Student days began when memories of the Spanish Civil War were still recent – the young men who had gone off in their 20s to join the fight against Franco were still only in their 60s. The LSE was probably not typical of English colleges, but reprints of the posters from the 1930s were still pinned to the walls of student rooms. Spain seemed a place of flamboyance, of colour and vibrancy. In the pages of Laurie Lee, it became a magical place where anything seemed possible, even for a youth no older than the one struggling with undergraduate essays.
Even in theological training the vision of Spain as being a place of verve, vivacity and reckless heroism continued. A classmate, (who was to be murdered in his Rectory in 1990), would tell stories of his uncle Martin, a Church of Ireland cleric who had died in Spain fighting against the Fascists.
Sunshine and red wine are perhaps more conducive to irrational exuberance than the grey dampness of Ireland, but there seemed a difference of temperament between two nations that were similar in their dominance by conservative Catholicism. Forty years on from losing the Spanish Civil War, those sympathetic to the Republican, losing side could still pin up posters with pride.
Harry Eyres wrote in the weekend edition of the FT of something indefinable in the Spanish character:
All this got me thinking about how much meaning resides in a word – the unique and untranslatable word of a particular language. The one I had in mind was the Spanish word alegría, which you could translate as cheerfulness or happiness or joy, but which means something rather different from any of those. Cheerfulness could be a deliberate policy, and an admirable way of facing the world, but possibly involving a certain facial rigidity; happiness sounds just a bit bland and empty; and joy can’t help having a somewhat elevated, even religious tone.
Alegría is a bit wilder than any of those. No one makes a deliberate decision to be alegre; this joyful mood descends, like a god or spirit. When people are alegre, they behave with a certain abandon; they are quite likely to burst into song or to start dancing.
Alegría, in fact, is the name of a dance or song: one of the fast, spirited “small” forms of flamenco, the cante chico, rather than the cante jondo or deep song. Connecting the joyful mood of alegría with flamenco makes it not just a Spanish but a specifically Andalusian phenomenon. Although it has exploded in worldwide popularity in the last 15 or 20 years (there are now more flamenco dancers in Japan than in Spain) – partly through what some call “fusion” and others call bastardised versions by groups such as the Gypsy Kings – flamenco is rooted in Spain’s great southern province.
Eyres was reflecting on a visit to Spain in these past weeks: a country afflicted by every economic woe currently being suffered by Ireland and a few more besides, (there is suggestion that Spanish unemployment could reach 20%), yet he can still find alegría. Does it come from the dancing?
Look at the expressive sensuality of flamenco compared with the straight-backed formality of most Irish dancing, does the dancing reflect deeply-rooted national characteristics that overspill into every other area of life?
The Spanish protest in their hundreds of thousands; in Ireland, we grumble and carry on. Maybe we need to learn some new dances.