Friday, June 8, 2012

Che's Ghost

In a strange way, since I have moved to the west of Ireland, I have come to feel like Che Guevara is a neighbor of mine.

I don’t mean that he is literally living here. That would be one heck of a scoop. But I’ve felt his presence in a strange way.

Almost immediately after we moved to our rural location, I found myself regularly accosted for a chat on the road by a neighboring farmer. He is a man in his early sixties, although he looks older. He lives with his brother in the same house that their parents lived in. The two of them are bachelors. During our occasional chats, I have come to realize that he has never been more than a few miles from home but, not surprisingly, he knows the local area very well. During one of our meandering conversations, he mentioned an old estate house on a nearby shore of Lough Corrib. It belonged to the Lynch family, he said. He added that a daughter of the Lynch family emigrated to Argentina and became the grandmother of Che Guevara.

I had known that Che had roots in the west of Ireland. At the 2003 Galway Film Fleadh I saw a stunning short film by Anthony Byrne called Meeting Che Guevara and the Man from Maybury Hill. It was a fanciful riff on 1950s film noir and science fiction, and included actual footage of an interview Che gave in 1964 to RTÉ’s Sean Egan when weather forced an unscheduled stopover at Dublin Airport. As Cuban Minister for Industries, he was en route from New York to Algeria, and he can be heard in the film speaking of his grandmother’s Irish roots in Galway. As best as I have been able to determine, it was not actually Che’s grandmother who emigrated from Ireland but rather his great-great-great-great grandfather, Patrick Lynch. Patrick was born in Galway in 1715. He relocated in the 1740s to Bilbao, Spain, and then to Río de la Plata, Argentina. His great-great granddaughter Ana Lynch became the mother of Ernesto Guevara Lynch and grandmother of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. (Other accounts have Che’s forbearers coming from Clare or Cork.)

The history of the Lynch family in Ireland goes back to 1185 when William “le Petit” de Linch settled in Galway. The clan was one of the fourteen Tribes of Galway, merchant families who dominated Galway’s political, economic and social life from the 13th century onward. As time went on there were several branches of the Lynch family. My farmer friend’s story notwithstanding, the branch that had the house near me did not produce Argentina-bound Patrick Lynch. He seems to have come from Lydican Castle, near Claregalway, some five miles east of the city of Galway.

The link between Che and Ireland endures. There is an oft-repeated quote from Che’s father telling of “the blood of Irish rebels” that flowed in his son’s veins. Also, one of the most iconic images of Che—and the one that may have most contributed to the marketing of his radical chic image—was the work of an Irishman. In 1968 Dublin-born Jim Fitzpatrick created the ubiquitous two-tone portrait of the revolutionary from the famous photo (called Guerrillero Heroico) taken by Alberto Korda in 1960 of Che in a black beret at a memorial service for victims of a ship that exploded while munitions were being unloaded in Havana. Fitzpatrick printed a series of posters of his portrait. Last year he announced that he would belatedly copyright the image—which was intended for free use by revolutionary groups—and hand over the rights to Guevara’s survivors in Cuba. In one of the many ironies about Che, that un-copyrighted image has generated a lot of money from a lot of capitalist merchandise. Fitzpatrick, who would go on to produce artwork for Thin Lizzy, Sinéad O’Connor and The Darkness, says on his web site that he actually met Che, while working as a barman in a hotel in Kilkee, County Clare when the revolutionary made (another) unscheduled stop in Ireland in 1962, this time at Shannon Airport. (Other sources say that stopover happened in 1961.)

Che’s ghost began haunting Galway again earlier this year when Labour Party City Councillor Billy Cameron proposed erecting a monument to the revolutionary, who died in Bolivia in 1967. At least some of the funding would be coming from the embassies of Cuba and Argentina. Reaction has been heated on both sides of the issue. As Cameron put it, “We’re honoring one of our own from a distance.” The most eloquent objection came from Yale professor and National Book Award winner Carlos Eire. A Cuban of Irish descent, Eire wrote in a letter, “Che was my neighbor in Havana, and I actually saw him in the flesh several times. He lived in an opulent mansion just a few blocks from my very small house, and also ran the prison of La Cabaña, where some of my relatives ended up being tortured and murdered.” Interestingly, The Irish Times declined to print Eire’s letter, but a local Galway paper did.

Eire ended his letter with a tongue-in-cheek suggestion. If a monument is built for Che, he wrote, then there should be one right next to it for Oliver Cromwell, one of the most hated figures in Ireland. Explained Eire, “Like Cromwell, Che proclaimed himself a liberator and felt justified in committing thousands of atrocities in a land other than his own, all in the name of a higher cause.”

There is a lovely symmetry to Eire’s suggestion. After all, the Tribes of Galway (including Che’s ancestors) had their properties confiscated by Cromwell in the 17th century. In fact, it was Cromwell himself who came up with the name “Tribes of Galway,” as a mark of his contempt for them.

The ironies abound. In the wake of the brouhaha over the statue, there has been some criticism of the annual Che do Bheatha festival held in Kilkee to commemorate Che’s visit there. But it’s not political, explains Kilkee Mayor Elaine Haugh Hayes. “His name was famous and we just worked off that to create a festival where we can get people in to help local business.”

The fact is, Che the man disappeared long ago. All that’s left is a dashing visual image that is one more tool for greasing the gears of commerce.

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