Republican News · Thursday 06 July 2000

[An Phoblacht]

The calm before the storm


I recently found a very, very special place that makes Donegal's Gortahork look like the London underground during the rush hour. We Irish are a laid back people well we like to think we are - certainly when compared to the Brits, but next to the Portuguese we are well on our way to a locked ward suffering from burnout, hyper-stress and mania.

Cardigos is very close to the centre of Portugal - now it's very close to the centre of me.

It was a ``font Romano'' - a Roman spa - 2,000 years ago. The water is delicious, filtered through a mountain.

Danny Morrison, a few years ago, spoke of having to ransack his memories in prison. A captive writer, he said that smells triggered memories, images, feelings. I now know what he means.

Everywhere in central Portugal there are trees, not blankets of Coillte conifers, but a patchwork of various hues and breeds.

The fragrances of these trees envelop you as you race up the mountain road. I can still smell them.

The mountain highway could've been the location for car chases in a clutch on Bond movies. I would've taken the bends like Victor Meldrew on mogadon, but my driver was a local, expert in her open-topped whoosh machine. No problema baby.

Before I left on this trip I had a mind to write something about Portugal, some serious Derrig on the legacy of Salazar, Portugal the coloniser who flirted with communism and is now part of the EU project etc etc.

But feck it, I had a much better time than that.

Maybe you'll get that from me later - but I'm writing this up and Ive just packed my wee on-the-trot bag for Portadown, so forgive me if I concentrate positives before I'm away to the drumbangers' Mecca.

Cardigos captivated me and if you can't handle that then turn the page - the staff at An Phoblacht have had to put up with a happy Derrig this week - disconcerting for them no doubt.

It's only when you're parachuted into a culture that is intact and viable that you begin to fully realise the cultural Everest we have yet to climb after 800 years of British rule.

Outside the Algarve and Lisbon you are in a Portugal you don't get in any package trip. By the end of my week I was speaking toddler Portugese; no-one spoke English in Cardigos. It was the Oideas Gael way to Portugese - immersion, glug, glug, glug.

By the end of my week with them, I could tell Christina, the Bean an Tí of the café that was my daytime billet, that her ``Vermelha'' (red) hair was proof that we Celts had indeed travelled through this part of Iberia on our way to the wintry isles via Galicia.

Not bad for a two-year-old! She could've been an extra on Dancing at Lughnasa.

The main reason for the journey was to conduct research for a TV series about where Irishmen had fought and died for Britain in past centuries. The local provincial town, Castelo Branco, is a natural invasion route from Spain into the heart of Portugal. How many of our own died here under Englands red rag?

This is probably the only part of continental Europe I have been in where England isn't automatically the bad guy. England, for her own geopolitical reasons, found it expedient to assist brave little Portugal against big aggressive Spain.

When people discovered - through my playgroup Portugese - that I was ``o homems a nacionalidade Irlandais'' they asked me why England wouldnt just pack up and leave Ireland in peace. Even if I had University Portugese I couldnt answer that one.

When I explained that, historically, England had been Ireland's Espana, there were smiles of recognition, appreciation and understanding around the tables.

Portugal's capital, Lisbon, is noticeably and refreshingly multi-racial. A legacy, no doubt, of Portugal's colonial history. I was interested to learn that Portugal has the lowest recorded number of ``avowed racists''.

The EU collects such stats. I don't know if they actually mean anything, but there was a decided lack of racist graffiti and there wasn't the inter-racial tension that you can detect up in London and, let's face it, Dublin.

Why this should be so in a country that was in 1974 still fascist dictatorship and a colonial power I don't know. Perhaps it is how they decolonised without a protracted Vietnam type conflict.

The centre of that colonial system changed. Mozambique and Angola got their independence whether they wanted it or not.

We have endured a much different breed of coloniser.

OK, the lift's here, I'm off to observe Sammy in the wild. My next dispatch from the front will not, I fear, be nearly as sunny.

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