Where did the ancestors of the Irish come from? It is a question that has occupied the minds of historians and generated numerous myths and folktales. The most famous of these is that we are the descendants of the Milesians who originally sailed for Ireland from northwest Spain.
The area of Spain they were said to have come from is today called Galicia. It takes its name and cultural heritage from the ancestors of the British people who settled there in the fifth century AD. You only have to listen to the music of piper Carlos Nunez to hear the Celtic connections between Galician and Irish music.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Spanish-Irish connection and this year’s Cúirt Festival of Literature will bring Irish poet Micheál Ó Conghaile and Spanish poet Juan Carlos Mestre (making his debut reading in the city ) together to read at the Town Hall Theatre tomorrow at 3pm.
Perhaps the connections between Ireland and Spain, both real and imagined, are why Juan Carlos Mestre feels a sense of connection to Ireland.
“I’ve always had the feeling of coming to a place I already knew,” he tells me of his previous trips to Ireland, “a place with which I was close in the way it evoked a distant memory, perhaps the unexpected presence of our ancestors, of a land of intuition beyond time in its poetic sense of existence, like the awareness of having no more influence than the magical place surrounded on all sides by water.”
Señor Mestre has published numerous collections of poetry, but as well as composing verse he is also a musician and visual artist. Examples of his works can be seen on www.juancarlosmestre.com Given his diverse talents would be describe himself as a Renaissance man?
“No, absolutely not!” he says. “My work stems from understanding the artistic fact as an act of disobedience in the face of the tedium of the norm or the permanent repetition imposed on us by a society based on consumerism. Writing, painting, drawing/sketching, or making music, are unique forms of expression which bear no resemblance to the Renaissance spirit. I try to stand up to the ghosts of my own imagination. I’m more interested in the disorder of discourse, in its capacity to start aesthetic and ideological uprising.”
Such is his passion for creativity that he refuses to budge when I ask him if he prefers writing poetry to making music or painting.
“When inspiration comes, it comes already formed, with its words, with its lines, with its own rules of harmony,” he says. “The creation of a collection of poems or of a series of etchings is brought about involuntarily. One doesn’t actively write, one doesn’t actively draw. The writing and the drawing is brought about by the wish to go against the grain, a sort of disobedience in the face of habits of customs and norms.”
Nonetheless it is as a poet that Señor Mestre is best known and his most praised collections is La Tumba De Keats - which won the Jaén Poetry Award in 1999. The book illustrates the debt the Spaniard owes the English Romantic.
“John Keats is my number one poet, my hero, and the key to modern criticism of contemporary poetry.” Señor Mestre declares. “Few of his contemporaries were as brilliant as he. He has had a definitive ideological influence on me. His poetry, letters, and reflections on poetry opened the door to critical thinking of which Spanish Romanticism was devoid.
“There are tonnes of thought in his poetry, there are enlightening lessons, the fundamental condition of the poet’s being that person who, in the presence of another, always considers that person to be his equal, whether he be prince or pauper.”
Spain is a land more diverse in identity and language than we often think. In the northwest there is Galicia, with its own language of Gallego (somewhat like Portuguese with hints of British Celtic ), in the north there is the Basque Country where the people speak a language related to no other tongue in the world; and to the west Catalunya, and its language of Catalan (related to French ). All these areas are proud of their separate and unique identities and despite the policies of Franco and previous Spanish authorities, they have continued to maintain them.
Señor Mestre was born in El Bierzo which straddles the border between Galicia and León. Although he says his “fatherland is one without a flag with no territorial jurisdiction”, he is on the side of communities which wish to maintain their language and cultural identity.
“Language is the full expression of a collective consciousness, of a particular world view, and as such, it has to be looked after and maintained,” he says. “People have a right to express what they think and what they feel. The person who feels it is important to exercise his or her civil right to speak his or her own language, must be able to do so. He or she who wishes to belong to a nation, should also have the right to express this wish.”
Galicia has had an impact on Señor Mestre’s work however, through its traditional music.
“Galician music, because of its proximity of where I was brought up has had a part in my emotional upbringing,” he says. “It’s the folk music of my childhood. The music is also connected to poetry in the dulcet tones of singer and musician Amancio Prada, who was for me the way to profound happiness and fundamental freedom, that of understanding poetry and life itself.”
Tickets are available from the Town Hall Theatre on 091 - 569777. Information can also be obtained from the Galway Arts Centre, 47 Dominick Street, on 091 - 565886.