The coffee-pickin’ Irish
Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution became a liberal cause celebre in the 1980s. When a plea came for international volunteers to pick coffee and other crops, there was a practical way for people to help, as some ‘brigadistas’ from Ireland recall
Helping hand: a Sandinista picks coffee with a farm worker in 1986. Photograph: Cindy Karp/Time & Life Pictures/Getty
Sandinistas address workers on a state coffee plantation in 1986. Photograph: Scott Wallace/Getty Images
Selecting coffee beans during the harvesting process at a plantation in Jinotega, Nicaragua. Photograph: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg News
Workers fill sacks of coffee to be sold in Managua near a plantation in Jinotega, Nicaragua: Photograph: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg News.
Dave Thomson, who worked on coffee farms in Nicaragua in the 1980s, during the Sandinista revolution. Photograph: Deirdre Veldon
At his farm cafe in Estelí, in the hills of northern Nicaragua, Dave Thomson chuckles as he recalls the Irish people who came here more than 25 years ago to help harvest the coffee. “They picked abysmally. I used to explain to them how they had to pick coffee. I used to tell them it wasn’t important how much you picked: the important thing was to do it well.”
For the coffee-harvest volunteers it wasn’t a case of quality over quantity, because they picked slowly, sometimes harming the plant in the process, he says. “So a lot of damage used to be done, and very little coffee used to get picked. And it often cost more to have a brigade up in the mountains than it could pick.”
Thomson helped co-ordinate British and Irish brigades of volunteers in Nicaragua in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The brigades helped fill a labour shortage created as the US-funded Contra rebels attempted to oust the leftist Sandinista government, which itself had seen off the repressive Somoza regime in 1979.
The Sandinista revolution became a romantic international cause celebre, attracting sympathisers from the ranks of those disillusioned with the rampant capitalism of the US and Britain. With the plea for international volunteers to pick coffee and other crops, there was a practical way for people to help.
Another brigade organiser, a journalist named Circles Robinson, says volunteers’ efforts weren’t entirely wasted, although he admits that picking coffee is difficult work, requiring dexterity different from that needed to pick other fruit.
“I don’t think a lot of people would have come here from outside and done it well. Nobody was expecting the Irish or any other foreign brigades to be very productive. But there were circumstances where the coffee picked would otherwise have fallen on the ground.”
Oddly, performance split along all-too-familiar geographical lines, Robinson says. “Irish people from rural backgrounds did better than people from Dublin, for example. It was difficult physical work.”
In the tiny hamlet of La Reyna, in the heart of coffee-growing country near the city of Matagalpa, Nohemi Molina is not preoccupied with the quality of the brigades’ picking. They offered so much more, she says wistfully. “I think about those times a lot and remember the friendships I made. The people who came here were people of solidarity. They had big hearts.”
Molina says the Irish brigadistas came to the Sixto Sánchez co-operative and to the nearby villages of Yucul and El Tuma-La Dalia intent on helping and sharing the ideals of the revolution. They got no special treatment. They lived in the same conditions as all Nicaraguan coffee-farm workers. “They did the work, and ate and slept in the same conditions. They all lived together. That way they adapted to living here,” she says.
Molina’s friend Sonia Izaguirre Sánchez associates the coffee brigades with her youth. “It was a very special time. The idea was that we would share the experience, the time and the work.” Like many other Nicaraguan students, Sánchez was taken from her college studies in the northern city of León to show the brigadistas how to pick coffee and cotton.
Molly O’Duffy of the Irish Nicaragua Support Group says letters sent by applicants for the brigades from 1989 on demonstrate Irish people’s need to express solidarity with the Nicaraguan people.
O’Duffy says two events in the mid 1980s drew Irish attention to Nicaragua. The first was the 1984 visit to Ireland of Ronald Reagan, when anger at US foreign policy in Central America was vented in protests. The other was a tour of Ireland by a group of Nicaraguan campesino, or peasant, musicians, The Heroes and Martyrs of San Francisco. “They performed in many locations around the country and in Dublin, and their personal charm, political message and music had a huge impact on those they came in contact with.”
Irish volunteers came in brigades of up to 20 and worked in bursts on state-run and co-operative farms, usually in remote areas. “We had kids from the ages of 17 and 18 through to people in their 50s,” says Thomson. “They came from all across the board, from very radical socialists to very liberal liberals.”
Rita Fagan, a community development worker in Dublin, came on five brigades from 1989. From her arrival at Managua airport, in an Aeroflot plane from Shannon, she recalls the assault on her senses.
“I remember when we were on a truck, lorryloads of young Sandinistas with bandanas and long hair coming down from the mountains having spent six months fighting off the Contra. It was breathtaking and real.”
She says nothing had prepared them for life at her co-op. “All the people awaited us with open arms. I wanted to go home there and then, as the contrast with our lives was so great. We had mountain boots, and they had flip-flops and, in some cases, no shoes at all.”
They stayed in a crumbling school building, with rats running around on the stones overhead. They used latrines and were up at 4.30am each day to put their gear away so school could begin. By 6am they were in the fields picking coffee, or clearing stones and trees from the land.
“The work was back-breaking. We were not able to keep up with the local workers. They would laugh at us, and we would laugh at ourselves. We were all in bits. They loved the brigades being with them.”
When talk turns to the brigade of Irish women who came here in 1992 her face lights up. She remembers all of their names. “It was a marvellous experience,” she says. “They did everything we did working in the fields. They had long sleeves and pants. It wasn’t difficult for them. We returned at midday or one in the afternoon. Normally we worked eight hours, but with them we only worked for five hours, because the sun was too hot for them.”
It was Thomson’s job to orient the new arrivals, briefing them and trying to calm their fears about going into a war zone. “It was impossible to prepare them for being in the mountains,” he says. After a while Thomson noticed a pattern in the morale of the brigadistas. For the first few days after their arrival, he says, there was a euphoria. “Even though it was freezing cold, damp and miserable, and they were getting bitten by these horrible beasties, spirits were very high. But when I visited after the first week I would find them very down. So it was important to take them food that wasn’t gallo pinto” – rice and beans – “that wasn’t tortilla. I would fish around for food and bring their letters, which would boost them as well.”
The Irish brigades had one unexpected advantage over the others, says Circles Robinson. “The idea of there being a war wasn’t so strange to the Irish, and this made it easier for them to adapt. Those [Irish] brigades stood out as not being very demanding. They were satisfied with the conditions and with doing their best.”
There seems to be a consensus among those who dealt with them that the true value of the Irish effort lay outside coffee picking. Thomson says brigadistas went home with a much deeper commitment to Nicaragua.
“The idea was they would go back and work much better within solidarity than they had done before. Maybe they came only out of interest, but when they went back a lot of them worked for quite a while in solidarity.”
O’Duffy says that the 22 members of the Mary Manning brigade in 1989 “between us picked no more coffee than the vanguard individual coffee picker on the farm.” She says the poor records of brigades reflected a Sandinista view that production should take second place to propaganda.
“Political education became a routine part of brigade life during their stay on the farm. Some members of the Mary Manning brigade complained that too often political meetings interrupted the coffee-picking, and others objected to political meetings taking place on Sundays, the only rest day.”
Some of the Irish contribution was unexpected, Nohemi Molina says. “One woman, who is now dead, Doña Filipa, said the brigades helped her to liberate herself as a Nicaraguan woman. That changed her life.”
She also talks about a local superstition unintentionally exploded by the brigadistas. People had traditionally been afraid to go out at night because they were afraid of spirits. “Then the extranjeros came, and they went out at night and had parties and they were happy. Local people saw that they were okay, so they started to go out at night as well. So now those myths don’t exist any more.”
This series is supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund