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A chat and a cuppa with Mike Moulton, landlord of the Wicklow Arms

“Your personality, the people behind the counter, a decent pint

– that’s what an Irish pub is.”

There’s more to the Wicklow Arms pub than first meets the eye. Granted, it is small but landlord Michael Moulton assures it can fit in 41 well-built fans for football and rugby matches.

When I first heard about The Wicklow Arms, I wasn’t clear where Michael was from. The pub name was unmistakably Irish but, “I’m sure he’s English,” said my friend.

“My father was an Irish marine,” Michael tells me over a cup of tea one morning. “He left Ireland quite young and met my mother in London. They lived abroad most of the time. I was born in England, in Portsmouth.” Already an early connection to Bilbao then?

The name of the bar reflects Michael’s link with Ireland (the county of Wicklow lies just south of Dublin) but he insists the bar is representative of both sides of his heritage. As a half-Welsh Englishwoman, I often wonder why Irish bars have the upper hand internationally. The 90s boom in the Irish economy led to an aptly-named firm, the Irish Pub Company, giving a Celtic makeover to a number of bars worldwide. Inevitably, the bubble burst – “of sixteen Irish pubs that were in Bilbao, only three remain,” says Michael.

One of the key traits of The Wicklow Arms is that, unlike a lot of so-called Irish pubs, it is much more authentic: “We didn’t want to go over the top,” explains Michael. “For example, the maps are all of places where I’ve been.” Then, of course, there is the leprechaun; a two-foot carving complete with human teeth that hangs from the light-fitting.

Michael’s pub career goes back twenty-three years and, appropriately, began in Ireland: “A friend of my uncle’s opened a bar in Dunmore East in Waterford. I went there to do the advertising (due to previous experience working for a supermarket chain). One day they were short-staffed, so I went behind the bar. I liked it but I didn’t like the village – too quiet and isolated. A friend was keen on going to London, so I decided to pack up and try the big city. For an Irish barman with training you could get a job quite easily and the wages were very good. I had a good time, enjoying life to the full.”

Some years later, including one spent in Australia, and with love and bar-owning prospects good reasons to make the move, Michael headed to the Basque Country.

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Big worship for the little

Every Basque town or village has it’s own church or sanctuary and each of them has it’s own character. I’ve visited a lot of them in the last few months because I like old churches and monuments. They often have a nice story behind them, sometimes noticable by just the way in which it is build.

Last Teusday one of or teachers took us to Arantzazu to visit the church over there. We were very lucky because her uncle, who is a priest active at the other side of the country, traveled many hours to come and join us so that he could show us a thing or two in the church of Arantzazu.

A half hour drive from Arrasate, passing by Onati, lies Arantzazu. It is placed high between the mountains and therefore it was very cold making just six degrees. Unfortunately for us it was raining which made the temperature felt even worse.

Running towards the church in the hope to hear a good story there, and of course to find some shelter from the rain as well, I noticed that the entrance of it was considerably small while the church itself and everything around it where impressive big.

Going true the entrance it wasn´t the temperature that I felt rising, it was my curiosity.
Right in front of us where wooden benches, above us was a big platform with many seats for a big song chancel and right in front of us at the end of the church was the alter.

The alter was the one that rose my curiosity. It wasn’t a common one, on the contrary. In a oval shape with depth the alter was shaped. Up on the high wall was a big pies of art, made out of wood. The attention was drawn to the center of this pies of art. Up on a three stump, right there in the middle, a little figure was presented.

The virgin in Arantzazu

The virgin in Arantzazu

While we took place at the front row of the benches a priest of Arantzazu, who has been with it for fifty years and is a contact of the uncle of my teacher, starting telling us the history of the sanctuary. Soon it was clear that the little figure in the middle placed of a three stump played a big part in the historty of the church.

According to the tradition that the priest told us, the virgin, that is how the little figure is called, was found by a shepherd named Rodrigo de Balzategi. He found here in a hawthorn bush and asked her “Aranztan zu?”, which means “Is it you in the hawthorn?”. And that is how Arantzazu got its name.

In the continuance of the story the priest told us that at the time in which the virgin was found there were wars in the country during that period the country was suffering from a big dry. They al praided for hope. Then Rodrigo brought the virgin among the people and it suddenly started to rain. They saw this as a sing of the virgin being a saint and the country made peace.

I guess this story could also be the reason for the many rainfalls that the Basque Country still knows now a days..who knows?

What made a impression on me was the dedication of the priest for the sanctuary of Arantzazu. He had been with it for 50 years now and started there when he was 19th. The same goes for the uncle of my teacher, he also was around 20 when he decided to became a priest.

priest with the robes

priest with the robes

In the Netherlands people becoming a priest is almost a non-happening now a days. There are religious people and every town has it’s church but for real religion is not as big over there as it is over here. That is quit interesting to me. Especially because it seems like here in the country the religion makes the close communities over here even closer.

After we heard the story behind Arantzazu, what was wearth hearing, we got a tour true the church. We walked true the galleria of the sanctuary.  “A galleria in a sanctuary?”, whas the first thing that I thought. But yes it has one, a very unique one actually because there has been a contest about what the alter should look like and all the suggestions for it are exposed in the galleria.

There was a contest about the design of the alter because the original artist that was building it died of a stroke before he could finish it. There was decided to held a contest about how it should look like now the official creating could not me be performed any longer. From all over the world 41 artists turned in a piece of work that contained a suggestion for the looks of the alter.

The pieces of work in the galleria were all very unique in there kind. It was for sure that the people really felt like using the rebuilding of the sanctuary of Arantzazu as a oppertunity for expressing there feelings. All the paintings were really strong some spoke of freedom and others of hope.

We continued or tour to the basement of the church were the old alter that is still in use is kept. I was astonished by the sight of the room while I entered it. The walls of it where all covered with very strong colors of paint and behind the alter that was at the front of the room was drawn a blood-red priest rising his hands above him and looking with much anger towards us. I have never seen a alter like this, it expressed so many strong feelings in its paintings. It really felt like the painter of these drawings wanted to express anger and protest for the gaining of freedom. Even more surprising is that I saw this paintings in a sanctuary in the Basque Country, here were the people are known for being so shy and helt back.

The alter in the basement of Aratzazu

The alter in the basement of Aratzazu

The priest told us that people still get married in front of this alter. Personally I woudn’t feel comfortable by giving the ‘I Do’ in front of paintings looking quite angry at me.

I’m sure that by now it is clear that the uniqueness of the sanctuary interests me very much. But what maybe got my interest even more was the loyalty of the priest for it. He told me that when is was around 20 he decided to became a priest and he is with Arantzazu for 50 years now. The same age of becoming a priest goes for the uncle of my teacher. How dedicated they are..

In the Netherlands of course there are religious people but have the strong impression of way more Basque persons being religious. The communities that very tight over here seem to be drawn even closer by the religion.

We were very lucky with the contact of my teacher because our tour and guide were very good. The priest also took us op to the virgin. By stairs we could go up behind the alter, that is reversible in a way that she goes out of side in the front and appears at the back were she can be looked at very closely.

It turned out that the lady that is worshipped and loved by so many is a very small little lady! Usually she is dressed up in handmade robes that the priest showed us later. If the people from and around Arantzazu accepted that big of a influence from such a small woman then they must have been good people with a good will for trust.

Jai a what??

Just to make things clear, I’m not the type of guy that enjoys watching sports. Oke, I could make an exception when the Dutch national team plays the world cup, dress up in orange and enjoy the crazy atmosphere but that would be my max.. Anyways, out here I found out that watching a game on a weekend day is quite a popular thing to do. But of course it had to be different! Pelota they call it, and it’s a bunch of different games that just require a wall and a ball, sounds easy huh?


Me and two friends went watching one of these games,  to the best known version I think, called jai alai. This version of pelota is played with a launching basket and a goat skin covered ball, and according to the Basque government it’s the fastest game in the world! With balls going at 302 kilometres per hour, I’m not surprised.

In the pelota court, I didn’t quite understand what they were doing exactly. I just knew that it went bloody fast. Two teams of two players managed to catch the ball in their basket and launch it at the wall without getting hit themselves, which to me sounds like a painfull affair! Luckylie we were protected by a net..