A History of a land without a country

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The Basques; whether you believe them to be part of a region of another country, or, as some do, to be a country within a country, certainly have a unique identity. As someone who grew up in Northern Ireland, seeing Basque flags in republican areas, this strange banner which, to you appears like a union jack with different colours, certainly does make an impression on you. This particular reviewer has had an admittedly bizarre fascination with this strange land for many years which, in turn, lead to a fascination with Spanish history, particularly the Spanish civil war and the parallels with the Irish civil war a decade earlier.

This particular reviewer also became aware of the unfortunate and morbid parallels of the Basque Country and ETA’s terrorist war with the Spanish government and the history of “the troubles”. Originally this book had been purchased prior to a trip to that self same disputed piece of land, and having leant it to someone who did not return it, only recently became reacquainted with this excellent book when it was given by a friend as a birthday present.

The Basque History of the World tends to, for the most part, stay away from the modern day conflict and the hard edged subject of ETA’s campaign against what it might see as it’s Spanish oppressors. And indeed it is all the better for this. Instead the book looks at the impact that Basques, both collectively and individually has had on the world. The areas covered tend to vary from the fishermen who it is claimed discovered America long before Columbus to the saint who the Basques can claim as their very own; namely the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius de Loyola, to symbols which are important to the Basques including the ancient symbol of the old oak tree which lies in the middle of the town of Guernica. Indeed it was no coincidence that Franco chose the town of Guernica to unleash the horror of, the Luftwafe bombing.

The book stretches back at various points throughout to the earliest evidence given to the existence of the Basque, with reference to the ancient laws known as the Fueros, which most Irish people can draw parallels with the Brehon laws. Without getting into much detail about the laws themselves Mark Kurlansky pinpoints this as the moment that Basques lost their autonomy and, despite gaining control over them to various degrees thoughout history, have never fully gained autonomy like they had during this time.

One of the more interesting aspects of the the book states that during the negotiations when setting up Spain’s most recent constitutional Congress every province in Spain was granted two negotiators, save for Catalonia and The Basques, perhaps sewing the seeds of more recent disputes in both areas.

For the most part quirky and light-hearted throughout, The Basque History of the World is a fascinating and informative read that both entertains and informs from cover to cover. There are even a few recipes to try out from a proud tradition of Basque cookery. Despite having been published more than twenty years ago and some of the more political aspects of the book being now outdated, The Basque History of the World is still an important piece of text and this magical and curious piece of land.

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