80th anniversary of the fascist bombing of Gernika marked with a weekend of events in Dublin
The 80th anniversary of the fascist bombing of the Basque town of Gernika, immortalised in the painting by Pablo Picasso, was marked last weekend (21st to 23rd April) during a series of events in Dublin organised by the Gernika 80 Committee.
The Gernika 80 Committee was established last December by a group of Dublin based Irish and Basque activists with the aim of both commemorating the bombing and its victims, but also to speak to similar issues in today’s world — war, refugees and resistance to the growth of contemporary fascism.
In the lead up to the anniversary weekend, it organised a series of events and initiatives including fundraisers, the production of high quality t-shirts and badges (both designed by Basque artist Nekane Orkaizagirre), the preparation of a 40-page commemorative magazine, the painting of a mural at Dalymount Park, the production and distribution of stickers and posters and preparations and organisation of the commemorative weekend events, which included the launch of a magazine, an afternoon of talks, a fundraising gig and the planting of an oak sapling at Dublin’s historic Glasnevin Cemetery.
The weekend commenced on Friday 21st April with the publication of the Committee’s 40-page special commemorative magazine — Gernika 80 Then and Now — 80 years of Basque Irish anti-fascist struggles. This high quality production features articles on the history of the bombing and of its legacy, the story of Basque refugees, in particular the Gallastegi family from Bilbao who settled in Ireland after the bombing. It also covers politics in Ireland of the 1930s and the fight against fascism here, as well as the visit of Basque priest Ramon Laborda in 1937 to tell the Irish people of the suffering of the Basques and to counter pro fascist propaganda.
There is the untold story of Jack Prendergast — the only known Irish person to fight with the Basque Army against Franco’s fascists and an article on the murky underworld of the Catholic far right in Ireland. The magazine also features an interview with Basque trade union activist and feminist Marian Verde who tells her experiences of the dark days of the Franco dictatorship and of repression in the post Franco era. Finally, there are short pieces on Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, the Astra Centre, the Tree of Gernika, and art and Gernika.
The magazine was launched by civil rights veteran and life- long socialist and republican activist Bernadette McAliskey at a packed public meeting in Dublin’s Wynn’s Hotel. The event was opened by Fin Dwyer of Irish History Podcast and a member of the Committee, who thanked everyone for attending and outlined the legacy of the fascist bombing of Gernika before introducing Spanish Civil War historian Enda McGarry who gave a fascinating and in-depth account of the bombing.
Enda provided some harrowing details of the extent and the consequences of the bombing. The initial attack commenced at 4.30pm on a packed market day in Gernika with ten bi-plane fighters escorting the bombers which swooped down raking men, women and children with machine gun fire. However, Enda continued the nightmare was only beginning:
Three Bomber Squadrons comprising of twenty-three aircraft in total followed this sortie. At 17:15 the heavy sound of aero-engines from the first of these aircraft was heard over Gernika. These aircraft, flying from Burgos, carpet bombed Gernika systematically in twenty-minute relays for two and half hours. They came in flights of three, flying abreast, carving out a destructive corridor beneath them one hundred and fifty metres in width. The payload comprised of a cocktail of high explosives, shrapnel and incendiary devices. Squadrons of fighters, which once more attacked the defenceless people attempting to flee the town, accompanied these.
As the ordeal finally came to an end whole families were buried in the ruins of their houses; the improvised bomb shelter cellars offered little protection. Given the attackers had used incendiary bombs which start enormous fires sucking up oxygen, even proper bomb shelters would have provided little protection. The scenes in Gernika were hellish. Cattle and sheep burned with chemicals such as thermite and white phosphorus ran crazily among the burning buildings until they died. Fire blackened humans staggered blindly through the flames, smoke and dust, while others tore at the rubble desperately trying to locate friends and family. The centre of Gernika was an inferno.
Enda went on to detail the extent to which the fascists and sections of the world’s press told blatant lies about the bombing and said that the purpose of the bombing was “the wholesale destruction of a defenceless town in a vulgar display of power, to inflict death, injury, terror and misery, in order to demoralize an entire people and rob them of their will to resist.”
The crowd showed their appreciation for Enda’s detailed contribution, which met with lenghty applause. Fin Dwyer then introducted Bernadette McAliskey who formally launched the magazine and paid tribute to the Gernika 80 Committee for organising the weekend events and on its publication, which she said tells many of the untold stories of the bombing and the Irish connections to the event.
She emphasised the importance of documenting this history and making it accessible to the wider public. Bernadette also reflected on the death and destruction visited on Gernika by fascist bombers 80 years ago and asked what lessons if any had we learned, particularly when we have seen so many Gernikas visited upon other peoples, towns and cities since then. Reflecting on the theme she went on to challenge what are simplistic understandings of fascism, which she said “starts in the heads of individuals with the idea that what keeps you disadvantaged is that some lesser breed has taken what belongs to you.”
She added “the enemy today is seen as the Muslim in the same way almost everything in the 1930s could be blamed on the Jews and we need to confront that or what will define our time for future generations will be the bodies in the Mediterranean, the refugees dying in camps when we had room for them”. Bernadette’s address was warmly received and there was an engaging discussion afterwards relating to racism, the armed conflicts in Ireland and the Basque Country and political prisoners.
On Saturday an afternoon of talks in the Unite the Union Hall on Middle Abbey Street was opened by Dublin City Councillor Cieran Perry who acknowledged the importance of recalling the past and remembering the sacrifices of those who have gone before us, but equally the importance of realising our own place in history.
There followed three separate panel discussions, the first of which heard Dr Mark Hayes, Senior Lecturer at Southampton Solent University, former member of AFA in England, and author of The Ideology of Fascism and the Far Right in Britain and Angela Nagle (author of forthcoming book Kill All Normies: The online culture wars from 4chan to Trump)discuss the growing threat of fascism in Europe and beyond. Mark recalled how his home town of Southampton had received 4,000 child refugees from Gernika before detailing the history of the rise of fascism and those who had opposed it. In her contribution Angela Nagle discussed the development of the ‘Alt-Right’ in the United States.
The second talk of the afternoon was chaired by Gernika 80 Committee member Joanne McDonald who introduced long-time refugee and migrant rights campaigner Caoimhe Butterly who discussed the plight of Europe’s refugees from Gernika to the present day, including the camps in Calais where she has worked and in Syria, while highlighting the appalling record of the Irish State in its treatment of asylum seekers who languish in direct provision for years without basic rights. There was an apology to the meeting from Lucky Khambule of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland who was unable to attend, however both Caoimhe and Joanne reiterated the necessity for the abolition of the direct provision system and encouraged those in attendance to support this call and to get involved in solidarity work.
The final session of the day was introduced by Gernika 80 Committee member Stewart Reddin and discussed the topic of repression and resistance in the post Franco era in the Basque Country, which had two contributors with contrasting experiences. Irish Times journalist Paddy Woodworth has reported on the Basque Country for over 40 years and has written the seminal work on the Spanish State’s dirty war in the Basque Country, Dirty War Clean Hands.
He provided a detailed account of the history of the conflict in the Basque Country from the Franco era through the ‘transition’ years of the mid to late 1970s and up to the present day. In her contribution long time Basque political activist Beatriz Arana, who had travelled from the Basque Country to participate in the meeting detailed the history of the radical and vibrant social movements of which she has been an active part of since the 1980s.
Beatriz discussed the broad range of movements and campaigns that have challenged capitalism and the repressive Spanish State, including the free radio stations, the huge squatting movement that has put so many empty buildings to public and community use and the anti-military service campaign of the early 1990s. She stressed the importance of the Basque language and the campaigns initiated to encourage and increase its use, and also discussed campaigns in support of political prisoners, feminism and the environment.
Beatriz’s presentation provided much inspiration to those in attendance and there followed an interesting discussion on minority languages and the current political situation in the Basque Country which unfortunately, due to time constraints on our access to the hall, had to be cut short.
Gernika 80 Committee member Idoia Hualde closed the day’s proceedings by thanking all the speakers, those in attendance and those who contributed to organising the weekend and concluded by stating that:
“While there is much in the present world to make us despair, there is also much to inspire. Then as now, international movements offer resistance to the far right and fascism and solidarity to war refugees. Today provided an opportunity to reflect on the dangers of fascism, while celebrating the inspiring movements which have defeated it over the past eight decades.”
From the Unite the Union Hall in Dublin’s city centre it was a short walk to the Markets area of Dublin, where the Gernika 80 Committee had organised a fundraiser with Irish anti-fascist ska band The Hacklers in The Cobblestone Bar. The venue was packed to capacity and the band soon had the place heaving with a fantastic set, before finishing with a stomping rendition of the Italian anti-fascist anthem Bella Ciao to a hugely appreciative and sweat-soaked audience.
There was one final and very special event to complete the weekend’s commemoration. On Sunday the Committee planted an oak sapling, sourced from an official supplier of oak in Gernika, at Dublin’s historic Glasnevin Cemetery. The oak has a particular significance in the Basque Country, representing traditional freedoms.
Traditionally, Basque society was organised around the assembly (batzarrea) and each house (extea) had the right to send a representative to the assembly where village affairs were discussed. In pre-Christian times these local assemblies were held under an oak tree. In each of the seven provinces that make up the Basque Country social customs gradually became codified in law (foru) and these fouruak (laws) became the basis upon which each province was governed.
The best known meeting place of the assemblies was at Gernikako Arbola (Tree of Gernika) in the province of Bizkaia, which for Bizkaians symbolised traditional freedoms. Each king of Castile would swear to uphold those freedoms at a ceremony under the Gernika oak. In July 1936 the Spanish Republic granted autonomy to the three Basque provinces of Bizkaia, Araba and Gipuzkoa and the first Basque president Jose Aguirre was sworn into office under the Tree of Gernika. The famous oak survived the fascist bombing of the town.
On a bright Sunday afternoon a large crowd gathered at the gates of Glasnevin Cemetery. There was a variety of flags on display including the Basque ikurriña, the Irish tri-colour, the Starry Plough (flag of the workers) and the International Brigade flag. The crowd formed up behind a bag-piper and was led by a group of children carrying white lily and red carnation flowers and those carrying placards displaying the Gernika 80 Committee’s logo, which was designed by Basque artist Nekane Orkaizagirre.
Highlighting the historic significance of where the Gernika oak was being planted the procession passed close to the grave of International Brigade leader and prominent Irish socialist and republican figure Frank Ryan. The crowd made its way to the Angels’ Memorial Garden, beside the watch tower at the Phibsboro end of the cemetery, before gathering around the site of the oak sapling where proceedings were chaired by Gernika Committee member Sam McGrath.
Sam introduced the first speaker of the day, local Sinn Féin TD Dessie Ellis, who along with his colleague Anne O’Sullivan, had greatly assisted the Committee in securing Glasnevin Cemetery as the site for the planting of the oak. In a powerful address Dessie highlighted the historic importance of the oak to the Basque people and the historic links between Ireland and the Basque Country.
Today, we are here to mark the great bond of friendship between the Irish and the Basque peoples by planting this oak tree as a symbol of our solidarity.
He emphasised the importance of remembering those killed on that fateful day in Gernika as well those who fought Franco’s fascists including the many Irish people, like Frank Ryan, who volunteered with the International Brigades. Dessie also stressed the importance of continuing struggles for the rights of workers, the right to a home and universal access to public services, concluding:
Today, as it was in the 1930s throughout Europe the biggest threat to freedom and democracy is the constant presence and influence of international capital. They work in the shadows and we on the left must be vigilant against that constant threat to human and workers’ rights. The immortal phrase has to echo again, “NO PASARÁN!”
Emphasising those Irish links to the stuggle against Franco’s fascists during the Spanish Civil War, the next speaker was Neil O’Riordan, grandson of international brigader and Connolly Column member, the late Micheál O’Riordan. Neil read a statement on behalf of his father Manus O’Riordan, Irish Secretary of the International Brigade Trust, who was unable to be at Glasnevin as he was attending International Brigade commemorative events in New York. In his message Manus recalled that his father Micheál and fellow Connolly Column brigadista, Peter O’Connor, attended an International Brigade commemoration in the Basque Country in 1996, the 60th anniversary of the bombing, where the two men carried the Connolly Column banner in a ceremony before the oak tree of Gernika.
Neil concluded Manus’s statement by recalling a poignant family connection to the plot on which the Gernika oak tree was being planted. Manus’s sister, Mary, who lived for only two days following her birth on 22nd April 1948, is buried at the same Angels’ Plot and he said he was certain that his father and late mother Kay would be especially pleased, as their family certainly were, that from the soil where Mary O’Riordan was laid to rest, an oak tree from Gernika would now grow and bloom.
The final speaker of the day was Beatriz Arana who highlighted the symbolic importance of the oak tree to the Basque people, “the Gernika tree reminds us that we once ruled ourselves by the exercise of direct democracy without imperialism. This tree survived the bombing of Gernika”, she said. Beatriz reminded the crowd that Gernika did not end in 1937; that the horrors of war and imperialism continue and that the struggles for another world free of imperialism, capitalism and patriarchy continue, concluding:
“Let’s replace individualism by solidarity amongst the peoples. Let’s water the roots of comradeship. Good life to all indigenous peoples, to all indigenous languages, to all indigenous cultures.”
In a reflection of a century of friendship and solidarity between Ireland and the Basque Country, Sam McGrath then called Dessie and Beatriz forward to place the plaque in front of the oak sapling, a symbol of freedom for the Basque people in a graveyard where so many men and women who fought for Irish freedom against British imperialism are buried. The plaque bears the Gernika 80 logo on top and reads: “An oak tree from Gernika planted to remember the 80th anniversary of the fascist bombing of the Basque town of Gernika on 26th April 1937. Planted by the Gernika 80 Committee Dublin, 23rd April 2017.”
The proceedings concluded with a wonderful display of traditional Basque culture. Erik Noone, originally from Iparralde in the northern Basque Country and living in Dublin, stepped from the crowd dressed in black and wearing a txapela (Basque beret) and abarka (sandals made of calf leather and tied by braided wool laces around the socks) and performed the traditional Basque dance the aurresku. It is a dance that is traditionally performed as a tribute or a way of giving honour and was a fitting way to end a very special occasion. Sam McGrath then called on the children to lay flowers at the tree before thanking everyone for attending and for all of those who had contributed in making this such a memorable weekend.
The Gernika 80 Committee:
Goiuri Alberdi, Paul Bowman, Fin Dwyer, Aoife Frances, Idoia Hualde, Joanne McDonald, Sam McGrath, Bas O’Curraoin, Frank Hopkins, Paul Reynolds, Stewart Reddin, Gary Ronaghan, Kevin Squires, Alban Verdier.
The Committee wishes to express its thanks to all those who contributed in making this weekend a fitting memorial to the victims of the fascist bombing of Gernika as well as an inspiring occassion in the ongoing struggle against fascism. A full list of those who contributed to the organising of the weekend and all of our sponsors is printed in the magazine.
Copies of the magazine are available by contacting the Gernika 80 Facebook page and will also be available soon in various bookshops and other outlets soon.
Stewart Reddin is a member of the Gernika 80 Committee and the Stoneybatter & Smithfield People’s History Project. His article Irish Citizens of Basque origin: The story of Ireland’s Basque Refugees is published in the Gernika 80 Then & Now magazine.
With thanks to Pat Finlay and Paul Reynolds for permission to use photographs in this article.