Wha’s like us? Quite a lot of folk: 1. the Galicians

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by Paul Kavanagh

This is the first in an occasional series looking at other nations around Europe and elsewhere in the world which, like Scotland, are not independent.

Galicia nestles in the corner of Spain immediately north of Portugal.  The wild and beautiful landscape of Galicia has little in common with the parched Mediterranean coasts which provide most Scottish people with their image of Iberia.  Galicia is green and lush and closely resembles the extreme southwest of Ireland in climate.

The resemblances with Ireland go further than landscape and climate and the Galicians are proud of their Celtic roots.  The country takes its name from the Celtic Gallaeci tribe who lived in the region in pre-Roman times.  The Gallaeci maintained close links with the Celtic tribes of Ireland and Britain.   Many modern archaelogists believe that Galicia was the southernmost end of a maritime-orientated culture which also encompassed Brittany, Ireland and the western coasts of Britain, reaching as far north as Orkney.  

These ancient links are preserved in Galician culture and legend.  Galicians still tell of a king called Breogan who built a high tower in his capital, Brigantium. The tower was so high that in the far distance an island could be seen.  Breogan’s sons Mile and Ith took sail in a fleet of ships and conquered and settled on the island, which is known today as Ireland.  The best preserved account of this legend is in the old Irish text the Lebor Gabála ‘the Book of Invasions’, a semi-mythical telling of Irish history, but versions of the story are still told by Galicians.

Galicians regard Breogan as the father of their nation, and as such claim that they are also the mother country of Ireland and Scotland.  Irrespective of whether there is any truth in the legends, Galicians still feel a strong affinity to the Irish and the Scots.  Modern visitors from Celtic nations are guaranteed a warm welcome in the country, and are received like long-lost cousins.

The Galician language is called Galego.  Despite the name it is not a variety of Gaelic.  Galego descends from the Latin language introduced by the Roman conquerors and is closely related to Portuguese.  Portuguese descends from those dialects of Galego spoken in districts which avoided coming under the political control of the Castilian monarchy.  Many linguists classify Portuguese and Galician as twin standard varieties of a single Galician-Portuguese language.  Galego remains widely spoken by the Galician people and is now official alongside Spanish throughout Galicia.

Galician links with the Celtic nations of the British Isles remained strong even after the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.  During the Anglosaxon invasions, thousands of Romano-British Celts fled the pagan Germanic tribes who were attacking southern Wales, south west England and the Cornish peninsula.  The bulk of these settled in Brittany, where their Celtic language still survives until today, but another large group fled further south to Galicia.  Here they founded the semi-independent bishopric of Bretoña where they continued to speak their Brittonic Celtic language for many generations.  The Celtic Britons of Bretoña finally disappear from history in the 9th century, but their legacy lives on in the strong links in culture and traditional music which remain to this day between Galicia and the Celtic nations.

Bagpipes, called gaitas, are still widely played by traditional musicians and Celtic music is popular.  Some Galician musicians have become internationally famous in the Celtic music scene, such as Carlos Nuñez and the band Luar na Luibre ‘Moon in the Pond’.

The mediaeval kingdom of Galicia was founded in the wake of the Arabic conquest of Iberia. Only the extreme north of the peninsula remained independent of the Islamic kingdom of Al Andalus.  This strip of territory remained under the control of Christian rulers who fought amongst themselves for political dominance.  For brief periods during this time Galicia established itself as an independent kingdom, and it was during one of these periods of independence that the southernmost portion of the kingdom broke away to become Portugal.  The lands that would become Galicia eventually fell under the influence of the neighbouring kingdoms of León and Castile and in time were absorbed into Spain.

From the 9th century the cult of St James the Apostle became established in Galicia, following the ‘miraculous discovery’ of the bones of the saint in the Galician town of Santiago de Compostela.  Santiago became a centre for pilgrimage endowed with a magnificent cathedral.  Pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela are still popular amongst Catholics even today.  Although not the largest city in modern Galicia in terms of population, Santiago de Compostela remains the traditional capital and the seat of the Galician government.  

For many centuries, Galicia was isolated from the remainder of Spain.  Land connections with the rest of Iberia relied upon dangerous mountain passes through dense forests inhabited by wolves and bears.  Journeys by sea meant voyaging along the treacherous and unpredictable coast.  For good reason sailors came to call the north coast of Galicia A Costa da Morte ‘the coast of death’.  

As Spain entered upon its Golden Age when the discovery of the New World allowed Spaniards to exploit the wealth of the Americas, Galicia became even more of a backwater.  Although possessing fine Atlantic ports, the country was marginalised in trade with the New World, all of which was controlled by the southern cities of Seville and Cádiz.  During this period Galego fell out of use as a written language, and the country became an impoverished province of Spain.  Galicians call this period Os séculos oscuros ‘the dark centuries’.

Spanish power declined as France and England became the new colonial giants to dominate the globe.  Galicia fell even deeper into poverty and obscurity.  Emigration rates were high, tens of thousands of Galicians emigrated to the Spanish colonies in the same way that Scots and Irish migrated to British colonies.  Just like Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, during the 19th century Galicia was struck by a series of severe famines which caused untold thousands to cross the oceans in search of a better life.  Cuba and Argentina were favourite destinations for the Galician exiles.  Cuba’s Fidel Castro bears a typically Galician surname.

During the 19th century the currents of European liberalism shook the creaking Spanish state to its foundations.  With the weakening of control from Madrid came a resurgence in regional sentiments in the diverse provinces of Spain.  In Galicia this took the form of the Galicianism movement, a term which was coined by members of As Irmandades da Fala ‘the Brotherhoods of the Speech’.  The Irmandades were literary clubs and societies which began to spring up in the larger towns and cities of Galicia with the intention of restoring Galego to its former status as a language of serious writing and literature.  The language organisations received support from the left wing political parties and the federalists who dominated the regionalist party O Partido Galeguista ‘the Galicianist Party’.  

With the fall of the Spanish monarchy and the establishing of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931, the regionalist aspirations of the Partido Galeguista were met when the new republic announced it would support the creation of an autonomous regional government in Galicia.  This culminated in the overwhelming approval in a popular referendum of the 1936 Galician Statute of Autonomy, which stated in its preamble that Galicia was a free state within the Spanish federal republic.

But it was not to last.  The 1936 statute was never put into effect.  Tensions were rising in Spain as the republicans and their allies faced off against their traditional opponents in the landed aristocracy, the army and the church.  Within weeks of the referendum full scale civil war broke out as the reactionary generals who headed the Spanish army launched their self-described holy crusade to rid Spain of leftists and separatists.  The opponents of democracy were led by one General Francisco Franco, himself born into a military family in the Galician town of Ferrol, close to the important naval base in the city of A Coruña.  Galicia was one of the first parts of Spain to fall to his forces.  

During Franco’s dictatorship, any expression of regional or non-Spanish national sentiment was banned.  Central control from Madrid was strictly enforced.  Even so, small groups of activists and intellectuals kept the dream of a Galician parliament and a Galician nation alive.

The economy slowly began to modernise, although Galicia continued in its traditional role as an exporter of raw materials and people to the rest of Spain.  Hydroelectric power plants were constructed in Galicia in the 1960s and 70s, wreaking havoc on the natural ecology, but creating opportunities for European manufacturers to establish themselves in the country.  However, the economy remains based largely in agriculture and fisheries.   By far the largest segment of the Spanish fishing fleet is based in Galicia.  Proportionately, fisheries occupy a much larger segment of the Galician economy than the Scottish economy, given the massive Spanish appetite for seafood.  

With the death of Franco and the restoration of democracy to Spain, one of the most pressing issues was the demand of various parts of the country for autonomy.  The new Spanish constitution attempted to address these needs in part by acknowledging that the Galicians, along with the Basques and the Catalans, are ‘historic nationalities’ within the Spanish state, and as such had a right to the recognition of their traditional languages and culture.  The new constitution allowed for the creation of a Galician parliament and the recognition of the Galego language as an official language of Galicia.

However the framers of the new constitution also needed to ensure that Franco’s generals remained in their barracks, and so the constitution also included the statement that Spain was one indivisible nation.  The Galicians are all too aware that they lack the legal right to self-determination and in this respect look enviously to Scotland, whose constitutional status is very different.

The main Galician nationalist party is the Bloque Nacionalista Galego (BNG) an alliance of left wing, ecological and other groups.  The BNG does not officially support independence although many of its members are strongly sympathetic to the idea, but rather is in favour of maximising the political powers and control which rest with the Galician parliament.  

In large part this stance is a pragmatic reflection of the reality that Galician nationalism is weaker as a political force than its equivalents in the Basque Country or Catalunya.  The BNG typically receives around 20% of votes cast in elections in Galicia.  The party achieved its best ever result in the elections to the Galician Parliament in 1997 when it obtained almost 25% of the votes cast.  However, Galicia is an electoral stronghold of the Spanish Partido Popular, who can be thought of as roughly equivalent to the British Conservatives in politics and in their attitude the unity of the state.  Following the elections of 2009, the Partido Popular made up the largest bloc in the Galician parliament with 38 deputies out of a total of 75.  The second largest bloc is formed by the Spanish socialists with 25 deputies (roughly equivalent to the British Labour party).  The remaining 12 deputies are representatives of the BNG.  

A number of smaller nationalist parties are not members of the BNG alliance and do officially support independence.  Some of these parties, such the centrist nationalist party Terra Galega ‘Galician Land’, have local councillors but none have parliamentary deputies either in the Galician Parliament or the Spanish Cortes.

It is unlikely that Galicia will become independent any time soon.  Popular demand for independence is lower than in the Basque Country, Catalunya, or Scotland, and most people appear contented to retain ties with Spain.  Even so, the Galician identity is strong and vital, and firmly based in the Galician view of themselves as Atlantic Celts like their Irish and Scottish cousins.  Although the Galicians are on the whole willing to remain a part of Spain, they are also determined to remain distinctly and proudly Galego.

 

For information and news about Galicia and other stateless nations in Europe and beyond, visit the Nationalia website.