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6. After Franco, before Benicàssim

The radicalism that arose in the 1960s and 1970s presented a problem for the middle ground. Educated, supposedly reasonable people would readily endorse their support for the Civil Rights movement in the USA, the Black Sash in South Africa or peaceful protest in Northern Ireland. But when radical groups, disillusioned by the efficacy of peaceful protest and angered at the state-sanctioned violence with which it had been met on many occasions decided that change would need to be brought about “by any means necessary”, the tolerant, supposedly liberal, middle ground became anxious.

"My father had one of those pitch-perfect singing voices. I didn't. But, he worked out early that I was really good on harmonies.

"This proved a particularly useful tool in him managing my childhood anxieties, whether caught in a mid-Atlantic squall or just some hyperventilating hissy fit on dry land.

"We'd lie down with our backs to the floor. He'd hold my sweaty little hand in his and then we would sing together. He'd lead on the melody, and I'd do the harmonies. The lyrics were never a problem. 

"My father told me the story of every song we ever sang together, interspersed with Greek mythology or tales from trips to Japan. How could I possibly ever forget a lyric to a song and its Jacobite origins?

"The only "daddy issues" I have is that I could never live up to being a parent who could look into the eyes of his tiny offspring and understand exactly what their freakish personalities actually needed." 


The Greasy 70s

If, to some extent, the larger American (and Australian) publics could be convinced that what was unfolding in Vietnam had nothing to do with new forms of armed conflict arising at home after the era of passive resistance and peaceful protest, by the 1970s, it was difficult not to make the connection. Unless, of course, one didn’t want to do so. 


When the Black Panthers and ANC armed themselves or the PLO took to hijacking and the IRA to bombings, it became surprisingly easy for respective states to turn the growing popular “in-principle” support for such underlying causes to public elective blindness and silence. Even more so in Europe where groups such as the Red Army Faction in Germany or Italy’s Red Brigades appeared to be less driven by protesting the oppression of particular cultures or "races" but rather hellbent on imposing some nebulous Marxist doctrine.


Much of the world—save for France with its own history of armed struggle in Algeria—had tried to stay out of it for much of the 1950s and 1960s. The UK’s problems with armed rebellions in some of its colonies were seen as almost a just dessert for having insisted on having the largest empire. Those countries, such as Germany and Italy, divested of all colonies some time earlier, didn’t see these struggles as pertaining to them.


But, when such struggles started “coming home”, things changed. Eager to reassure both its conservative, right-wing constituents as well as the increasingly confused and scared liberals, various Western European governments looked to British strategy. These people, these organisations were "terrorists" and could not be tolerated. They could and should not be invited to the negotiating table but hunted down and locked up—or accidentally shot in attempts to apprehend them…


Hard as it is now for many who did not live through this period to envisage, a number of what are today committed EU democracies—Bulgaria, Portugal, Spain, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania etc.—were dictatorships in the 1970s. Of these, Spain, Portugal and Greece were ideologically aligned to the capitalist West. And, their draconian, conservative regimes were more than willing to label radical organisations "terrorists", least of all Portugal with its own challenges of Russian-backed civil war in two of its African (former) colonies that were home to substantial, largely conservative, Portuguese expatriate populations. 


Thus, when countries such as Italy, Germany or France, readily outlawed various radical organisations, Europe rapidly shut down routes of legal resistance to a slew of causes. Of course, there were differences. For example, much to the chagrin of the UK, European states that saw themselves as tolerant and liberal—for example the Netherlands or Scandinavian countries—would not shut down the activities of groups that could not be proven to pose a security threat to them, in numerous cases honouring the United Nations Convention of 1951 that allowed them refugee status for political asylum seekers even where the groups to which individuals were aligned supported armed struggle. The caveat, never too closely monitored, was that the refugee status of these exiles could be revoked if they were found to be involved in acts of violence either in their country of exile or origin. 


Even more irritating for the British, with their “special relationship”, American constitutional law ensured the rights of political organisations operating legally in the USA, such as NORAID (aka Irish Northern Aid Committee). In the 1970s and even more vociferously in the 1980s, the British Government claimed that NORAID was openly funding sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Given one of NORAID’s founders and key organisers in the 1920s was Michael Flannery who had taken up arms for Irish independence as a member of the IRA North Tipperary Brigade, it was very clear, successive British governments argued, that NORAID was channelling funds to supply weapons to the Provisional IRA during The Troubles.


In carefully worded statements, NORAID focussed on its role as providing humanitarian aid to those impacted by the struggle for independence in Northern Ireland without ever stepping into any potentially incriminating admissions of direct support for the Provisional IRA, at least not any likely to run foul of American law. And, as a legitimate organisation that had been in existence since the 1920s, the American authorities saw no reason—or legal grounds—for action against NORAID.

Go radical or go home... if you have one

In anecdotal and published materials that have become more widely known since various peace processes or the end of Apartheid in South Africa, one of the things that clearly occurred in the 1970s was that a broad range of radical organisations around the world—PLO, ANC, ETA, IRA, and numerous others—formed loose links with each other, seeing each other as sharing comparable causes and struggles. If stories of supplying each other with intelligence and weapons have to be taken on a case-by-case basis, weighing up the sources of disclosure, the social aspect of such cooperation is far more established in verifiable fact: Sinn Féin, sometimes referred to as “the IRA’s political arm” during The Troubles, helped Palestinian and South African political refugees and their families settle in Belfast; and the ANC assisted ETA and IRA members on the run from the authorities in Europe find (relatively) safe havens in third-party African countries…


All of these political dimensions are deeply significant for True North. But, perhaps far more significant is how this period of radicalism, predominantly in the 1970s, saw the resurgence of cultural forms—visual, textual or musical—that hark back to the second wave of an articulated Catholic-Celtic impetus and axis though, of course, in this third wave, the Catholicism becomes as much cultural heritage than actual belief. Marxism, after all, informed many of these movements in the 1970s.


If we are to think of just one image—the iconic screen print of Che Guevera that would adorn the walls of a million student dorms and squats for decades—it’s clear to see how the 1960s and 1970s were when the lessons learned from advertising, via Pop Art and Stalinist propaganda visual motifs, became a powerful and accessible mechanism for creating a populist visual political statement. 


These lessons were applied and reapplied by the various movements, from radicalised organisations themselves to barely affiliated student movements, in support of discourses of political and cultural resistance that proliferated around the world in the 1970s. Celtic cultural discourses joined in. From the initial hand-scrawled slogans on walls in Belfast or Derry, screen-printed posters and stencil-sprayed graffiti soon appeared. Banners and murals followed and, in the diasporan heartlands that empathised with such causes of the period, the visual “shorthand” of things indicating Celtic cultural identity—the colours of the Irish flag, particular “Celtic” fonts or aggressive symbols of armed resistance—appeared on everything from political posters to album covers. Ironically, in some cases, it was sometimes impossible to even tell which side of the sectarian divide an individual visual articulation was supporting. 


In the decades following the Good Friday Agreement, murals and large-scale graffiti works on the sides of houses in Belfast (no, not the originals in many cases, but far more slickly realised versions) would find a new function: they became tourist attractions. Even today, it’s easy to trace the way that much of this visual popular culture born of political resistance bears an uncanny resemblance to symbol-laden Jacobite visual culture, albeit with more balaclavas and kalashnikovs.


Whether reflecting it, or prompting it, the iconography that coincided with a third-wave Celtic consciousness, in some cases, once again found allied spirits in parts of Spain, this time less posited on a shared Catholicism, but rather secular cultural-political ideologies. However, this was not a pervasive feature. Most notably in Northern Ireland, Catholicism (or, indeed, Protestantism), whether deeply, truly felt or more for its political resonance as cultural heritage, was highly visible in the articulations of visual culture. Elsewhere, Marx and leftist ideologies were more central. 


Thus, the 1970s were interesting times, especially for more committed Marxist movements and organisations. The idealistic idea of a Utopian revolution in which the global working class would no longer be separated by nationality or culture—as epitomised in L'Internationale’, Edine Pottier’s anthem that would last far longer than the Paris Commune of 1871—had been something of a stalwart leitmotif for the intellectual Left for much of the 20th century. Beloved of the intellectual elite, it seeped into many forms of visual culture. One need only think of “the International Style” (and, no, the name wasn’t coincidental) adopted by leading leftwing European architects from the 1930s onwards. Save for a few pioneering Mexican and Indian modernists who insisted that specific location and culture was important, even in the modernist vernacular, the movers and shakers who shaped dominant discourses in art and design managed to generally cling to the ideal of an “international”, stateless, classless, raceless socialism until much of what had come before was up-ended in the 1960s.


Individuals and organisations that still looked to Marxism for societal solutions would have to adjust to a new world in which even the most radical on the Left, including those prepared to take up arms for their causes, insisted that issues of race, culture and gender were important, even in the struggles for socialist outcomes.

“Many years later one of my oldest friends—probably one of the reasons he’s one of my oldest friends—spontaneously shared his memory of a documentary about Bernadette Devlin organising protests in which she had noticed that, when avoiding lobbed objects, the British constabulary in Ulster could not duck and jump at the same time. 


“Bernadette had a plan that involved coordinating protestors throwing missiles at optimised intervals.


"He became one of my lifelong friends.”

Love me, love my culture

This tendency was not something restricted to diasporan Celts. The politicisation of communities demanding recognition for their respective cultures was global. In many ways, the groundswell can be argued to have started in the USA, first with the Civil Rights movement’s challenging of institutionalised and legally enforceable racism, followed by many other groups raising their own voices of resistance, whether fighting for the rights of Native Americans or Hispanic communities, particularly those in regions where far more recent, arbitrary borders split communities and families regularly crossing (now) legally enforceable imaginary lines between two sovereign states. And, increasingly self-consciousness of origin stories and “roots” as a tendency that was almost in the ether, the 1970s saw other descendant groups foreground their origins and seminal cultures. Even groups such as the Irish and Scots, who had fought hard to emphasise their unquestionable “Americanness” for about 150 years, now joined the growing list of “double-barrelled” American identities: Italian-American, Greek-American, African-American, Irish-American, Russian-American…


But, the USA was hardly the only region in which this drive to demand recognition for culture was at the fore. Unlike in the USA, in some cases it presented very real political challenges to the very federal structures forged in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In Canada, the Quebec Sovereignty movement gained momentum and pressed for the first referendum on Quebec’s secession from Canada. In Spain, following Franco’s death in 1975, Basque and Catalan separatist voices, long suppressed by El Caudillo, found new audiences. And, in Belgium, tensions between the Walloon and Flemish communities—yes, everyone forgets the tiny German-speaking minority in the East—had hurtled the country towards crisis in the post-WWII era that demanded constant remedial action throughout the 1970s and which, some argue, is hardly resolved today.


What is notable about political movements of the period, many of which became populist and mainstream, is that linguistic culture was much more central than in the preceding century. It was a reaction: the attempts to equate linguistic culture and physical regions that had been so much part of the 19th-century nationalist movements, seen as a cause of two world wars by many theorists and politicians, along with the post-WWI creation of new conglomerate states based on obliterating regional cultural identities, were showing their failures.  


In many places, political resistance arose among peoples who felt that their cultures and, more specifically their linguistic culture was being used to justify their oppression and exclusion. Only in dictatorial regimes, including Spain, were official state authorities able to quell the groundswell of political movements demanding recognition for oppressed cultures; significant minorities. In the case of Belgium or Canada, for example, these issues were deeply complex given that they involved significant parts of the total population. 


Arguably even more so in diasporan locations, in the 1970s, Celts embraced their cultural origins, whether part of a broader political agenda or not. Notably, it is in the 1970s that Canada could first claim to have the largest Caledonian Association in the world when both fourth-generation Canadians of Scottish descent and newly arrived Scots immigrants rushed to sign up to Gaelic classes, learn to dance the Seann Triubhas or to toss cabers...


Such cultural organisations—like the Scots, the Irish and Welsh had their own organisations—stated that they were apolitical bodies dedicated to celebrating their culture and continuing its traditions. They had nothing to do with political parties or “extremist” organisations that abounded during the decade, they said.


Yet, one can’t help but think of Canadian academic, writer and politician Michael Ignatieff. In a programme about Canadian identity he made for the BBC in the UK in the 1980s he said that Canada had “elevated Liberalism to a form of radicalism”. 


One reading of these large cultural organisations of people of Celtic descent is that they were apolitical. Another would be to say that they subtly asserted their very real power within the de facto electorate. Small differences of party politics aside, the members of these organisations, like many other Canadians, were content with Canada’s constitutional set-up and its place in the Commonwealth, perhaps because, this time, they were actually part of the English-speaking Canadian establishment that ran things. They had no interest in carving up bits of British Columbia, Nova Scotia or Ontario as separate states centred around their own historic cultures. Why would they? They had a big piece of the pie in the Canada that stretched from coast to coast. But, they were also damned if they were going to let the Quebecois so do. Theirs might be a political power signified by bagpipe music and dance competitions rather than banners and angry protests, but their agenda—one of retaining the country’s sovereign status quo—was something they would defend against Quebecois secession just as fiercely.

"When I was young, about 14 or 15 or so, I'd knock around with a bunch of local lads. Our fathers would all drink in this Irish pub up in Cricklewood and we'd be out on the streets in the evening, trying to be big men looking for the craic, but essentially still boys who only shaved once a week. 

"One time we got this paint off the painter-and-decorator van. On the opposite side of the road from the Irish pub where our Da's drank, there was this pub that was known to hate the Irish.

"Me and the lads snuck up, right under the windows while all the regulars were drinking—it was only about 9 o'clock—and painted 'No Irish!' on the wall. Right there, while they were all drinking their pints.

"Then one of the lads—it certainly wasn't me because I wasn't the cheeky sort—ran off into the Irish pub. Soon the patrons were coming out onto the pavement and laughing. Eventually they beckoned us to join them in the Irish pub. 

"The landlord gave all of us lads a pint. 'Here's to no Irishman ever drinking in that feckin' English establishment,' he said, raising his own glass and we all got patted on the back. I was over the moon.

"Only my own Da' looked apprehensive. He was a quiet and meek man. I imagine I understood when we got home. He didn't stop the pints from coming in the pub; probably the first time I felt some kind of grown-up affirmation. Nor did he refuse one, proffered by patrons congratulating his son's scoring a point for the local Irish. 

"But, when we got home, boy, did we get it from my Ma, him verbally in the ears and me literally boxed in them. She was having none of it. 

"I think that was probably the last time I was a 'bad boy' until after I'd gone off to uni and made her proud." —Sean M., outreach worker for a community alcohol service for the Irish community in Northwest London, circa 1998.

The Irish Question

However, in keeping with the more radical tone of the times, elsewhere American grassroots organisations sought funds and signatures of support for the Irish in Northern Ireland. Of course, this is because the Irish experience, by now, had become very different and specific. 


For one thing, Ireland, unlike Scotland and Wales, had achieved independence from England as a republic for most of the country in 1937. In the 1970s, in Scotland and Wales, voices calling for autonomy and independence remained peripheral, often viewed as “the lunatic fringe”, even among vehemently the proud Scots and Welsh who saw their political future as something to be shaped within the Westminster System politically and using the mechanisms—such as the courts in Scotland—that hadn’t been entirely subsumed into the English system. 


But, there were two far more important aspects unique to the Irish experience. One played out on mainland Britain itself. The migration of Irish back and forth between Ireland and Britain is age old. But the migration of the Irish to Britain also massively increased during certain periods. One such period was during the 19th century. This wasn’t only due to disasters such as the various famines that hit Ireland over the course of the century but also because the rapidly growing cities and mushrooming industries resulting from the Industrial Revolution in England offered the promise of work to Irish migrants. 


Whether laying the tracks for Britain’s expanding rail network, working in the mills of Yorkshire or on the docks of Liverpool, the Irish were the first of the immigrant labour forces that built an industrialised Britain. And, just as other immigrant communities have learned ever since, they were met with prejudice, racism and even violence. While some Irish immigrant communities—perhaps most notably in Liverpool and Birmingham—were able to gain a certain safety-in-numbers not dissimilar to the way in which they did in New York, on the whole the Irish remained "fair game" for English scorn, mistreatment and even violence. 


Particularly during later waves of Irish labour migration, such as during the 1950s and 1960s when thousands of Irish men, unmarried or leaving their families back in Ireland where they planned to return, arrived to rebuild a Britain decimated by the German bombs of WWII, English ill treatment of the Irish was widespread and normalised. 


As with comparable cohorts of men arriving from the Caribbean at roughly the same time, some historians have pointed to evidence that the level of this discrimination and abuse was particularly aggressive precisely because groups of men were seen as a direct threat in the pack animal recesses of the popular mind. They were out to take our women and take over our pubs, white Englishmen told themselves in justifying their irrational prejudices, too often turning to hatred. 


By the 1970s, with The Troubles in Northern Ireland now reported almost daily in the UK media, racism and abuse ramped up still further. Anti-Catholic sentiment not seen since the time of Elizabeth I fused with contemporaneous security anxieties and practically anyone identifiable as Irish was viewed as a potential terrorist, the "early adopter” version of a specific kind of racism justified on the grounds of security experienced by Muslim immigrants around the world since 9/11.


Ironically, in the 1970s and 1980s, anti-Irish racism did not differentiate: as many Protestants who moved to England—including those who vehemently supported the British strategy in Northern Ireland—were abused for being Irish as the Catholics from both Northern Ireland and the Republic. If anything, the situation was even more insidious and prone to English suspicion because the Irish had built robust communities for themselves in various British cities. 


People who saw themselves as "English" could no longer be certain that someone in the pub who sounded perfectly “local” wouldn't punch them in the face for expressing anti-Irish sentiment because it turned out he or she was second or third-generation Irish. Legally prevented from overt discrimination by new laws, and with both Irish and English groups opposed to British policy in Northern Ireland openly expressing their positions with a surprising level of efficacy, despite increasingly restrictive controls on the British media, English anti-Irish sentiment, just like sexism or racist aggression against African, Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities became something different. 


Hard to monitor, unlike in a post-social media world where there are actually algorithms to compute overall support for prejudiced positions based on the number of fools prepared to post such statements openly, racism of all forms gained a kind of underground aura, something that has been much discussed as a tool deployed by the ultra-right and skinhead groups in recruiting new members at the time.


Almost harking back to the political landscape of the 16th century, in England in the 1970s it was not uncommon to encounter people who openly rejected racism against Afro-Caribbeans (“because they’re Church of England”) but felt the (assumed) Catholicism of the Irish was reason enough to view them as a security threat, not that far from the popular Elizabethan or Jacobean mindset that saw all Catholics as hellbent on overthrowing the Protestant British monarchy. 


This schizoid thinking made it relatively easy to dismiss any objections to the state's handling of “the Irish question” without much popular resistance. Even human rights organisations, clearly without any links to the Provisional IRA, were cast as collaborators by the dominant rightwing media if they so much as objected to state policies. The result was hundreds of thousands of casualties, psychological and in very real terms of civil liberties. For example, there were serious miscarriages of justice, some of them later addressed by courts, documentaries, TV series and in films, that saw the Irish resident in Britain, unjustly detained or even falsely convicted under Britain’s anti-terrorist legislation.    


Not disregarding the very specific experience of the Irish, the idea of a certain “Celtic consciousness” reemerged globally in the 1970s, from grassroots Hibernian Societies in Chicago, Illinois to Scottish pipe bands attracting new members in Australia or South Africa; celebrations of the Welsh diaspora to Patagonia or enclaves of Gaelic Breton culture in Canada and the USA. In the context of True North, it might be said to be the first time in thousands of years in which a notion of culture, linked by shared cultural-linguistic connections rather than ethnicity, tracts of land or a centralised form of government, seemed more pressing than what had come before.

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A bust of the Roman emperor Elagabalus. Born Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus, in Roman Syria, as a priest-king of the Arab Emesene dynasty, he was also the first person reputed to have attempted surgical gender reassignment.

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Edward Long, 'The Suppliants: Expulsion of the Gypsies from Spain' (1872), Oil on canvas. Picture Gallery at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Spain had been popularised as a subject in British painting in the 19th century partly through Prince Albert's interest in the country—he and Victoria acquired a number of paintings and works on paper by British artists who had travelled to Spain and made work there. 

Dominant themes tended to be landscapes and depictions of colourful traditional dances and festivals. Long's work is unusual in that it addresses a more "gritty" moment in Spanish history, albeit through the romantic lens of the period.

Nonetheless, it's interesting to see how Long's title already equates laws decreed by Isabella as an expulsion. They actually demanded that any itinerants in Spain settle—thereby becoming subjects to specific local lords under the feudal system—or leave. While these laws did not specifically only require this of gypsies, it's interesting to see that already in the 19th century, they were viewed this way, something that would be argued by historians in the 1980s tracing European racism's origins.

Call it black

Imagine now that it’s even possible to forget your preconceptions about racism. Imagine, as if under hypnosis, you’re able to temporarily forget baseline tenets about racism informed by post-colonial theory or contemporary social media memes. 


Why? Because, in order to weigh up some of the ideas outlined in True North, it’s useful to approach ideas of racism unhindered by political ideologies that have arrived in more recent decades. No, it’s not a cheap trick to sneak in some dodgy ideology; no attempt to diminish more recent anti-racist activism. Rather, it’s an attempt to consider historic realities that informed the Spain-North axis prior to more recent post-colonial positions. 


An obvious example is the issue of slavery. The subject of slavery today is understandably dominated by histories and political positions that follow on from the mass abduction of Africans to the Americas and Caribbean or, in other cases, from Asia to elsewhere in Asia, the Middle East or Africa. In centuries long predating this shameful period in human history, the booming international slave trade of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, slavery was posited around very different ideologies from those justifying enslaved Africans being forcibly transported, many dying on the voyages. 


For example, slavery was a feature of both Celtic and Viking cultures. But, while there was a commercial trade in slaves—the Vikings found Istanbul a particularly lucrative market for their pale, blond European human wares snatched from the north of England or Ireland—slavery in these cultures appears to have been less centred around commercial trade in humans and more a direct means of securing free labour. 


Most famously, St Patrick, the "Apostle of Ireland", is thought to have been a Romano-Briton from a fairly privileged background, captured by Irish pirates at the age of sixteen, abducted from his family home, most likely in the north of England. They took him, enslaved, to Ireland where he was held captive for six years and forced to work as a shepherd—God forbid, though perhaps he had time to make the metaphoric connection with Jesus—before managing to escape.


We know that slavery was a daily phenomenon in numerous ancient cultures, from Ancient Egypt to Assyria, many centuries earlier.  But, it’s perhaps Ancient Roman culture that affords us the fullest insight not only into the lives of individual slaves, but the place of slavery itself within the culture. One thing that is very clear is that both the way in which slavery was managed and its purported social functions in Ancient Rome were very different from how slavery played out in the 18th and 19th-century Americas, where freed slaves were a rarity and not normative. 


As academics, including Professor Mary Beard, have pointed out, Ancient Roman culture both relied on slavery to build its empire, but also that slavery was effectively used as a “staging post” in increasing the number of people with a vested interest in the fortunes of Rome. Unlike on the plantations of the Caribbean and Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries, thousands of enslaved people brought into the Roman Empire were regularly granted their freedom and encouraged to take up their rights to participate in Roman society. 


This is where the ancient notion of slavery is very different from the later, proto-industrialised slave trade targeting Africa. It is an important distinction. Just as historians of the Holocaust have pointed out that the “industrialisation of genocide” amplifies the horror of the Nazi endgame, we’d do well to use the power of this reflection retrospectively when considering the African slave trade at its height.


For one thing, “race” as we understand it today was not tied to the notion of slavery in the Ancient World. A decidedly white German or French “euro” might be traded alongside Nubians or Carthaginians on an equal footing, price and value determined by factors such as health, strength and skills, regardless of the regions in which they were captured, the customs they followed or physiognomy. In the Roman world, slavery was almost a state of being “not yet fully Romanised”. Those of a paid-up adherence to the Roman way of life could thrive, regardless of where they were born or what we might today call “ethnicity”: a Spaniard could become the Roman emperor, or even a Syrian who tried to change his gender…


In the Roman mindset, the world was divided into barbarians and Romans. The latter might be Germanic, just as the former could be African or Middle Eastern. Some have described the Roman perspective as being “colour blind”, sometimes to even go as far as to point out that in Roman funerary portraiture, we encounter individuals of unquestionably high status painted with a documentary truth that suggests that what today would be considered their “race” indicates that that they were “black”;  North African or Middle Eastern. Unlike discourses arising in the 19th century regarding whether one could “pass for white” that played a role in both social status and economic expectations, this does not appear to have been particularly important at the height of the Roman Empire. 


However, even if this is true, it doesn’t make Roman culture devoid of trying to group people ethnically. Thousands of surviving texts describe tribes and peoples in terms of their customs, dress, physical appearance and, more problematically, notable characteristics and behaviours. Caesar and Tacitus are prime examples. 


Why this is even relevant is because it’s something that influential voices in the 19th-century movements seeking to reassert a Celtic cultural identity actively evoked. The very descriptions of Ancient Roman voices talking of the Iceni, Belgae, Brigantes or any other peoples Romans generally considered Gauls (i.e. Celts) were parroted back in proud claims when erecting statues celebrating Belgian national identity personified in a statue of Ambiorix in Tongeren, Belgium in the mid-19th century or the endless representations of Boudicca (aka Boadicea) in the UK.


Occasionally, it would get messy. For example, those supposedly celebrating Anglo-Saxon English identity often looked to Boadicea. Little did they grasp that dear old Boudicca probably shared more culture in common with ancient Irish warriors that the Irish were contemporaneously evoking as symbols of their own struggle for freedom from Victorian England.


The very real complexity of this becomes evident in teasing out the Celtic-Catholic proposition as one traces it back through some key cultural elaborations over the centuries. 


A good example of this are political movements on the British mainland resisting British policy on Northern Ireland most specifically and the broader treatment of the Irish in England. Just one specific manifestation of this was the lobbying—in the 1980s— of Irish-interest groups to get English, Scottish and Welsh local authorities to not only acknowledge the Irish as a specific ethnic group, but to document their presence and participation in applications for employment in the way that many local authorities embraced as part of their statutory responsibility under relatively new legislation seeking to address sex and race discrimination first brought into British law in the mid-1970s. 


The Irish, argued some activists, were “black” in a very different sense from that of the legends arising after the Armada. In time, local authorities, particularly those with a notable Irish and Irish-descent population, agreed, just as lobbyists for other ethnic groups—such as the British Chinese community—endorsed a similar argument. Of course, this was not without controversy. Many within Irish, Chinese and other Asian communities objected to identifying as “black”. If nothing else, it proved that being a target of racism did not somehow automatically prevent minority communities from having prejudices of their own. 


Undoubtedly, there was hot debate and no little confusion. At the time, vociferous activist groups, particularly those from Black British organisations, argued that it was important to acknowledge the difference between ethnicity and race, the latter being a binary matter of black or white, the veritable result of colonial-era inventions of race. While those fighting for the interests of the marginalised individuals and communities experiencing oppression and prejudice were fundamentally in agreement, the minutiae presented a quagmire. 


Race, argued some voices, especially those from radical black organisations, was ultimately a matter of whether a person was black or white in real political terms. Unlike in the lyrics of the song popularised by Big Bill Broonzy drawing attention to the “Jim Crow system” in the US, they argued, there was no “brown” in the impact of racism on people’s lives. Racism was not paint mixed on a palette. 


Some, notably from radical Irish and Asian groups, agreed, citing this position as the very reason that they demanded to be considered “black” under statutory race monitoring for applications for employment or social housing in the UK. As one position cited by a British Chinese activist group in Manchester in the 1980s questioned: “Did the Nazis differentiate between Jews and Gypsies?" No, it was all black or white. Any ethnic, religious or cultural group suffering oppression and violence at the hands of those holding power was either black or white.


This period of debate in the 1980s, like much of what informs the complex Celtic-Catholic narrative of various European peoples, is largely forgotten today, just as the reality of anti-Muslim genocide that occurred during the Balkan conflicts at the beginning of the 1990s has given way to an elective silence in the widely acknowledged Islamaphobia tied up with the “war on terror” in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In terms of Europe’s own conscience, one can’t help wonder whether the global spread of it being acceptable to hold anti-Muslim prejudices has also diverted attention from how Islamaphobic “ethnic cleansing” could have arisen on the European continent barely 30 years ago.


Horrific realities in recent European political landscapes—and, at the time of writing this, let's be clear that the Ukraine is part of Europe—have given way to a (US-dominated) anglophone online reality of fleeting impressions of consensus played out on social media where everyone expressing an opinion is largely ignorant (or simply disinterested) in very real state-endorsed positions that are not consistent from one country to another.


Even if the individuals throwing their hat into the ring may be living in very many different nations, the result is “globalised” populist positions—progressive, reactionary or downright extremist—too often uninformed of the mechanisms that differentiate the experience of people living in different countries defined by different legal and political systems.


As just one example, it’s worth considering how various countries’ judiciary interpreted anti-discrimination legislation and policy growing out of the radical movements of the 1960s, only starting to become law in the 1970s. In the UK, for example, the highest courts determined that legislation against sex (sic) and race (sic) discrimination made any form of “quota system” illegal. 


Conversely, this was not the case in various other nations. So how then, today, do we understand the interactions between people on globalised social media in which one is expressing an opinion raised in a society with a (probably forgotten) social policy of  a “quota systems” to address racism and sexism, versus another from a society in which they were deemed illegal (also probably forgotten)?


The reason this is significant is because of the moment in which we live now. Social media (in)famously has the memory of a goldfish. This makes it extremely problematic when it comes to understanding much of the Celtic experience, particularly that of the Irish in Northern Ireland or England. The Celts, after all, are whiter than white under prevalent populist retellings of what “race” is all about. So, it’s difficult in a world in which voices—whether on the domestic political battlefield of the USA or in the EU with it’s own panic about migrants—seeking to address racism, fall into the trap of assuming physiognomy and “race” are the same thing, least of all among activists (oh, I’ve resisted the temptation until now, so allow me this one) of generations that have not diligently researched the evolution of anti-racist practice. 


Historically, what we learn may arrive at the same conclusion: that racism is real and requires redress. But, we arguably miss viable opportunities for understanding it, and thereby understanding what needs to be challenged and changed, if we look only to reductionist, soundbyte histories. 


Spain actually provides many examples of what we need to understand better. While seldom pertaining to the good Catholic Celts of the 16th and 17th centuries who shared a desire to bring Britain back into the Catholic fold, Spain’s history of Moorish occupation and complex structures following the Reconquista, more specifically the interpretation of the doctrine of limpieza de sangre (blood purity) managed by the infamous and often misinterpreted Inquisition, pulls us back into a world in which, culturally, religious orthodoxy was a driving force. 


In reality, it’s almost impossible to talk of moriscos, conversos or “judaisers” without getting into race (or, at least, ethnicity). And, that's even before we get to Isabella the Catholic, Queen of Castile, and her slew of laws that, on one level seemed to be enforcing a feudal mediaeval monarch’s expectations that a peasant labour force should not roam freely, ensuring overlords had sufficient indentured labour to work their lands. Yet, even when these laws were passed, it was pretty self-evident that their biggest impact would be on Spain’s nomadic Gypsies, the Gitanos. Once again, it’s arguable that these are an example of Europe being a “leader” in legislation that intrinsically applied racist principles.

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Exit the King... actually, enter the king

Then in Spain, in 1975, General Franco died.

In the country’s journey to a constitutional monarchy in the period following Franco’s death, some historians argue, change was slow to permeate down through Spanish society. Whilst previously technically a dictatorship, Franco’s technocrats and those with vested interests had been quick to see specific opportunities for Spain in the 1960s. For example, from the mid-1960s onwards, tourism in Europe was no longer the privilege of the wealthy. With its plentiful resources of sun, sea and sand, German, French, British and Dutch travel operators were eager to offer the “exotic” promise of Spain as a holiday destination to their increasingly intrepid and affluent markets. If it was a repressive country, so what? Didn’t that make it safer? This was commerce and the punters were hardly “political”...


Similarly, as we have seen time and time again, Franco’s form of dictatorship had a hypocritical side. Just as he enjoyed the occasional escape with his mistress to the Canaries, why should Spain prevent the international elite from having fun? In the “mellow” post-WWII period of Franco's Spain, as long as the unwashed majority toed the line, what was the harm in allowing a bunch of well-heeled, hippies to make Ibiza their playground or turning a blind eye to the private antics of the artsy set in Madrid? 


I recall a long-awaited dinner in London in the early noughties. Following the gruelling experience of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a friend and ANC member who had lived in exile in London from the early 1980s until shortly after the fall of Apartheid, offered some enlightening insights. She drew comparisons between South Africa under Apartheid and Franco-era Spain. She said that both had operated “choke chain regimes”. If you weren’t identified as a security risk or a dangerous enemy, you were offered a surprising level of lassitude. Like a dog fitted with a choke chain, you could run around with the illusion of freedom. 


In both Spain and South Africa in the 1970s, she argued, if judged to fundamentally adhere to the core ideological demands, you could frolic; use soft drugs, get hold of porn and banned literature or partake in illicit forms of sex, even though all these things were explicitly banned by law. It was all part of the privileged “good life” with lots of sun and enjoyable times that the regime counted on you not wanting to forfeit.


But, if you went too far, publicly showed off your homosexuality or ownership of seditious writings or, worse still, voiced opinions in favour of causes openly against the regime, that choke chain would suddenly be pulled in tight, reminding you of exactly who was in control. Perhaps it would go as far as to drag you off for a sharp shock in detention. But, all it usually took was a pair of aggressive cops questioning you about your private life and making insinuations about what they might find should they push matters further.


Of course, she was right. Even if Spain’s outright entry into European mechanisms such as the EEC would only come after Franco’s death, in the later years of the Spain he shaped, this “choke chain” approach meant that the ever increasing numbers of visitors and tourists from liberal European countries bearing illicit ideas, commodities and social behaviours could no longer be prevented crossing Spain’s borders and entering the wider Spanish consciousness, even if it would be a while before people could be open about their changing attitudes and values.


No, True North is not intended as a comprehensive overview in Spanish counterculture following Franco’s demise. Rather, its focus is specific nodes within that transitional culture. And, one of the most significant of these nodes, specifically for the purposes of True North, is Galicia, centring around Vigo. 

El Punk or La Punk?

That Spanish youth culture, even before Franco’s death, had a taste for rock and pop music, especially music frowned upon by the authorities, is neither a question nor in dispute. 


But, following the advent of punk and this almost sudden shift of the youth culture axis away from the USA and towards the UK—actually in many places in the world, the kids simply referred to “London”, even though many of the hot bands of the day came from elsewhere in Britain and Ireland—Spanish youth (or not so youth) were not excluded. 


As elsewhere in the early 1980s (such as Germany with its own Neue Welle) mainland European kids travelled to London (or hoped to do so) and set about creating their own variation on the theme. Inevitably, scenes arose in various Spanish cities. And inevitably it would be Spain’s largest cities—Madrid and Barcelona—that would create their own, frankly competitive scenes. 


Back in London the competition continued as British devotees of underground music of the period argued over whether their experiences in one of these Spanish cities trumped the experiences of another advocating the other city. In youthful debates played out around pub tables wet with snakebite and black, their positions were argued based on experiential commitment. These were the days before cheap flights and you either needed to have a rich benefactor or to put in long hours on ferries and trains to get there. Yeah, kids, I know: hard to imagine. But they did it.


For the purposes of True North, the most important Spanish sidebar was Vigo in Galicia. A port in a “Celtic ghost nation” where the Gallego dialect is spoken (no, not actually Gaelic, but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to make the link). It’s not hard to see how this resonated with the Irish and Scots making their own scenes in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dublin and, lest we forget, East Kilbride. 


Plotting their own post-punk path with a humour that is a notable feature of many of the Spanish bands of the counterculture of the 1980s, bands like Siniestro Total included bagpipers in their line-up or featured a piper on their album covers including in a parody of an album cover by The Clash, something akin to a contemporary homage to Baroque visual culture if ever there were one. Never audible over their thrashy, punk-esque tracks, it’s questionable as to whether anyone ever actually played the bagpipes (gaita) on one of their tracks.


Debates about exactly what their inclusion of a bagpiper meant were just as febrile as those about which Spanish city was the epicentre of the new spirit of the times. Yet, it formed a connection point with the Scottish and Irish musicians who travelled to the region and invited Spanish musicians to visit them in turn. Thus, one could argue that Siniestro Total's including a piper on their album graphics and in their seminal videos was far more powerful to the “internal” discussions among the 1980s generation of creatives who embraced their Celtic cultural origins. 


“ 'I am not sure about you taking photographs,' he said. 'I don’t think you are paying me enough for that'.”— Michelle Deignan

Celtic crossroads

The ambivalence we see in Michelle Deignan’s body of work, perhaps most specifically in the tension between her preoccupation with The Enlightenment in some works and the earnest documentary style adopted in much political film of the 1970s and 1980s, connects to a much older body of discourse questioning the values of Celtic and/or Catholic cultures. Those even allowed an education in the history of thought (in some predominantly Catholic European countries) before the 1970s knew all too well that countries with the state bound up in Catholicism had resisted The Enlightenment—except perhaps for Austria under Maria Theresa—and many of its teachings remained banned from contemporaneous universities and schools, even into the 20th century. Yet, conversely, there was also a connection of cultural (Celtic) pride in some regions: the Scottish Enlightenment was amongst the most creative and far-reaching, for example. 


Meanwhile, back in the 1980s, we were challenged by Siniestro Total to question whether the presence of the bagpiper, the “badge” of Celtic identity, was earnest or a parodic refusal to have regional identity reduced to clichés.


There is no simple answer. For example, the wan, louche Scots bands of Edinburgh, popular in UK charts of the mid-1980s would later guffaw at the songs of The Proclaimers sung in Scots English, perhaps resentfully, when they achieved great chart success internationally, especially in key Scots diasporan locales such as Canada and Australia. 


If some Irish and Scottish artists of the 1980s were catapulted to international fame without signalling their Celtic identities—no need to name names; you know who they are—the really valuable outcome was the debate it sparked internally about identity among musicians of that generation, some of whom returned to traditional music forms or even singing in Gaelic. Many did not. And, often each criticised the other for supposedly not taking this thing—what it means to be “Scottish”, “Irish” or “Breton” or, God preserve us, “Celt”—where (they believed) it should go. 


Although something of a footnote, it is perhaps worth noting that, in Scotland in particular, the crossovers between visual culture attesting to specific regional identity and these modes of underground music culture were never far apart: Glasgow and it’s artists rose to a renewed prominence in the 1980s, and at roughly at the same time, many art students and young artists in Scotland would achieve independent recognition as pop musicians. 

"Sentiment, like a good whisky, is best savoured slowly as a mere drachm with no more than a drop of water."


By contrast, Madrileño-identified culture traced a trajectory back via punk, back through opera and theatre informed by the wealth of Spanish (visual) culture. Of course, it was not always from Madrid. But, whether an obscure punk band from Vigo popping up in an Almodóvar film or La Fura dels Baus (Yes, I know they're from Barcelona) staging a 19th-century opera in Paris or Tokyo, there was an almost ironic way in which, in the post-Franco era, Spain became a leading EU fulcrum of contemporary European culture. Madrid gained a kind of centrality that it once held in the 16th and 17th centuries, a hub in which Spanish culture was formulated, approved and disseminated to the wider world. 


Perhaps nothing signalled this more than the opening of Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in 1992. Undoubtedly part of a Spanish narrative of a very good vintage following the Barcelona Olympics a month earlier, somewhat surprisingly, the opening of this vast new national museum of modern and contemporary art was reported in TV news around the world and not only nationally in Spain.


For anyone who has visited this institution and for its novel approach (certainly at the time) to addressing Spanish art during the turbulent 20th century that saw Spain at war with itself, it’s hard to refute the contemporaneous news reports that claimed that it was the most important Spanish museum since the opening of The Prado in 1819.


Yet, there is also something mildly ironic in it all. El Prado, essentially built to house the Spanish royal art collections, was nationalised in 1868 upon the deposition of Isabella II. But, the very name of Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía signals the carefully navigated path of Spain’s post-Franco constitutional monarchy. Yes, it is a national museum, but also one in which the Spanish crown is very much evident. In Spain, as in some other European constitutional monarchies that are EU members, the role of the royals as patrons of the arts still almost harks back to older times, but with a contemporary pragmatism. In Spain, the monarch turns up to the opening of leading art fairs and the crown endows prizes to living artists. In the UK, it took a dreadful, unforeseen fire in a royal palace with exorbitant repair and restoration costs to finally see some of the royal art collections open to the public and, even then, at an entrance fee more affordable to affluent tourists than the general British public.


So, back to Spain and the division of the spoils between Barcelona and Madrid.


We would be remiss to not locate Enrique Marty’s work within this trajectory. Though living and working in Salamanca, his work that crosses visual art and theatre is tied up in a particular kind of “international Spanish” culture emanating from Madrid, right down to its subcultural credentials. And, no, kids, if you think that’s a negative critique, you should probably check who’s writing this text if you’ve got this far. 


Yet, here we now are, in an era in which the luxury developments of Benicàssim that failed in the previous financial crisis were already ridden with the running, feral dogs of capitalism by the late noughties, in which the Balearic tourism promise resulted in more puke on the pavements and very little money contributed to the local economy by mass tourism and, last but not least, a global pandemic that has demanded reconsideration in more than simply Spain's tourism strategy. 


How now shall we visually articulate the connections that remain between Spain and the North? Fear not, the kids will do it. They’re alright, even if they don’t know it and won’t realise what they’ve done until decades later.

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