BYO Shotgun (Part 2) – Hide Your Hats; The Pirates are coming! Es Firo in Mallorca

Written by Grant Mills on . Posted in City Guides, European Bazaar, Festivals, History, Photography, Religion, Society, Travel

If there’s been a common theme thus far with the Spanish festivals of European Bazaar, it has been the definite need of earplugs.

In March, at Valencia’s Las Fallas, it was the likelihood of having your eardrums popped like bubblegum by your close proximity to any one of a million fireworks. At the Mallorcan festival of Es Firo it’s probably going to be because there is a man dressed as a pirate and he appears to have bought his own shotgun to the festival…BOOM…

And that is only the beginning of the craziness.

Es Firo-5In Part 1 of this blog, we had a look at the beautiful town of Sóller and its surrounds. The people of Sóller are a proud bunch and every year they honour the most famous episode in the town’s history: the 1561 invasion of the town by Algerian pirates.

But the people of Sóller aren’t satisfied with half-hearted ceremony; a parade and some speeches just won’t cut the mustard around here. Not when you could instead stage a full-scale re-creation of the battle, complete with explosives, swordfights, plundering and hangings.

And, of course, the very curious Bring-Your-Own shotgun policy.

For kids, there is Christmas; a day that seems designed for the pure indulgence of your fantasies.

Es Firo-3For the men of Sóller, there is Es Firo. The look on a child’s face when gets that bike he’s always wanted is nothing compared to the giddy satisfaction on a grown man’s face when you tell him he can dress like a pirate and you hand him hundreds of shotgun shells. Such joy is a beautiful thing to see.

And the men waste no time in firing their weapons into the air like the final scene of a spaghetti Western, each trying to make more noise than his fellows.

The men of the town are split into two groups, the Moorish pirates, led by the Pirate King, and the Catholic inhabitants of Sóller, marshalled by their tall, imposing Captain Joan Angelats, a local with the disarming smile and a gusto for his role.

Key to the celebration is the memory of the Valentes Dones, or ‘Valiant Women’ who, when the pirates did invade in 1561, managed to kill and chase off the invaders attacking them and their properties. Unfortunately this, and the general level of sexual equality in Spain, seems to mean that the women of Sóller are restricted to their roles as demure, but albeit gutsy, peasant women, fit for being carried off as spoils or cheering their heroic saviours.

Es Firo-12Over the course of the day the scene shifts between Sóller’s town square, the sea port 3kms away and then back to the main plaza for the final explosive defeat of the invaders.

Through hazes of smoke witness the hooting, cursing, blacked-out faces of the barbarian pirates as they cause whatever mischief they can amongst the crowd, smearing black grease paint on the unwitting, firing their weapons over the heads of the unwary.

By far the pirates’ favourite pastime was stealing people’s hats, mounting them on the end of their shotguns and then blowing the hat to ribbons. Or, if the owner was lucky, having the hat returned to them with a new flip-top lid.

As twilight drifts down over the mountains of the Serra de Tramuntana the day’s events climax in Sóller’s main square. The assembled crowd goes quiet as the sound of distant shotgun shots comes closer. All of a sudden pirates are streaming into the plaza; shouting, firing, wild eyed and frenzied.

Es Firo-14They waste no time in bringing out their battering ram, to bash down the door of the church (conveniently replaced with a paper door for the occasion) and dragging out the oddly-Jewish looking priest and several of the womenfolk. Loaded into a cart the captive are harried with weapons and taunts as they are paraded around.

One pirate is fearlessly scrambling up the outside of Sóller’s bank, a rope in his mouth but none protecting him from his death. When he makes the balcony the rope is secured so that others of his fellows can shimmy up. Showering the crowd with the chocolate-coin spoils they find in the bank, they hoot and scream their victory over Sóller.

Other of the Moorish invaders have brought a lashed-together ladder and are climbing onto house balconies, threatening women and throwing stuffed effigies of their men to the mercies of the crowd below.

Es Firo-16In a pull-no-punches homage to the actual brutality that the pirates brought upon Sóller and towns like it during the 16th century, two men are theatrically hanged from one of the trees in the square.  They thrash in their death throes, to a background of acrid gun-smoke and the caterwauling cacophony of shotguns, firecrackers and guttural cries. It is an incredible, surreal experience and we are smack bang in the middle of it!

But hark! Is that the sound of drums coming from beyond the square? The returning Sóller men. Cheers go up from the crowd as the local militia return to find their town sacked, their women captured and their fellows the strange fruit hanging from the trees.

The armies square off and in a huge rush the Christian army, under the red and white pennant of St George’s Cross, charge into the pirates. A hammed up sword fight takes place on the stage in front of the Town Hall between our noble Captain and the Pirate King.

Es Firo-17A huge cheer accompanies the latter’s death and Sóller is saved once more to party long into the night, our 1561 plaza stage quickly transforming into a pulsing DJ-driven dance floor.

Es Firo is chaotic and utterly unique. Very quickly the borders between participant and audience dissolve and you’ll be immersed in the shifting fates of Sóller. You’ll find yourself cheering for both sides of the fight, taking up the football chants favoured by the crowd, pumping your fists at the impassioned victory speech of Sóller’s noble Captain.

And offering up fervent thanks to your earplugs.

When:  The Monday after the second Sunday of May
Where: Soller on the island of Mallorca, Spain
Why:   Pirate Invasion Festival…’nuf said.

Click on any of the images below to see the full explosive gallery!
And don’t forget to ‘Like’ One Small World on Facebook

 

PS: The racial and religious undertones of the festival are too murky to deal with in a short blog post but if you’re a prudish PC-type then Spain is probably not a country you should be in the first place. Briefly put: any culturally ‘inappropriateness’ (ie. Blacking out of the pirates and any perceived racial stereotyping) of the festival seems to be an historical reflection and unintentional. Best to go and make up your mind for yourself.

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Comments (13)

  • Bel

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    Dear Grant,

    Let me introduce myself. My name is Bel, and I was born and I live in Sóller, the home of the Firó. You might not believe this, but I was having lunch with a bunch of friends yesterday and we were talking about the Firó, and how difficult it is for an outsider to understand how we feel about it. You come as an answer to our discussion because you, as an outsider, understood nothing about our tradition.

    First of all, let me explain. We are a small town (not Palma, sorry), but we have been one of the most advanced towns in Spain. Due to the natural beauty of our coast and architecture, many artists and intelectuals have found a shelter among us, and they have given us different perspectives on life in return. Therefore, I am proud to say we are extremely open minded. So forgive me if I’m wrong, but there was a sutil but steady stink of judgement throughout your entry that I didn’t really appreciate.

    Let’s begin, shall we? First and foremost, the pirates don’t carry guns. Not because I say so, but because it is illegal. Only a few men are allowed to bring guns, they are portraying the handful of men that had guns over 500 years ago. Men that carry guns during the festival have permits issued by the police, walk in the same group and rarely drink alcohol. It’s not “bring your own gun and see what happens” day. I repeat, not one pirate carries a gun. And please, don’t mistake pirates with pagesos (the real name of the towners at the time). Black face and fierce behavior? Pirates. Guns blowing up hats? Pagesos. That’s Firó 101 for you right there.

    This sentence is awesome “Unfortunately this, and the general level of sexual equality in Spain, seems to mean that the women of Sóller are restricted to their roles as demure, but albeit gutsy, peasant women, fit for being carried off as spoils or cheering their heroic saviours”. I assume you have lived in Spain quite a while and, of course, you have had more than enough experiences while in Spain to know our level of sexual equality. Because if you judge us based only on a festival that portrays something that happened 500 years ago, you’re close to be the worse informant ever. Please tell me you have witnessed women like me behaving like a mid 16th century woman on a daily basis. Women are harassed everywhere in the world by some MEN. I have lived in several countries over 2 continents and I’ve been catcalled and harassed by men. Please, don’t you dare to say my country, my town are worse. MEN are responsible for their actions, and men that behave like apes will do so during our festival, and anywhere else. It’s whitin them, not our tradition. Moving on.

    Does our fake priest look too jewish? I don’t know, maybe. That’s an issue I can assure we, the very barbarian, had never had in mind. But hey, it would not suprprise me: as I’m sure you know, Spain had been conquered by many, including greeks, roman, jewish and of course mulsims. I myself am of a jewish line, so I guess that’s why I don’t give a shit if others around me look jewish (or muslim for that matter). I’ll make sure to pick a more caucasian-catholic looking fellow to portray that particular role this year.

    “Pirate invasion festival”…well, that’s one way to see it. We, the towners (did you talk to any of us?) we see it as a celebration of unity, of our very varied roots. If you stayed until the end, which you seem to have, I’m sure you remember THE WHOLE TOWN on our knees chanting “La Balanguera”, our anthem. All, pirates and pagesos, get together as brothers. Our muslim citizens have never complained or felt insulted by our tradition. Moreover, they participate in whatever role they like: pirate or “pages”, regardless of the tone of their skin.

    Yes, there’s alcohol. Yes, there’s way too much turism attracted by the wrong reasons. No outsider can understand our sense of unity, brotherhood, tradition and roots. How sorry I am you spent that very important day with us and this thing you wrote was all you got with yourself. I pitty you, quite frankly. Some people see our tradition as a chance to trash our town and drink until the sun comes out. Others write about it, pissing all over what it represents for us. We hurt no one, we welcome everyone, and still, you guys call us “outrageous”. There’s a lot of sentiment, hard work and hours spent trying to preserve out traditions. I’m sorry some people paint their faces black. I’m sorry if that is insulting, but 500 years ago the men that tried to conquer us had dark skin. As simple as that.

    Please don’t come back. We don’t want people like you celebrating with us. You are as hurtful as the tourists that think the Firó is just an excuse to drink and harass a few girls. That’s not what this is about, and no matter how long I write to you trying to make you undersand. You won’t understand. So please, do not come back.

    Go enjoy other less outrageous festivals. Go have a fucking tea party.

    Reply

    • Grant Mills

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      Hello Bel,

      Thanks for the comment, I’ve approved it for the website so that everyone can read it. I’m sorry if you felt like I was leveling unfair judgement at your tradition, you have misunderstood my intent. The blog post was a celebration of the fact that Sóller has done such a wonderful job maintaining the spirit of their festival; ‘outrageous’ was never a criticism but praise for the level of authenticity that the festival continues to inspire.

      I very much enjoyed Sóller and its people and I loved Es Firó and I think that is reflected in my post. As a travel writer it is my job to do justice to the experience that I had and to give an outsider’s impression for the benefit of other outsiders. I do not need to tell the locals about Es Firó, but I do have to represent it to people that come from countries where such festivals are not the norm. That means reporting the things that I saw. For someone not from Sóller I’m not able to decipher who the people in the crowd are that are not representing the true spirit of the festival, I can only comment on the festival as a whole. I do believe that I did it fairly, and that my representation was highly praising of the place and the event.

      It also means that I have to place things in wider context, black-face for example comes with a great deal of baggage, it is not something that can be overlooked without comment by anyone aware of that context. Yet even here my assessment of the use of black-face was not critical, in fact it was critical of the rest of the world for its painful adhesion to political correctness. It is one of the things I love about Spain.

      I do thank you for your input and for clarifying some of the points that I did miss as an outsider, but I still believe that my reflection of the festival was one of praise and awe, not of condescension. I am sorry that you disagree.

      All the best and thanks for your time,

      Grant

      Reply

  • Bel

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    Sorry, when I said no pirates carried guns I meant no regular citizens with no permit portraying pirates. Those with license are allowed to carry them.

    Reply

  • Bel

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    Dear Grant,

    I understand. But, nevertheless, this post is unfortunate. Maybe you’re unaware of this, but you have been featured in both local and national newspapers and we all share the same uneasy feeling. I’m not trying to be mean at all, I’m just letting you know it’s not a personal thing. It’s pretty generalized.

    On the other hand, thank you for allowing my comment to go public, and most of all thanks for taking the time to explain yourself. I truly appreciate it.

    Hopefully we won’t be “awarded”.

    Thanks again and best of luck.

    Reply

  • Pep Toni

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    Hi grant.
    I’m one of the bagpipers that march in front of the Sóller defenders. As Bel said, safety measures are taken in order to avoid accidents. Only people with a special license can carry a gun, and before the festival there are meetings explaining the people how to behave during the festival, warning them not to use dangerous fireworks and the local police goes to the schools to explain the youth than a festival without alcohol is better. All this work is dedicated to make es firó something outstanding rather than outrageous.
    Next time you come to es Firó, let me know. I’ll be pleased to show you whats behind all this noise, smoke, black grease and music. For the ones that think that life is what happens between one “firó” and the next one is always a pleasure showing a foreigner what our festival really is, but trust me: It might be like a drug. You will come back every year…

    Reply

    • Grant Mills

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      Thanks for your comment and for your explanation. As an outsider it is difficult to gauge the level of work that goes in behind the scenes, around such things as safety measures; naturally I can only comment on what I saw and felt. I’m glad to hear that such level of care is taken.

      As such, I agree that my line in the most recent post about there being ‘a real risk of injury’ was overstated and I’ve removed it. And I do think that there has been some misunderstanding about the use of ‘outrageous’, its connotations are not necessarily negative. To anyone coming from a culture that is not Spanish, where our celebrations are much more understated, there is an element of outrageousness to many Spanish festivals. That is not a bad thing – Es Firó is both outstanding and outrageous – but that is a reflection on where myself and the vast majority of my readers come from. It is a statement on the cultural gap, not a condemnation of either the event or the people of Sóller. I’m sorry for the confusion though.

      Thanks again for your considered comment and your offer of hospitality. All the best.

      Reply

  • Curro Que sopa

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    Dear Grant:
    I’m also from Sóller, and i think you post it’s very nice, and i have to thank you for it.
    First of all, sorry for my english level, i have not the vocabulary of the two other sollerics.
    I’m glad to know how you lived the party, because i’m also in the organitzation.
    I think that they should be like a real fight, because this is what we try to remake, but you ca’n be shure there is a real and hard job (all year long) to have a perfect day.
    it’s really our most important day.
    When you say that our face seems like a child in christmas, it’s just like it.
    This is the day we expect all year long.
    I hope you can come back again.

    PROUD TO BE OUTRAGEOUS!!
    THANKS AGAIN

    Reply

    • Grant Mills

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      Hello and thank you for taking the time to comment, I appreciate it very much. I do appreciate the amount of work required to create some a memorable occasion and I congratulate you and the organisation for your work with Es Firo. It won the award because it is one of the most incredible festivals in Europe and you are right to be proud.

      Thanks again for writing to me and all the best with next years Firo!

      Reply

  • Eva

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    Dear Grant,

    My name is Eva and I am one of these proud sollericas, currently living in London. First of all thanks for the award, it is always great to see visitors sharing our enthusiasm about Es Firó.

    I believe the wrong translation for the word outrageous, by the local press, is the main reason behind the amount of negative feedback. As a result, several media shared the nomination as something nasty and translated the sentences too literally and omitting the good bits. This wasn’t done intentionally and today this is clarified on the local press.

    Please note not of all of us are upset about your post at all, we do understand you are indeed praising the festival, with its excesses, and that your words are addressed to your audience.

    I am glad you had a great time! Please feel free to join us again, there are always new things to discover, even for us, and this is why Es Firó means so much to us. A new adventure every year.

    Thanks again and warmest regards,

    Eva.

    Reply

    • Grant Mills

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      Dear Eva,

      Thank you very much for taking the time to write, it is extremely sweet of you. From the reaction I’ve received, I did assume that something had been lost in translation. I did very much enjoy the festival and was hoping to promote it to the world, not trash its reputation.

      I think I’ve learnt a valuable lesson about checking how a word might be translated before attaching it to a people or a place…it is a shame that it has promoted such a negative reaction. I very much value that you took the time to contact me and for taking the time to read the piece rather than react to what the media might have reported.

      Thanks again and all the best, Eva.

      Grant

      Reply

  • Eva

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    Hi, Grant!

    My English has improved a lot also, thanks to the one thousand meanings of the word outrageous 😉

    Warm regards,

    Eva.

    Reply

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