Jerry writes "
An Irishman's Diary
published in the Irish Times, 25 January 1999
By John De Courcy Ireland
At school I was fascinated to find on any map of the western Mediterranean two dots on the Moroccan coast, called Ceuta (opposite Gibraltar, on the strait named after that town) and - always with a smaller dot - Melilla, about 150 miles east-south-east of it. Actually, the two towns are of similar size, each with a population of about 60,000, like that of Dun Laoghaire on quite another sea. Particularly intriguing was the fact that in every atlas the name of each town was followed by two enigmatic letters "Sp". Later, I gathered that "Sp" meant "belonging to Spain".
Politically and postally these towns are Spanish: you address letters to them "Spain", ignoring their geographical location. Each became Spanish long before Britain annexed Gibraltar. School over, I happened to pass Gibraltar going east, and saw Ceuta, and some hours later, 25 miles away to starboard, Melilla - but still only a dot. I began seeking people who had been there. Spaniards, non-Spaniards, nobody I knew had - though some merchant seamen I met had put into Ceuta to refuel, but had no chance to go ashore.Naval ArchivesSpain's naval archives are housed in a palace once owned by the Marquis of Santa Cruz. He should have led the celebrated Armada of 1588 up the English Channel and home through the North Sea, round north Scotland and down Ireland's west coast, but he died before it was ready to sail.
Santa Cruz's palace is nearly as far from the sea as you can get in Spain. You leave the MadridCordoba train amid vineyards, meeting a lorry flying Spain's naval ensign. This drives towards Don Quixote country until the palace appears on the horizon. Don't make my mistake and say you see a big castle! Near this edifice is a tiny village with one house sporting a laconic notice: "Hay Camas" ("there are beds"). The village pub provides excellent fare and lively company. The archives are splendid. The careers of many seamen of Irish birth or origin who served Spain at sea are documented here. I found that numbers of these men had at some stage been stationed at Ceuta or Melilla.Irish Naval HeroesMany more Irishmen won distinction in Spain's navy learned seafaring, tactics and strategy in the stretch of not always placid sea between northern Morocco and south-east Spain, infested by many nations' warships, corsairs, and merchantmen trying to trade peacefully between the peoples of three continents.
The McCrohans are a family highly regarded in Ceuta for more than 150 years, who gave Spain outstanding naval experts in the 19th century. A MacDonnell was the Spanish hero of the battle of Trafalgar, whose successful recapture of some of Nelson's prizes two days after it seldom gets mentioned in British history books. An O'Donnell led an expedition from Ceuta in 1860 that captured the Moroccan city of Tetuan. There is an O'Donnell Street in Ceuta, and in Melilla. In 1775 General Sherlocke held Melilla against a huge Moroccan army and drove it off when a Spanish naval squadron with a ship commanded by Captain Butler y Morphi broke the Moroccan Sea blockade of the port.Birthday VisitAt last in 1998 I got to Ceuta and Melilla, spending my 87th birthday in Ceuta's sun-intoxicated Plaza Africa (with its Leopoldo O'Donnell monument), outside and inside the city archives (how many small Irish cities have archives?), where among much else you can study the shipments of Irish butter to 18th-century Ceuta.
I had come to research for the Maritime Institute of Ireland the maritime relations we once had with these distant places. Contrary to what pessimists had foretold, both places contain documentation and monuments recalling these relations. These cities are autonomous, picturesque, and tidy, with courteous inhabitants from a variety of racial backgrounds: Melilla's population is 25 per cent Spanish, 25 per cent Jewish, 25 per cent Moroccan, 25 per cent Hindu. Both are garrison towns, but at least for now the only serious tension is on their frontiers, where would-be immigrants from Morocco and beyond try to slip in, so as to smuggle themselves out again to peace and some money(?) in Europe.
Irish tourists in Spain ought to take the comfortable ferries from Malaga to Melilla or from Algeciras to Ceuta. There are beaches for the lazy, walks for the adventurous, archives and museums revealing the Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Arab and, in Ceuta's case, Portuguese local past. The magnificent Atlas Mountains loom over both towns. I could not help wondering what result a free referendum would give in either case if the inhabitants were asked to pronounce on their future allegiance.