‘Irish citizens of Basque Origin’: The story of Ireland’s Basque refugees during the Spanish Civil War.
On 8th November 1962 Mr Joseph Barron, a member of the Dáil (Irish Parliament) for the constituency of Dublin South Central, put a question to the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Seán Lemass concerning the plight of an Irish citizen, Iker Gallastegi, against whom the French government had issued an expulsion order. Barron wanted to know what actions the Taoiseach proposed to take and “whether this Irish citizen of Basque origin was to be made a plaything between de Gaulle and Franco?”
Lemass replied that the Irish Embassy in Paris had immediately made representations to the French authorities on Mr Gallastegi’s behalf and been informed that while he could not be permitted to continue residing on the Spanish frontier, “in deference to its (the Irish government’s) representations, his place of residence was being changed again to a district likely to be more acceptable to him.” But who was this Irish citizen of Basque origin of which such concern was raised at the highest levels of government in Ireland?
The Bombing of Gernika and flight from the Basque Country
Iker Gallastegi’s association with Ireland began during the Spanish Civil War when he and his family were forced to flee their home in the Basque city of Bilbao following the fascist bombing of Gernika in April 1937. The bombing, immortalised in Pablo Piscasso’s painting, devastated the Basque town and killed over 1,000 people. Iker’s parents Margarita and Elias along with his four siblings Lander, Unai, Argiñe and Ninbe set up home in Gibbstown, an Irish speaking district (Gaeltacht) in Co Meath established on land provided by the Land Commission in 1935 to Irish speaking families from Connemara and Donegal.
Iker’s father, Elias Gallastegi, was a prominent Basque nationalist. In 1926 during the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera he fled Bilbao, travelling first to the southern Basque town of Donibane (St Jean de Luz) and then on to Mexico. Iker was just six months old and was to spend the first five years of his life in Mexico where his father managed a ranch on behalf of a Basque friend. His brothers Lander and Unai were both born there.
Following the fall of the dictatorship in 1931 the family returned to Bilbao where the couple had two more children, sisters Argiñe and Ninbe. Meanwhile, Elias took up an administrative role at a Bilbao steel works and resumed his political activity. Greatly inspired by the Irish struggle for independence from Britain he wrote articles for Basque nationalist publications under the pen-name Gudari (Warrior), describing the 1916 Rising “as a great example of heroism and dignity.”
The 1936 fascist coup against the Spanish Republic and the bombing of Gernika changed the family’s life irrevocably. Margarita and the five children were hastily evacuated with thousands of other Basque women and children aboard the steamship Habana. The Irish Times described “painful scenes” at Bilbao port where “a loudspeaker called out the name of each child in turn and a steady stream of parents crowded the river side taking their children by the hand down the river to where the ships were waiting.” They disembarked at Bordeaux where along with other families and some Basque soldiers, they were accommodated in a convent.
Within weeks Margarita and the children were joined by Elias who fled Bilbao days before the city fell to Franco’s fascist forces on 18th June. With a young family to support and possessed of little money, or prospects of securing work in France, Elias proposed moving the family to Ireland where he had business interests through the Irish Iberian Trading Company. So it was in September 1937 that the family set sail for Ireland where they set up home at Gibbstown House owned by Ambrose Martin, the managing director of the Irish Iberian Trading Company.
“Feeding the Red Soldiers of anti-Christ”
The Irish Iberian Trading Company was originally founded in 1933 in association with a Bilbao based company, Euzkerin, of which Elias Gallastegi was a partner. Its purpose was to establish alternative trading routes for Ireland during its Economic War with Britain. The Irish Ambassador to the Spanish Republic, Leopold Kerney, a friend of Ambrose Martin, had been involved in the discussions about setting up the company. It exported cattle, pork, potatoes, eggs and other foodstuffs from Ireland to Bilbao and ports in the south of Spain. Amongst its directors was Tipperary Fianna Fáil TD Seán Hayes.
During a Dáil debate in 1937 Fine Gael TD and fascist supporter, Patrick Belton, denounced the company for trading with the Spanish Republic accusing it of “feeding the Red soldiers of anti-Christ in Spain” and describing Ambrose Martin as “one of the most pronounced and prominent Communists in this country.” In 1919 the British government had deported Ambrose Martin to Argentina for his Sinn Féin activities during the War of Independence. Elias Gallastegi first met him in Bilbao some years later when Martin delivered a lecture about Cumann na mBan, which inspired Elias to propose the founding of Emakume Abertzale Batza, the Basque nationalist women’s organisation in 1922.
After an initial setback, the Gallastegi family settled well into rural life. The Department of Trade and Industry refused permission to set up a bicycle making factory on the grounds of Gibbstown House and so Elias worked the farm and later set up a sawmill. The children attended the local school St Ultan’s. They learned Irish, participated in annual Feiseanna, where the girls Ninbe and Argiñe won a number of prizes and the boys played Gaelic football. During the summer months the children helped out on the farm and travelled to the town of Navan, about five miles from Gibbstown, where they sold vegetables to the local shops.
Basques flee the Nazis
It was on his return from one of these trips in July 1940 that Iker took a telephone call. At the other end of the line was a friend of his father’s from Bilbao with the extraordinary news that he was with a group of eleven Basques, ten men and one woman, who had just arrived on a French lobster boat at Cobh Harbour in Co Cork following a difficult eight day voyage. The immigration officer on duty at Cobh had given them unconditional permission to land.
The group included many who were prominent Basque nationalists, including the general secretary of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV). Amongst them were a stockbroker, a doctor, three merchants, a topographer, an engineer, a pilot, a sea captain and a naval officer. The only woman was 26 year old Miren Orrantia from Bilbao. Jose Camina, the only member of the group who spoke English, was questioned by Gardaí (Irish police) and he informed them that they had originally fled Bilbao in 1937 and found refuge in the northern Basque Country (in the French state). However, following the Nazi invasion of France in May 1940 they decided it was no longer safe for a group of prominent Basque nationalists to remain there.
On 25th June, at a cost of £700, they hired a lobster boat with a captain and five crew and set sail from the port of Donibane (St Jean de Luz) with the intention of travelling to England where a Basque government delegation was residing. However, during the course of their journey they decided to land in Ireland where their friend Elias Gallastegi was living. In a letter to a friend in October 1940, which was intercepted by Irish military intelligence, Jose Camina described their journey:
Owing to my pro-Basque sympathy and my anti-Nazi and anti-fascist campaigns, I am condemned in Spain for the most severe punishment. I escaped from Euzkadi because I was certain of being shot if caught by the Falangists and again I escaped from France in very exceptional and dangerous conditions when the Germans entered St Jean de Luz where I resided. I did not doubt in embarking on a small fishing boat and exhausted without food, I reached the Irish coast after eight days voyage.
The Gardaí seized various documents from the group, including a report on the Basque Auxiliary Navy as well as propaganda material. The naval documents were noted as being “of great historic and naval value.” An automatic pistol with eight rounds of ammunition was also seized. The eleven stayed several nights in the Imperial Hotel in Cork before travelling to Gibbstown to stay with the Gallastegi family.
News of their arrival soon reached the Spanish Embassy in Dublin and just a week later a furious Juan Garcia Ontiveros, Franco’s representative in Ireland, met with Irish government officials. He accused the group of stealing “a considerable quantity of gold that represented Spanish public funds” and of being “fugitives from the police.” Ontiveros also demanded their extradition to Spain and in the meantime requested that the Irish government supply him with the full names, nationality of origin and place of birth of the parents of each.
While the government was prepared to offer the Basques political asylum, Boland lamented that “considering the complications we have already from the number of aliens in this country, a lot of us would be just as glad if they had gone elsewhere.” Ontiveros expressed his frustration at the decision to refuse the extradition request, stating that the group was “obviously political enemies of the Spanish government, with whom the Irish government is on friendly terms, and that it was hardly consistent with Ireland’s relations with Spain that it would allow a soi-disant [self-proclaimed] government to operate on its territory.”
The Irish government’s relatively benign attitude to the Basques was not shared by the military intelligence unit of the Irish Army, G2 Branch, who were heavily critical of the decision to allow them unconditional permission to land. Col Liam Archer, head of military intelligence, stated in a secret memo to Joseph Walsh, Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, “in view of the political outlook of these aliens, I think it is extremely dangerous to have them at large….they are plotting against the government of a friendly state….our government has recognised the National government of Spain and any mischief plotted by our latest visitors is likely to have serious international repercussions.”
Archer also expressed the view that in light of “the Spanish-Mexican-Irish Leftist lines already established, the possibility now opened of further Leftist machinations here causes serious concern.” In reference to Elias Gallastegi, he stated, “Gallastegi, with whom our visitors immediately got in touch by telephone, and with whom at least some of them are now living, has got himself well established with Irish language circles.”
The Spanish-Mexican-Irish leftist links was reference to a conference that had taken place in Mexico to discuss support for refugees fleeing from Franco’s murderous forces. It was attended by trade unionists and socialist activists from the United States and Britain as well representatives from the Basque Country and Irish republicans who were members of the Release Frank Ryan Committee. On this basis Archer concluded that “the likelihood of having yet another group operating against or on behalf of one or other of the belligerents is appalling.”
Furthermore, Archer bemoaned the fact that the arrival of this group increased the workload of G2. The sole member of the Postal Censorship Staff who handled Spanish language correspondence had been called for military service and the examination of intercepted mail fell on G2. Notwithstanding Archer’s concerns regarding a lack of personnel to examine intercepted mail, military intelligence kept the Basques under constant surveillance and built up extensive files on them. However, by 1942 it concluded that the group had not concerned themselves with Irish political matters, and while they were “strongly hostile to Franco and the Falange, they were not ‘Red’ or communist and were on good terms with various clergy.” An important consideration, no doubt, for Irish military intelligence services when assessing potential threat levels to state security!
While the group was warmly welcomed at the Gallastegi home, the addition of eleven adults placed a significant strain on the family. There were twenty-two people now living there: the seven Gallastegis, the secretary of the Trading Company, the housekeeper, and two boys who were friends of the family. While the group was well resourced and some were very wealthy (it was reported the Jose Camina had £60,000 lodged in the Westminster Bank) due to the war they had difficulties accessing their accounts. Iker recalled going hunting for pigeons and rabbits to feed the household. There were also tensions between members of the group, which added to the strain. Elias Gallastegi wrote to the Basque delegation in London seeking financial support for the group, which was not forthcoming.
By late 1940 many of the group left Gibbstown and moved to Dublin. By the end of the following year some had left Ireland altogether — two went to fight with the Free French Forces against the Nazis and another joined the RAF. Interestingly, one member of the group, Joaquin Eguia, applied to join the Irish Navy but was refused on the recommendation of military intelligence, who reported that “apart from being an alien…he is committed to one set of belligerents in the war and should not be employed in any position of trust.”
Those that remained in Ireland visited the Gallastegi home regularly and wrote of the kindness and hospitality extended to them by the family while living in Gibbstown. Jose Camina and Angel Lasarte later wrote to the Department of External Affairs and expressed their thanks to official organisations and to the people of Ireland for the attention they received:
You may be assured that to this sincere recognition of services rendered, is united the wish on our part to collaborate always in the interests of this country — so hospitable and attentive to the Basques.
There were difficult times too. Both of Elias’ parents died within two years of each other and Margarita was taken ill. In a letter intercepted by military intelligence, Elias Gallastegi wrote to his friend Ambrose Martin in April 1945: “My mother has died. Margari has been very bad in Navan Hospital. This spell of sad misfortunes darkens our lives.” The Gallastegi family remained in Gibbstown until 1945, when they moved to a small flat in St Stephen’s Green. Both Argiñe and Ninbe attended Sion Hill College, while the boys attended Blackrock College, where Lander proved to be a talented rugby player captaining the Blackrock schools rugby team to victory in the Junior Schools Cup in 1945. Iker was a promising footballer and recalled being spotted by scouts from Bohemians Football Club and offered a trial for the club, which he declined. All of the family became Irish citizens in the late 1940s.
Return to the Basque Country
Both Lander and Iker later attended UCD studying architecture and engineering respectively. Some years later Lander, with his friend Gerry Trimble, designed an impressive memorial to IRA Volunteers in Elphin, Co Roscommon. Iker however did not complete his studies, deciding to return to the Basque Country in 1952. By 1959, as a consequence of his political activities he was being pursued by Franco’s police and went on the run, settling in the Basque town of Biarritz, close to the French/Spanish border. It was here that he became the subject of a deportation order.
In the early 1960s the OAS, a far right paramilitary group who had opposed French President Charles de Gaulle’s granting of independence to Algeria, launched a number of bomb attacks in France from bases in the Basque city of Donostia (San Sebastian), close to the French border. De Gaulle requested that Franco have the OAS operatives removed from Donostia. Franco agreed to the request on condition that de Gaulle would expel eighteen Basque activists. Iker Gallastegi was one of the eighteen and it was for this reason representation was made on his behalf in the Dáil in 1962. He was expelled to the north of France for a number of months but following representation he was allowed to return to Biarritz.
With all of their children grown up Elias and Margarita returned to the Basque Country and lived out the rest of their lives in Donibane (St Jean de Luz). Sadly, they would never to return as a couple to their home in Bilbao. Elias died in 1974, just a year before Franco’s death. The Irish Press published a lengthy tribute to Elias concluding, “he was a man who enriched all who were fortunate to meet and know him. To his wife Margarita and his children goes the sympathy of the great host of Irish friends.” Margarita died in October 1988. Iker’s younger brother Lander died in 2014, while Unai was killed tragically in a car crash in the early 1980s. Argiñe and Ninbe live in Ireland and the United States respectively.
Agur eta ohore Iker
Iker and Maite Sasieta married in the early 1950s and had three children Usune, Lore and Aitor. Two years after Franco’s death they returned to Bilbao before settling in the coastal town of Algorta. Iker worked in the Bilbao shipyards and remained active throughout his life. In later years he wrote a regular political column for Basque newspapers and also directed two local choirs.
The struggle for Basque independence remained constant and like many Basque families the Gallastegis would experience the pain of imprisonment and exile. Iker and Maite’s daughter Usune was imprisoned for political activity, while Iker’s two nieces and a nephew continue to serve lengthy prison sentences where they are dispersed hundreds of kilometres from home. In 2009 at the age of 80 Iker was himself hauled before the Spanish National Court on a charge of “glorifying terrorism”. The charge related to comments he made during the course of a television documentary when he was asked by an interviewer if ETA militants should ask for forgiveness.
Iker was unrepentant, responding: “I don’t have to apologize. The Basques have never been asked forgiveness for the 40 years of Francoist dictatorship in which thousands of people were killed and buried in ditches and mass graves.” The court sentenced him to one year and three months imprisonment, however in accordance with Spanish law as the sentence was less than two years he did not have to serve the time in prison.
I had the pleasure of meeting Iker at his home in the Basque Country in October 2014 where we discussed his extraordinary life over many enjoyable hours. He was a wonderful host, full of energy and good wit and a great story teller. On one occasion he recounted how his love of chess at school in Dublin, was partly influenced by the fact that the priests in Blackrock College allowed the boys who played the game to stay out one hour later in the evening, which gave him the opportunity to pursue his interest in a girl who worked in the local shop!
Iker recalled his time in Ireland with great fondness and it was obvious that he retained a deep affinity with its people and struggles. He also spoke of his return to Ireland in the early 1960s when he spent six months training with the IRA. He returned to the Basque Country in 1961 and given his political activism was pursued relentlessly by Franco’s police. This would eventually lead to his expulsion to the north of France in 1962. He was a man of sharp intellect with an unwavering commitment to Basque independence and socialism and was steeped in the culture of its people.
Before leaving his home Iker presented me with a beautiful leather bound, hand illustrated edition of Patria Vasca, a political magazine published by his father Elias in 1932, which I was honoured to receive. He pointed in particular to an illustration which included a quote from James Connolly’s The Reconquest of Ireland:
The conquest of Ireland had meant the social and political servitude of the Irish masses, and therefore the re-conquest of Ireland must mean the social as well as the political independence from servitude of every man, woman and child in Ireland.
It was a philosophy that Iker had undoubtedly applied throughout his long years of political activism.
On 12th February 2018 Iker died peacefully at his home in Algorta aged 91. His was a full life, surviving two dictatorships, being an active militant and living on the run and in exile in several countries. He dedicated his entire life to the struggle for an independent Basque Country surrounded by a loving family and community. It is of such lives that history is made. Iker is survived by his wife Maite and three children, Usune, Lore and Aitor.
Agur eta ohore Iker.