I offended a friend.
“The Boy Scouts? That’s the Hitler Youth with ginger beer, isn’t it?” I said.
“I love the Scouts,” he replied. “Choose your weapon!” I backed off quickly because, if he had been a scout, he could probably tie me to a tree and whip me to shreds with his toggle.
I have to say this by way of introduction. You see, I don’t love the Scouts. I don’t love the military trappings and the gin-gan-gooley-gooley-wotsit and the military structure. I don’t love the rituals and the uniform. And, not loving the Scouts, puts me in a frame of mind not to like Ultreya, a Galician version of the organization that had its moment in the thirties just before the Spanish Civil War.
It might be my personality. When I was a kid I refused to go to Scouts, even though my Dad was a veteran and my brother was going. I can’t dress up what I say here as a reasoned argument: the Scouts never convinced me, in the same way the Duke of Edinburgh Awards seemed a tiresome waste of time. It was, and is, a feeling.
If I step back from myself, I can see the appeal for young people: the outdoors life, robust exercise, good clean fun. For my dad, for example, joining the Scouts was the only opportunity he had as a kid to get out of his home town- to go on excursions, to work his way up a juvenile merit system that promised to take him out of his working-class background.
I can also see the value in creating a sense of identity. Even though I am suspicious of it, I can see that the Scouting life gave my dad a love of the countryside, the experience of discipline and the company of other kids. I can see that they learnt how to love an idea of England.
Why the Scouts?
Today’s reading comes from an interesting book called De Camiños, Viaxeiros e Camiñantes (Santiago de Compostela: Galaxia, 2016). Santiago Lamas and Alfonso Mata have taken a pilgrimage by Vicente Risco, Ramón Otero Pedrayo and Ben-Cho-Sey in July 1927, from Ourense to Santo André do Teixido, as the starting point for a series of essay-like chapters that go here-and-there talking about walking. They are readers so my heart warms to them and we have many of the same points of reference. They talk about walking and this also brings them close.
(We have come across Risco and Otero Pedrayo before. I encourage you to read some of Risco’s short stories. I also recommend you to read Otero Pedrayo’s verse and his novel Os camiños da vida. Pedrayo was a figure of such authority in the mid-twentieth century Galician literary scene that there is hardly a writer who did not come into contact with him.)
As I was reading the book, I came upon a section to do with the youth group Ultreya and sirens started ringing in my head. Ultreya was like a Galician Boy Scouts organization. If my distaste for the Boy Scouts needed affirmation, this section gave it. I am posting the translation of that passage below and you can make of it what you will.
I was horrified
I was horrified. They got groups of young people together and had them sing a song that was what the Americans call “a load of cock-a-mamey”. If you do not understand this, I will have to translate: nonsense, pure invention, bull. The song says that Galicia is a Celtic nation on a par with Ireland.
But, but, but…
But I just don’t believe it. Vicente Risco is an amusing writer but he would not cut the mustard as an archaeologist these days. He is what you might call a Romantic archaeologist: he used archaeology to invent a Celtic past for his country, because it seemed to him that this would mark the separation with Castile better. I don’t blame him. After all, there were similar voices from the other side of the spectrum saying what it was to “be Spanish”. Think of that charlatan Emilio Orozco who made a deal about the Spanish soul being essentially Baroque. However, there is a great distance between presenting a position, making an argument and defending it, and gathering a group of young people around to sing songs that create a nationalist feeling. Or am I wrong?
What is the Spanish soul? How is the Spanish soul different from the Galician soul? The Asturian soul? The Catalan soul? The Irish soul? If you are a young Galician and you like American pop music are you ipso facto a traitor to your country? Is it essential that you feel a stir in your guts when the bagpipes sound? And what can one possibly make of all this now, when the villages are emptying out and modern archaeology pours cold water on the theory of Galician Celticism?
I would feel that I was deceived.
The problem I have with these “intellectuals” is that they gave themselves a priest-like role to interpret the soul of the nation to a group of young people. Swim in the sea? Cool. Go for hikes? Great! Adopt a quasi-military structure? Whatever lights your candle. Interpret the soul of the nation? No, no, no, no, no!
In Galicia there was also a youth group that had a certain resemblance to the ones we talked about (the Wandervögel and the Boy Scouts): the Agrupación Xuvenil Galeguista Ultreya, founded in 1932, in Noia, by the writer Álvaro de las Casas, who at that time worked as a Geography and History teacher in the secondary school of that town in La Coruña. These youths were organized into dúceas and liñas (twelve dúceas), led respectively by a guieiro and a maor. They also had a council of notables, on which served amongst others, Galeguistas and members of the SEG (Seminario de Estudos Galegos) such as Filgueira Valverde, Xurxo Lourenzo, Risco, Díaz Baliño, Castelao, Otero, Bouza Brey, a General Secretary, Francisco Fernández del Riego and a rexente, Álvaro de las Casas.
The ten commandments they were governed by centred on love for the land and Gallegos, study, work, a healthy life, and brotherhood, in order to become an exemplary citizen. Their hymn was “Keltia” or “Celtia”, with words by Filgueira and music by Iglesias Vilarelle (“Ai Armorica, Cornwall and Cambria (Wales), Scotia (Scotland), Erin (Ireland), Galicia and the Isle of Man./ These are the seven Celtic nations/ daughters of Father Breogán…) and the simple uniform consisted of a white jersey, on which the symbol of the organization was embroidered, a yellow triskel.
There were local Ultreya groups in Noia, Pontevedra, Compostela, Vigo, Ourense, Tui, Redondela, A Estrada, Padrón and Lugo. The work of the Ultreya groups revolved around excursions by boat, bus or on foot (Rías Baixas, Riberiro de Avia), hikes (the Barbanza mountains), educational visits (the Galician Biological Mission), training courses (such as the one in the Colexio Labor, in Vigo, in August 1933, in collaboration with the SEG), the edition and promulgation of popular songs, verse books, romances and short biographies of outstanding people from Galician history and literature. Also, according to Fernández del Riego, they went out every Sunday to sell books in Gallego in towns and cities. The point was for young Ultreyans to get to know Galicia fully and directly in all its aspects by means of the excursions, the visits and the courses, and for them to care for and strengthen their bodies by means of hikes, swimming in the sea, gymnastics and sports, at the same time as they learned to live together, in their own group and with the people of their country.
The Ultreya activities faded away after the creation in May 1934 of the Federación das Mocedades Galeguistas, a branch of the Partido Galeguista, since many of their most outstanding directors went on to hold positions in that organization. Their last activity took place on the eve of the military rising in 1936: an excursion to the Aloia mountain organized by the Tui group. Between 1932 and July 1936, the Ultreya managed to sign up into its ranks more than one thousand five hundred youngsters.