San Marcial, a celebration of divisions

Irun is a small Spanish city containing no more than 62,000 inhabitants. Situated north-west of the Spanish-Basque region, it sits by the river Bidasoa. The water cuts its path through the valley separating France from Spain. Acting as a border crossing, the metropolitan area of Irun has been viewed as a vital trade and transportation hub. With direct links to both Paris and Madrid it is unsurprisingly bigger than any of its neighbouring towns and villages. The veins of history flow vibrantly within the area with its population proud and passionate.

The city celebrates a huge number of festivals throughout the year, including carnival and traditional Navidad celebrations. Once a year however, the city becomes divided. Families leave for weekend breaks, others prefer to visit different areas of the Basque Country. Most though, stay and witness San Marcial. The festival which recalls a series of victories by Irun’s inhabitants against the French consists ofsam_1893 several organised events before an annual day of celebrations on the 30th June. Traditionally, many citizens in the alarde (military review) wear historical dress along with faux rifles and makeshift weapons, just like their ancestors did some 200 years ago during military inspections. Each district of the city has a marching battalion and as they march they play tin whistles, a small metallic flute that resembles a recorder. The playing is accompanied by marching drums which provide a rhythm for the performers steps. You can listen to a sample of the music here. Each battalion is led by a cantinera (a bar maid who would help to fulfil desires in the military). The thousands attending the parade, customarily wear red and white clothing causing a lake of red berets outside the town hall.

The annual divisions in the city are caused by a dispute over tradition. The old age custom sees men dressed accordingly playing their small flutes, led by their leading lady who waves her fan with a flick of her wrist. However, over time women wanted a larger part to play instead of the highly limited traditional role. This resulted in many female residents wearing fake beards, dressing accordingly and joining the musical marches. Finally, in 2000 the city officials bowed to pressure and made it possible for men and women to march and play together in a separate alarde mixto. This detached march begins after the original and finishes prematurely. Outrage from traditionalists soon followed, as did their highly visible and boisterous protests.san-mrcial-violence A tactic often used by traditionalists involves finding and securing a position on the roadside and unfurling black plastic sheets to hide the view of the mixed march. This is accompanied by banners, turning around and a variety of chants. The divisions run deep into families too, with many households separated by the question of ritual.A police presence is often necessary at the ‘celebration’ not only because of mass crowd control and   safety but to prevent a hostile encounter between the two groups. Similarly, the nearby seaside locality of Hondaribbia, has an incredibly comparable festival to the one in Irun. This is plagued even more so by extensive resentment and the question of equality, but as I have no first hand experiences I unfortunately cannot comment.

The Basque government has donated funds to both towns to promote the drive for fairness and harmony along with a desire for a “joint fanfare”. Perhaps the most surprising element of the protests is the enormous number of young females holding placards and unrolling the opaque black barriers that have come to symbolise the negativity associated with the holidays. It feels the event is heavily overshadowed by the disagreements, resulting in a tense and secretive atmosphere. The regional press and other towns and cities in the state of Gipuzkoa view the festivities as a traditional celebration that has descended into irrational logic. This year, the celebration will begin once more and there will be the same divisions with the same hostility before returning to normal in July, much to the relief of some families.

Noticias Alarde San Marcial
Confrontations are a regular occurrence.

A Personal View:

Having lived in the city for approximately 14 months, I have witnessed the festivities twice. The build up to the grand day is surrounded by a feeling of community along with local events that celebrate the municipality’s history and successes. This includes an excellent community meal for the youth of the city, and later that evening some two thousand young adults noisily march through the town. I also saw the process of selecting the cantineras, each dressed accordingly and ready to wave at the crowds. Having the ability to become one of the leading ladies, is a great honour in the town and seems to be viewed as an upper-class role. Upon the arrival of the big day and the commencement of the march, there is a difficulty from an outsider’s perspective; deciphering the reactions that are based on true passion and pride from those of over-exaggeration to show their support for tradition. “Que guapa!” (what beauty!) is soon heard from the crowd in drones along with tears from many young girls. The march quickly continues to the town hall with the crowd following. Some 100 metres away the alarde mixto begins. Here, the feeling is much more authentic. Both men and women enjoy their time together as the disappointingly small crowd watching claps and smiles. Here there is a feeling of freedom and celebration unlike the enormous elephant in the room being carried by the traditional march. Around midday, many residents start to take places on the street in hopes of securing a good view of the day’s finale. They stand, ready with the black sheets, ready to protest. What I witnessed that afternoon remains intensely in my mind. As the mixed parade makes its final journey before finishing, I saw huge numbers of young girls, turn their backs and open umbrellas to shield the view. As predicted they formed a plastic barrier between themselves and their friends, family and fellow residents that were performing in the march of fairness. Water was also sprayed at the parade followed by chants.

Noticias Alarde San Marcial
A police presence is necessary.

It seems ridiculous that there should be so much hostility at an event which outside the town is so insignificant. Therefore, I wonder if the reason people from the surrounding area can recognise the event is because of the disputes. It is entirely likely that the problems have become more renowned than the San Marcial festival, leading those in favour of traditions to become progressively more passionate as a way of defending their custom to watching outsiders. In the weeks prior to the event, the two marches often practice their routines and steps by performing in the evening. One evening, I witnessed a middle-aged woman and her daughter sat outside a small café suddenly stand upon hearing the playing of flutes. Enthusiastically, they ran towards the street and began clapping and moving their feet to the beat of the drums. As the marching troupe emerged from a side street, she realised she was in fact supporting a mixed march and quickly snatched her daughter by the arm and told her to stop dancing. The pair then turned their backs and eventually returned to their seats as the mother spoke audibly and aggressively. This secured my opinion that many residents develop their opinions on the festivities with pressure and persuasion from their parents.My time in Irun was fantastic and my fondest memories are based on the time I spent with friends, enjoying summer days amid a relaxed lifestyle. However, for one day a year, the town becomes divided over a historic celebration, heavily overshadowed by a question of social equality and tradition. I for one believe that the mixed parade is a welcome chance of equality for many women who otherwise may suffer from sexism and misogyny. The deceptive view of exaggerated happiness on the 30th June every year is hiding a backwards ideology that will continue to cause divisions if both marches are in existence.



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