581px-Partie_de_pelote_sous_les_remparts_de_Fontarabie

Errebotea match played in Hondarribia, Gipuzkoa, 1863. Painting by Gustave Colin (1828-1910), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, August 9, 1846, witnessed one of the most famous ever pilota or pelota matches, held in the border town of Irun, Gipuzkoa. It was the errebotea (rebound) form of the game, a long-style form in which the teams return the ball to each other directly without hitting it against any wall. Moreover, as in Jai-Alaia, xisterak or hand-held baskets are typically used to strike the ball.

jean errachun

Jean Errachun, “Kaskoina” (1817-1859).

That August day, the match involved one team from Hegoalde competing against another from Iparralde. And the latter–the eventual winners–featured the greatest player of the day, Jean Errachun (Erratxun in modern Basque orthography), who also went by the surname Darritchon, from Hazparne, Lapurdi. Knicknamed “Gaskoi(n)a” or “Kaskoi(n)a” poetry was even composed in his honor:

Kaskoinaren trunkoa/Trunko bat iduri/Orotarik hartza du iduri.
The bust of Gaskoina/ is like a tree trunk/ he himself is just like a bear.

“But beneath the rough exterior,” notes Philippe Veyrin in The Basques of Lapurdi, Zuberoa, and Lower Navarre (p. 349), “was concealed the strength of a Hercules, an imperturbable composure, and a dazzlingly adroit technique.”

In Basque Pelota: A Ritual, An Aesthetic, Olatz González Abrisketa states (p. 186):

According to the French newspaper Journal du Havre, twelve thousand people turned up for the game in Irun, and campsites had to be set up in the vicinity. People from all the Basque provinces converged on Irun; they left their homes two or three days earlier on horseback, by oxen, or other means, sufficiently supplied with money in order to wager on the game.

The centripetal force of pelota attracted thousands of people to a specific place, normally an open ground by the more representative areas of the village or villa. Grounds were leveled and slopes eliminated, and courts situated by churches or ramparts whose walls were used for the game. At first these grounds were probably unfenced, and it was the crowd itself, its bodies, that marked the boundaries of the court.

What’s more, Veyrin goes on to say that those present:

were at such a fever-pitch that some of them, unable to afford a ticket, wagered their heads of cattle, and even their future maize harvests! The hero of this joust is said to have won four thousand gold francs; he won with the help of Gamio, a priest from the Baztan Valley, Harriague of Hazparne, Saint-Jean of Uztaritze (Ustaritz), and Domingo of Ezpeleta. We know the names and nicknames of only three of their opponents: Melchior, Tripero, and Molinero. Gaskoina fell prey to typhus in 1859 and died at the peak of his powers in his native village, at the age of forty-two.