Heinrich Böll’s Irish Journal, first published in 1957, has arguably left the greatest impression on how Germans view Ireland. About 2 million copies of Irisches Tagebuch have been sold in German speaking countries and it is often referred to as a cult book. To this day Böll’s account of his visits to Achill Island in the mid and late 1950s still remains popular amongst German visitors to Ireland. As Fintan O’Toole explained in a recent article in the Irish Times, Böll’s depiction of Ireland as a quiet haven on the edge of Europe was very much inspired by the author’s wish to escape the turmoil of post-war Europe.
I actually had never read the Irish Journal before coming to Ireland. My very first introduction to Ireland, Dublin to be precise, came courtesy of Alan Parker’s film The Commitments (1991). Instead of the wind swept beaches and tranquil villages that captured Böll’s imagination, I fell in love with the hustle and bustle of Dublin’s inner city and the grime of its Northside estates.
Parker’s film, based on Roddy Doyle’s novel, showed a pre Celtic Tiger Ireland with long queues at the dole office, run down housing estates and busy street markets selling everything from crockery to records to horses. When band manager Jimmy Rabbitte is asked by his dole officer why he hasn’t found employment yet, he simply replies ‘We are a third world country. What do you expect me to do?!’
Though not a picture perfect portrait of Dublin and Ireland, what is infectious about The Commitments is the sense of humour that prevails throughout the trials and tribulations of the band. Just like the band members are scraping by doing odd jobs on the side while trying to pursue their dream, in Parker’s Ireland the whole country seems to be improvising, making the best of the situation and always having a laugh.
I know, the famous Irish craic is a bit of a cliché but what mainly stuck with me from the film is its sharp wit and humour, delivered in some killer one liners. The humour department is definitely where the Germans greatly differ from the Irish – to continue with clichés and stereotypes.
During my first stay in Dublin, as a language exchange student in my late teens, I lived with a family in Portmarnock. The dad of the family immediately set out to teach his foreign guest the art of slagging someone off. Mainly this was done by always mentioning ‘ze war’ and showing me episodes of ‘Allo! ‘Allo! He was delighted whenever I managed to come up with a verbal jib directed against him – now I was finally getting it. Taking the piss out of someone is a sign of affection and not rude how my previously untrained German mind had assumed.
Armed with this training, I was ready to fully immerse myself into the Irish lifestyle and moved from Berlin to Dublin in the summer of 2002. Initially I had planned on only staying for a year, improving my English, traveling a bit and then go back home. Fifteen years later I’m still in Dublin. Obviously my plan didn’t quite work out. I just enjoyed life in Ireland so much and back then, when the Celtic Tiger was still in full swing, there were more job opportunities in Dublin than in Berlin. Just imagine, Germans coming to Ireland for work. How quickly things change!
Although I’ve moved around in Dublin a lot (once a year for the first ten years…), my home has always been north of the Liffey. I don’t know whether that is because of my nostalgic feelings for The Commitments or because of my permanently dire financial situation, probably the latter. That said, I love being an honorary Northsider. Around my neighbourhood, Stoneybatter, you can frequently see young fellas riding horses bareback through the streets. You don’t get that in Berlin or any other European city for that matter.
Recently, when I got back from a family visit to Berlin, a taxi driver, who picked me up from Dublin airport, was asking me why I’ve been in Dublin for so long. ‘Have you married a rich Irish man?’ he was wondering. No, I haven’t but it’s never too late for that. Why have I stayed then?
Well, I guess it goes back to the impression I got from my first Irish cultural encounter when watching The Commitments. An admiration for that Irish attitude of improvising with what you’re given and creating your own opportunities, while at the same time always maintaining a great sense of humour. In other words, it’s the people that have kept me here.
Of course you get a more exciting nightlife in Berlin, better museums and galleries in London and fancier shopping in Paris. ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day. But Dublin was, in an hour!’ as they say in The Commitments. Nevertheless, the city certainly has its charms and I’m frequently reminded of that when walking along the Liffey on a late summer evening or strolling through the Phoenix Park.
Heinrich Böll noted that the Irish live closer to heaven than the rest of Europe. Approximately 40 meters closer, as established by satellites. I’m not sure whether that makes Ireland a better place to live in or explains why we get so much rain. Despite the crappy weather, my affection for Ireland and its people remains the same. Whenever I travel back to Dublin from a family visit or a holiday, I say I’m coming home.