‘What I learned was personal, not political’

Changed forever: Irish volunteers on their time in Nicaragua

Sandinistas address workers on a state coffee plantation in 1986. Photograph: Scott Wallace/Getty Images

Sandinistas address workers on a state coffee plantation in 1986. Photograph: Scott Wallace/Getty Images

 

‘I still love Latin-made rice and beans’

ritaRita Fagan, community development worker, Inchicore, Dublin. Went on five brigades from 1989
“My experience on the many brigades taught me much. No matter how poor [the Nicaraguan people] were, they were always clean, they worked extremely hard, they were humble, they opened their homes and they gave you their beds and their food. Six weeks of rice and beans was hard to take, but to this day I still love Latin-made rice and beans. “I once asked would it not have been more practical if we as a brigade brought them a cow instead. They said no: the importance of international brigades was their act of solidarity and willingness to work alongside the people. “I came back to Ireland and set up a picket at the US embassy against US foreign policy. I was also part of the organising group that brought five Nicaraguan ‘campesino’ women to Ireland to connect and experience and show solidarity with our marginalised communities.”

‘I had great difficulties in adjusting to my life in Ireland’

oirPirooz Daneshmandi, human-rights activist in Dublin. Went on a brigade in 1988
“It changed me forever. I did not expect what I found in Nicaragua. I was under the misapprehension that I was going to ‘help the revolution’. It was after getting there that I realised how much they helped me to understand what they were trying to do and what that meant to them. “I found it more difficult than I had anticipated. I picked up a parasite shortly after arriving, which was very debilitating and restrictive, but it was nothing in comparison to what the locals were experiencing. “My life was never the same after coming back. I had great difficulties in adjusting to my mundane life after the electrifying atmosphere of a society undergoing a radical transformation. “I went on another brigade, to Cuba, in July of 1988, soon after coming back from Nicaragua, trying to regain the same feeling, but it was futile. Nicaragua was one of the defining periods in my life.”

‘What I learned was personal, not political’

gerryGerry McGrath, Dublin-based solicitor. Went on a brigade in 1989, just after he qualified
“What I learned was personal, not political: live in a hut with 30 people for a month and learn to be tolerant or you will explode. I didn’t find it particularly difficult, [as I was] very fit and healthy. There was a lot of gunfire at night, which was worrying if you dwelt on it. “I think the revolution was waning by that stage: people were weary of war. Our contribution [was] marginal. We contributed a lot to the people of the small UPE [state production unit] where we worked, but then we went off and left them. “I don’t know what propaganda value the Sandinista government got from us. It was harder for the US to bomb the place when we were there.”

‘We were all totally freaked out’

mollyMolly O’Duffy, primary teacher and solidarity and development worker, Dublin. Went on five coffee brigades. She lived in Nicaragua between 1993 and 1996
“The first brigade I went on came from Spain and was an urban language brigade. It was as close as I ever came to a nervous breakdown, to be dropped in the middle of a security situation and to feel terrified all the time. And July 1988 was a particularly difficult and dangerous time. When I was asked to return the following year I decided to give it a second go, and I loved Nicaragua after that. “The second time was still difficult. We were all totally freaked out. There was a problem in getting water where we were. And we found the eating situation difficult. “Some of the people were very poor, the children were dirty and had very distended bellies, with insects around their eyes. The men told us if they put $40 through their hands in a year that would be a good year for them. “I organised brigades from that time. I was an observer in the elections there in 1990. After the election, in which the Sandinistas were ousted] our first reaction was fear. Everyone knew why we were there. People felt emboldened to insult us. We were spat at in the street. I was nearly afraid to go back. There was a general sadness after that as things were being dismantled.”

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