By Aodh Ó Corcráin.
I supposed I could write a letter – a letter from the Basque Country – when a friend wrote to ask me to contribute to this new project. I used to write home in Irish, sending recipes and ideas, but that sweet poetic language has begun to fade in my mind. It has no context or sense for me here.
I used to hear it spoken on the streets of Belfast, soft Donegal accents mumbled reservedly, and lilting Cork women inspired something in me. But here I’ve lost touch with those accents and those characters who carried them. So I’ll write in English, a language which still persists, even here, to remain part of my life.
My language has faded, as my participation in political life has faded. A dual consequence for having lost my connection to my homeland and the people there. Here I live in many other languages, in many other people’s homelands, trying to make sense of them and myself within them.
Politics here is as tribal as it was in Belfast. And, as in Belfast, many avoid discussing politics and history. Most, deep down, are ashamed that they did nothing when their brothers and sisters were being tortured in Spanish holding cells, with echos of Bobby Sands’s “the men of art have lost their heart”. Others speak with all the surety of fools, condemning things they never understood. And those who took a stand are now suspicious – like, as Kavanagh phrased it, “a rat near strange bread” – of all the rest of them.
And so society here, between the Bay of Biscay and the hills and valleys, given strange names like Arrasate and Etxalar, remains pitifully divided, like that of an old Celtic society, which never managed to unite its people politically and gave its hills and valleys strange names like Cnoc Fola and Sliabh Luachra.
Language is more colourful; however, it gives us respite from the banality of the political scene. It is, as the poet Joseba Sarionandia put it, “our only free territory”. Just as it was in Belfast.
In the summer, I listen to these sweet foreign words on the young people’s lips, sipping beers in the warm evenings outside in the town square as the bands play and the sound of a pelota ball bounces rhythmically off the handball court. Euskera becomes part of the air, like the sounds of the handball court, the smell of cigarette smoke and the taste of the cold beer.
The winter’s rains wash away the traces of cigarette butts and spilled drinks and the conversation moves into the bars, associations and restaurants. The people huddle in warmer spaces, protected from the cold by winter coats and woollen jumpers. They sit at tables over lunch and break loaves of bread, placing slices of fatty txistorra between them as they talk.
Their language takes on forms of space and time, creating places to live life in the comforting liberty of the mother tongue and learned linguistic creativity.
The work of Ramiro Arrue is on exhibition in the gallery in Biarritz. The artist paints Basque life as it was over half a century ago.
A friend in the university here teaches philosophy, as we look at the paintings of dances in the village square, he tells me that he believes that language is not a series of words used to describe the great painting which is human life, but the paint used to design that life.
So as idiosyncratic artists become tired with the bleakness of political change, they use the palette of language to paint new worlds.
I sip black wine and listen to the sounds of new worlds being imagined, as the rain gently falls over the port of Donostia and the bars hum with the music of people conversing over food on a wintry Sunday afternoon. And I wonder about how in the midst of political failure, people use language to become artists, to imagine, to create, to see their country in colour.
Aodh Ó Corcráin is a cook currently living and working in Donostia in the Basque Country