Flight attendant Isabel Almazán was 38 years old on that day, and she insists that she noticed that there was some kind of fuss when she boarded the plane in New York. But perhaps it’s an invented memory, created once all the events of that day became known. The plane, a Boeing 747 belonging to the then-Spanish flag carrier Iberia, took off from New York’s JFK airport with a slight delay, at 8.20pm. In many respects, it was a normal flight – just another for the IB-952 route. But at around 8am Madrid time, when the plane was already on the tarmac and headed to its gate, Captain Juan López Durán broke the news.
Isabel Almazán and one of her colleagues on that flight, Beatriz Ganuza, quoted the captain’s words yesterday, speaking to EL PAÍS in a café in Madrid. They’ve never forgotten them. “Ladies and gentlemen, I inform you that today you have been traveling with a very special companion: Guernica, which has returned to Spain today and was also on the plane.” Neither of the flight attendants had a clue – nor did most of the passengers.
At that moment, the last exile from the Spanish Civil War had landed in Barajas Airport
After the initial shock, everyone, including the two women, broke into emotional applause. It was September 10, 1981. The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco had died six years before, and Picasso’s most famous painting – one that was loaded with the symbolism of Spain’s recent history – was returning to its home country in the hold of an airplane, rolled up and stuffed into a giant cylinder weighing hundreds of kilos.
For the previous 44 years, it had been on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), patiently waiting there until Spain met the conditions that Picasso had set for its return: public freedoms for Spaniards. For some time now, Spain’s new democracy had met this condition, but the reticence of the painter’s family and MoMA’s foot-dragging delayed its arrival.
That sunny, warm morning 40 years ago was destined to be historical, because at that moment, the last exile from the Spanish Civil War had landed in Barajas Airport.
Also on the flight were the people ultimately responsible for its return. The culture minister at the time, Íñigo Cavero; the then-director of Fine Arts, historian Javier Tusell; and the deputy director of Visual Arts, Álvaro Martínez-Novillo. As the latter explained in a feature article published in this newspaper in 2016, there were a number of plain-clothes policemen dotted around the plane. Conveniently dressed like spies from a movie, complete with long raincoats, they were in charge of safeguarding the painting and reacting should there be any unexpected events. There were none. Everything went smoothly. In fact, the flight attendants don’t even remember seeing them.
“Maybe we served Coca-Cola to the police-spies, who knows,” one of them explains. “But the truth is I really don’t remember. Everything was completely normal until we landed.”
The minister and the top-ranking officials must have traveled in what was then called Grand Class, the flight attendants assume. This section was located on a second floor and was where the seats could turn into beds at nighttime, after passengers had changed into the “really cute” Burgundy-colored pyjamas that the airline offered these exclusive passengers.
After the announcement by the captain, Isabel Almazán could see from the window of the plane that a real commotion was taking place at the stand where the aircraft was due to come to a stop. There were high-ranking officials, law-enforcement officers, dozens of journalists, television crews and civil guards in shirtsleeves and wearing their distinctive tricornio hats. “That was when I became aware of the importance of what we were carrying,” she explains. “For a joke, I said to a colleague, ‘Not even Ava Gardner would be received like this!’”
It was no wonder there was such a welcoming committee. The government of then-prime minister Adolfo Suárez had treated the issue as a priority case, one that would be another step – by no means the last – to closing the chapter of Spain’s transition to democracy after decades of dictatorship. That was why, Martínez-Novillo explained five years ago, the Spanish government had even threatened the MoMA with legal action should they fail to return the painting before October 25, which was the date of Picasso’s centenary.
The painting – which was conceived by the most famous 20th-century Spanish artist after he found out about the bombing of the Basque town of Gernika by the German Condor Legion during the Civil War – would finally, as was its right, be hung in a museum in the new Spain.
The two flight attendants already knew the painting. They had seen it in New York on a previous trip there. Both began to fly in the middle of the 1960s and enjoyed a great era to work as cabin crew, with good salaries and paid-for accommodation – including expenses – for two or three days before taking the return trip.
Initially, the painting was installed in the Casón del Buen Retiro, an annex of the Prado Museum complex in Madrid. There is an iconic photo of the painting where it appears behind bullet-proof glass, and is being protected by an armed civil guard. In 1992, it was moved to the Reina Sofía museum and finally it was put on display without its protective glass.
In order to be closer to her family, flight attendant Beatriz Ganuza retired at the age of 55, benefiting from a perk of her airline. Elena Almazán, who was more of a traveller and something of a non-conformist, continued to fly until Iberia forced her to retire. She still has the handbag and stylish uniform she used to wear in the 1960s in her house. Both of the women are now aged 78, and yesterday, they made an emotional visit to the painting that flew with them in the hold of that Boeing 747 four decades ago.
When she left the museum, and got on the elevator, Beatriz Ganuza calculated the days and the time difference between Spain and the east coast of the United States. Later, with a tone of surprise and incredulity in her voice, she said to herself out loud: “This time 40 years ago I was having breakfast in New York!”
English version by Simon Hunter.
Remains found in Dublin adds intrigue to search for Robert Emmet’s grave
Skeletal remains have been found at one of the locations identified as a possible last resting place of Robert Emmet who was executed on this day in 1803.
The remains were found during an excavation at the back of St Paul’s Church in Stoneybatter in Dublin.
The disappearance of the body of Robert Emmet is one of the great mysteries of Irish history.
Emmet was tried and then hanged for instigating the ill-fated 1803 rebellion. He became a symbol of Irish martyrdom for his speech from the dock in which he concluded: “Let them and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my name remain uninscribed, until other times and other men can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written.”
After he was publicly hanged outside St Catherine’s Church in Thomas Street on September 20th, 1803, his head was displayed to the crowd by the hangman Thomas Galvin. The remains of Emmet’s body was taken to Bully’s Acre in the grounds of what is now the Royal Hospital Kilmainham and buried there.
When some of his friends went to reintern his remains from Bully’s Acre to St Michan’s Church in Church Street, a church associated with the United Irishmen, they found there was no body there, and so began a search which endures to this day.
His great-nephew Dr Thomas Addis Emmet requested an archaeological dig at the family vault in St Peter’s Church in Aungier Street to mark the centenary of Emmet’s death in 1903, but that proved to be unsuccessful.
St Paul’s Church is another contender in the saga of Emmet’s remains. It was the parish church of Kilmainham Gaol’s doctor and effective governor Dr Edward Trevor.
In his book In the Footsteps of Robert Emmet, JJ Reynolds speculated that Trevor removed Emmet’s body and put it in an unmarked grave in the grounds of St Paul’s Church. This was to ensure that his grave would not become a shrine for Irish nationalism.
The church, which was the venue for the consecration of the philosopher George Berkeley as Bishop of Cloyne in 1734, has been converted into the Spade Enterprise Centre, a not-for-profit social enterprise unit.
The land where the skeletal remains were found is being turned into a shared kitchen for small business enterprises in the area.
Archaeologist Franc Miles said burials in the grounds were from 1702 to the 1860s. A extant set of burial records remain, but Emmet, if he really is buried there, would have no record.
Previous exhumations were carried out when the graveyard was closed in 1860s to make way for a school on the site.
“With all the evacuations, we were left with bits and pieces of body. There weren’t many full skeletons,” he said.
Mr Miles said it all the gravemarkers and stones were removed in the 1860s “so all you are left with really are bones.”
Mr Miles said it would be difficult if not impossible to identify Emmet’s remains even if they are buried in the grounds of St Paul’s Church.
His own “educated guess” is that Emmet’s body is still buried somewhere in Bully’s Acre.
As many of his supporters have said over the last two centuries: “Do not look for him. His grave is Ireland.”
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Officials pushed for State to buy direct provision centres from private firms
The Government should buy a number of privately-owned direct provision centres as a “priority” as it would be more “cost effective” for the State to run the facilities for asylum seekers, international protection officials have said.
The savings arising from owning the accommodation centres rather than paying private contractors to do so “could be considerable”, departmental briefing documents provided to Minister for Children and Integration Roderic O’Gorman last year state.
The vast majority of direct provision centres are currently owned and run by private companies, with accommodation providers having received some €1.6 billion since 1999, including €183 million last year.
The latest figures show some 7,150 people are in the system of seven State-owned sites and 39 private centres. A further 24 commercially-owned premises are being used to provide emergency accommodation for asylum seekers.
The briefing document, released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act, says that housing people seeking asylum in State-owned centres would provide the “best protection from the vulnerability of present market reliance”.
“They are also much more cost efficient to run, and the State owns the asset,” it notes.
The document suggested that State centres should aim to accommodate 5,000 people, and “allowing the private sector to supply the rest is regarded as an achievable and reasonable target”.
The purchase of existing centres from private providers “to immediately boost the State’s footprint in this area should be considered as a priority,” the internal document said.
“Some service providers may be open to this and the market appears to be favourable at present,” it said.
The internal briefing suggested the department could then seek private companies or NGOs to run the centres, which would be a “competitive cost option”.
Ongoing maintenance for centres owned by the State was also “badly needed,” as current pressures on the Office of Public Works (OPW) meant it was not possible “for immediate repairs to be done if required”.
“In exploring the model of more State centres, we need to agree and acquire a capital budget,” the briefing stated.
“State land does not require planning permission for new centres as the Minister has a power under the Acts, whereby the OPW can grant the planning permission and this is usually a three-month process. It is not subject to appeal.”
The document says that State centres “can also have a bigger footprint as it will be a permanent fixture in the locality”. In recent years a number of plans for private providers to open direct provision centres in regional towns have been met with protests from locals and anti-immigration activists.
Mr O’Gorman’s department has sought to reform the direct provision system and is seeking to replace the network of centres with a new system of accommodation and supports by the end of 2024.
A department spokesman confirmed the State has not bought any new centres since the briefing note was written. The spokesman said under the planned overhaul of direct provision, asylum-seekers who arrived into the country would initially be housed in a number of reception and integration centres.
Asylum-seekers will spend a maximum of four months in the reception centres before moving into housing secured through Approved Housing Bodies.
“These centres will be State-owned and purpose built to provide suitable accommodation for approximately 2,000 people at any one time, to cater for the flow-through of the 3,500 applicants over a 12-month period,” he said.
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