The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Mar 2, 2008

Gaelic Galicia

My friend Yolanda is from Vigo, and she doesn't particularly like being called a Spaniard. In this, she is in a bit of a minority among her native Galicians, most of whom - at least, according to Giles Tremlett in his Ghosts of Spain - are quite happy to call themselves Spanish. This impression of difference, though, is what would appeal to the Catalans or the Basques, the other two historically distinct peoples of Spain, who have long led nationalist and, indeed, secessionist struggles against the majority Castilians.

One of the enduring beliefs of the Galicians, denizens of the westernmost outpousts of the Iberian peninsula, is that they are descendants of Celts. There is evidence of pre-Roman culture in the area now famous for Celta de Vigo and Santiago de Compostela, but ethnologists are not in agreement about the belief. In 1911, the philosopher Miguel de Inamuno wrote
Most of the local Celtism found by local historians in Galicia is utter claptrap. It is decoration to cover up the gaping holes in that particular story.
As Tremlett points out, the natives of the area did have maritime contacts with Brittany and Ireland. There's also the pre-11th century Leabhar Gabhala, a Gaelic text, that claims that Galicians had successfully invaded and overrun Ireland - in one day!

The takeover and reinterpretation of history to suit one's own nationalist purpose is not restricted to any one peoples, of course. But the evergreen Paddy Moloney, leader of that most excellent troupe of Celtic troubadours, the Chieftains, found that there were remarkable similarities in the music of Ireland and Galicia. The search for the commonalities and the ensuing fusion resulted in the lovely Santiago.

I haven't listened to the Chieftains for several years now, so it is with particular pleasure I reacquaint myself with their works, and especially this album, which has been gathering a bit of dust over the years. As Moloney says, the Galician piper Carlos Núñez toured with the band on stages around the world, contributing his own immaculate skills with the recorder and the bagpipes. The album Santiago is a product of the musical movements they experienced on the fabled pilgrimage to Compostela, and draws on Basque, Gaelic and Galician tradition. Check out the wonderful El Besu, or The Kiss, an old song from Asturias, with its sweet chant of Kiss me little girl, with your coral lips

Bagpipes are a stark and obvious representation of a common culture. But even more important to the Galician sense of unity is their language, galego, a language closer to Portuguese than Spanish, and a mighty instrument for poetry.

It turns out that the most powerful engine of Galician poesy was Rosalía de Castro, whom Tremlett covers in his book. A cursory search for these keywords on Google elicits manifold hits on Castro. Her Selected Poems is much vaunted, and there are scholarly tomes on her and the Romantic Revival in Galicia. In essence, though, through her efforts began the notion that Galego could be a written literary language, an honour that had hitherto been given only to Castilian. The sweet and mellifluous tongue lent itself wonderfully to song and prose, especially in Castro's expert hands. See, for instance, her Nasín Cand’
Nasín cand’ as prantas nasen,
No mes das froles nasín,
Nunha alborada mainiña,
Nunha alborada d’abril.
Por eso me chaman Rosa,
Mais á do triste sorrir,
Con espiñas para todos,
Sin ningunha para ti.
Dés que te quixen, ingrato,
Todo acabou para min,
Que eras ti para min todo,
Miña groria e meu vivir.
¿De qué, pois, te queixas, Mauro?
¿De qué, pois, te queixas, di,
Cando sabes que morrera
Por te contemplar felís?
Duro cravo me encravaches
Con ese teu maldesir,
Con ese teu pedir tolo
Que non sei qué quer de min,
Pois dinche canto dar puden
Avariciosa de ti.
O meu coraçón che mando
C’unha chave para ó abrir;
Nin eu teño máis que darche,
Nin ti máis que me pedir.
In English, translated by John F. Nims, it is musical as well, what?
I was born when the plants were born;
in the month of the flowers I was born;
in the gentle dawn,
on an April dawn.
And so, they call me Rose,
she of the rueful smile,
with thorns for everyone —
though not a single thorn for you.
Ingrate, since I spoke my love,
everything for me has ended,
you who were my all in all,
my glory and my life.
Of what, then, do you moan, Mauro?
Say, of what, then, do you moan?
when you know that I would die
just to see you satisfied?
You wound me with a cruel knife,
cursing as you do,
making mad demands.
What is it you want of me,
since I gave you what I could,
hungering for you?
Now, I send my heart to you
with a key to open it;
I have no more to give to you,
you no more to ask of me.
Tremlett reports that Castro's predilection for the description and detailing of local traditions which informed so much of her poetry did offend many of her compatriots. As long as she stuck to praising the nobility and gentility of the fisherfolk and rural poor, she was much loved. But when she disclosed one secret to the readers of Madrid's Imparcial paper in 1881,
Amongst some people it is accepted, as a charitable and meritorious act, that should a sailor who has not touched land for a long time arrive at a place where the women are decent and honourable, the wife, daughter or sister of the family which has given the stranger a roof to stay under, allows him, for the space of a single night, to occupy her bed.
she faced concerted fury and recriminations which eventually led her to abandon Galician and adopt Castilian for her poetry.


Sunil said...

The Chieftains rock. "The long black veil" is probably their best.

Fëanor said...

Aha, a fellow Chieftains groupie :-) I saw them on their Long Black Veil tour a decade or so ago in Chicago. Superb, even if they sang Mo Ghile Mear without Sting. Haven't followed them since their Santiago album, though.

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