seeing nearly a score of Irish people they had wrongly convicted in 1974 walk free decades later as judges eventually had to find them ‘Not Guilty’.
A bit late for Giuseppe Conlon, against whom there had not even been a shred of doubtful evidence, but never mind. But had they all died in prison or been executed, people might not have worked so hard to see their convictions in court overturned – people among whom Joe Kelly, who died this week and who was cremated on Saturday, stands tall.
But the death penalty was not removed from the judges’ arsenal in that bastion of reaction, Six Counties state, until 1973, when the 30 Years’ War had entered its early years (somebody from the British state clearly had to sit down with the Unionist bigots and explain, although of course they sympathised with their loyal brethren, how bad it would be for Britain and the Queen if they started sentencing and executing IRA and INLA fighters).
There are more ways to skin a cat …. yes, and to kill too. The orange and SAS and MRF death squads killed more against whom there was not even a court conviction. And some of the Republicans killed one another too. And twelve died on hunger strike, one each in 1974 and in ’76 and ten in 1981. Actually, considering the brutality of force-feeding, it’s surprising there weren’t more deaths – Marian and Dolours Price were force-fed 167 times over 203 days in 1973 and it was the publicity around their case and the deaths of Gaughan and Stagg that ended the practice of force-feeding, ensuring that the Hunger Strikers of 1980 and ’81 at least did not have to endure that experience.
But there are more ways to kill …. Many of that generation of fighters died from ‘natural’ causes but died early – cancers, heart attacks, liver damage, despair ….. ah, yes, that brings to mind suicide, of which some also died. But despair also can drive you to drink, even more easily if it has been part of your experience of socialising and alcohol is one of the top killers in the world. And some died of drugs …. or drugs and alcohol …. or infections from unsafe drug injection …. But most who died early did so in summary from the wear and tear of struggle, of prison, of separation, of relationship breakdowns, of betrayal, despair.
Not all died, even those who are not among the fighters today. Some walked away from the struggle and though I can’t imagine being in their shoes, I do not begrudge them. So long as they didn’t betray any on their way out or make a living out of spitting on their former comrades and causes afterwards. But some, a very few, did exactly that and you can read what they have to say quite often in their articles or hear them quoted in the newspapers or on TV or radio.
Some found other ways to betray and did it in secret, feeding information to their handlers and some even diverting attention from themselves by accusing others, some innocent and some of a lesser grade of betrayal than that of the accusers. We know of some of them but may never learn about them all.
A few have survived and are still around, fighting the struggle, whether in organisations or as independents. Joe Kelly was one in both categories, in a sense. I knew him but did not know him well and met him only in the last decade, after I had returned from decades living and working in London. I am given to understand that he had passed through a number of political organisations, including Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party. A strange CV, one might think, for a radical left-wing social and political activist. The last political group with which I had associated Joe was People Before Profit, on a local level, around Phibsboro. Joe invited me to attend a quiz they were running and I did so mainly to return a favour – he had attended, to contribute to the singing at my invitation, an evening of the Clé Club where I had been “Fear a’Tí” for that night. I was amazed to win a Blackberry at the quiz (sorry, Joe, I still haven’t gotten around to learning and using it!). Last I heard, he wasn’t with the PBP.
Somebody told me years back that he had been a central organiser of a solidarity event in Dublin for the Birmingham Six in which lights had been floated down the Liffey. Of course I was impressed – on a political/ human rights level but also for the poetic vision involved. I have found little about that event since and Joe, who I found a modest man, didn’t give me much in response to my pressing. A couple of searches on the Internet yielded me only a passing reference to the River Parade, of 1990, a year before the Birmingham Six were finally cleared in court and released. Likely I have not been asking the right people or looking in the right corners.
I met Joe by arrangement for a coffee a couple of times, while I tried to get him into something I was doing and he tried to get me into something he was working at – neither of us succeeding in our efforts to recruit the other. Since Joe was working for awhile in the community sector I also approached him to explore possibilities for me when, despite a long track record in the fields of working in homeless shelters and addiction as well as other community activism I was out of work, but he wasn’t able to help me.
And of course I bumped into him on demonstrations, as in those in solidarity with Palestine or against the Water Tax or against the Lisbon Treaty. For awhile we were active together in the Dublin branch of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Committee and I believe he left like me after witnessing some nasty in-fighting years ago, though we both often turned up to protest pickets and demonstrations and public meetings called by the organisation. We would also meet at events in solidarity with the Cuban people.
I heard him described at his funeral service, by someone who should know, as a Republican. Certainly Joe was very proud of his father and uncle who had both fought in the 1916 Rising, the first in the GPO and the second in Bolands’ Mill and proudly displayed his father’s medal at a public event in the Teachers’ Club in Dublin.
However, he was among the number that I invited but failed to get to events over the last decade to highlight the plight of Irish Republicans being hounded by the State and imprisoned without trial. That did puzzle me, for I knew Joe to have a track record of fighting for human rights. And this was shown not only in his campaigning for the Birmingham Six.
Joe fought for the rights of divorce and choice of abortion, as well for the right to freedom from partner abuse, in particular through the movement for women’s refuges, what many people still refer to as “battered wives hostels”. He was active in the campaign for the right to gay marriage, so amazingly successful in Ireland. And Joe was also active in campaigns against racism towards migrants.
“Conas atú tú?” or “Dia dhuit”, Joe would invariably greet me whenever we met. I would not call him exactly fluent but he could understand and speak Irish. I suppose I assumed he had some affection for the language and was also paying me, a known native speaker, the courtesy of addressing me in Irish and speaking awhile in the language. At his funeral service, I learned it went further than that. I heard his grandchildren say that he frequently spoke to them in Irish and when they did not understand him, would translate what the words meant. Some people in the audience chuckled to hear this. I felt sad and somewhat angry too, that a question so important to our cultural identity, an aspect so threatened today, should be treated so apparently lightly by some and that the only words to be spoken at his funeral service in Irish were those in the final sentence spoken by his brother, Jim, in his eulogy: “Slán leat, Joe”. In the booklet produced for the occasion and freely available at Club na Múinteoirí, there was however one dedication in Irish (and I have since learned that one of the speeches at the Teacher’s Club was in Irish) and I note that both grandchildren who spoke bear Irish-language names.
Paying respects and memorial service
On Saturday, laid out in the lovely Room 2 in the Teacher’s Club (sin Club na Múinteoirí, Joe) in Dublin’s Parnell Square, a venue often used for social, cultural and political events, in a closed wicker basket coffin, Joe received his visitors. And they were MANY. Feminists, Palestine solidarity activists, Cuba solidarity activists, community activists, independent political activists and a sprinkling of activists in various parties all attended and many contributed their memories or words dedicated to him while he was laid out there. (I took many photos here and some at Mount Jerome but somehow seem to have lost them all).
Attending first another funeral (of another singer) that morning in Howth, then travelling into Dublin to take part in the Moore Street Awareness weekly table, I had to miss some of that. I spelled a comrade while he attended to pay his respects, then attended later while he took over back at the table.
Room No. 2 was still packed but so was the whole bar lounge area. I had missed all the eulogies and reminiscences and even singing – “The Foggy Dew” I was told. Had anyone sung “The Parting Glass”, I asked. No, apparently not. So then to ask his sister if it would be alright to do it, then the MC, his long-time collaborator, comrade and friend, Brendan Young. It would be welcome, I was told. And Fergus Russell (also his second funeral that day) and I did three verses together, using a mic so it might carry through to the lounge and, though we took turns at fluffing a line, not too badly. It is a great song for such occasions and each verse was particularly appropriate to Joe.1
A little later, the Internationale was sung by all (copies of the words of a verse and the chorus distributed beforehand), the wicker coffin (I must have one of those when my time comes!) was lifted on to shoulders by family and friends and brought through the respectful lines while Joe’s daughter sang The Night They Brought Old Dixie Down.2
Then the hearse came out and led the cortege to Mount Jerome cemetery. I didn’t know the protocol regarding cycling in a funeral cortege but followed anyway, managing to get temporarily lost on the way and arriving just as the hearse arrived at the cemetery. Again, the chapel was packed.
The ceremony was non-religious and officiated by Therese Caherty, ex-partner and friend. In turn Therese herself, his brother, his bereaved current partner, relatives and his comrade and friend Brendan Young all gave their moving eulogies and often funny anecdotes. Brendan emphasised that for Joe, the process of the conduct of a struggle was as important as the end to be reached, which I knew to be true from our time together in the Dublin IPSC and I’d be in agreement with Joe on that.
There were, despite the many I did see during those events, some faces I did not see in the congregation or at the Club na Múinteoirí before the service or later, when many returned to the Club to free sandwiches and soup laid on by the management there. It was their loss.
I never saw him dance but am told he loved it and taught his grandchildren not only to sing but to dance too. I did know he’d learned to tango. He’s left this dance floor now and gone on to another and whatever “one steps and two steps and the divil knows what new steps”3 they are dancing there, I’m sure Joe is learning them and probably teaching a few of his own.
Slán leat, Joe – árdaigh iad!
1 “Of all the money that e’er I had, I spent it in good company
And all the harm that e’er I’ve done, alas, it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit to memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass, good night and joy be with you all
“If I had money enough to spend and leisure time to sit awhile
There is a fair maid in this town, that sorely has my heart beguiled
Her rosy cheeks and ruby lips I own, she has my heart enthralled
So fill to me the parting glass, good night and joy be with you all
“Of all the comrades that e’er I’ve had, they are sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e’er I’ve had,
they would wish me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot that I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and I’ll softly call good night and joy be with you all”
2 This song of nostalgia for the American Confederacy has a haunting melody but its ideology is often ignored by those who sing it.
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 go 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 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.