Monday, May 20, 2024

Literary love affair: why Germany fell for a windswept corner of Ireland

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In 1954, the German writer Heinrich Böll landed in Ireland for the first time, headed west and kept going till he reached the Atlantic Ocean. He was seeking a refuge from the brash materialism of postwar Germany, and found it on Achill Island, where waves crashed against cliffs, sheep foraged in fields and villagers went about their business of fishing, farming and storytelling.

The following year he returned with his family and began to observe and chronicle the customs, idiosyncrasies, sorrows and joys of its inhabitants. So began a literary love affair between Germany and a windswept corner of County Mayo that endures 70 years after the Nobel laureate’s first visit.

Even today Germans comprise a significant proportion of visitors from continental Europe and several live on the island, drawn by a landscape evoked by Böll. Schoolchildren write essays about his account, which island bookshops stock in English and German. Ryanair connects Cologne, Böll’s home city, to Ireland West airport, also known as Knock, a 90-minute drive from Achill.

Map of Achill Island

“The perception of Ireland in Germany and many other countries is still very much influenced by my father’s Irish diary,” said René Böll, the late writer’s son, who as a boy spent summers on Achill. The book’s loving descriptions of the people and landscape blend personal experiences with poetic exaggeration, creating something timeless, he said.

Böll’s 1957 book Irisches Tagebuch, or Irish Journal, was a publishing phenomenon that still captivates German readers and connects Achill to contemporary artists and writers. Diplomats, poets and film-makers will gather on the island from 3-5 May for an annual festival held in memory of Böll, who died in 1985 aged 67. The Böll family’s former cottage near the village of Dugort has become a retreat for artists, who rotate in and out every two weeks.

Fishing and farming have dwindled and wealth and holiday homes have replaced poverty and traditional cottages, but Achill remains Achill, said René, a photographer, artist and writer. “The warm hospitality is unchanged since the 1950s.”

Heinrich Böll, here pictured at his Cologne home, published his Irisches Tagebuch in 1957. Photograph: Alain Mingam/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Chris McCarthy, the manager of Achill Tourism, which partners with Mayo county council, said the landscape of Irish Journal was still the draw for German visitors. “We have walks and beaches and cliffs and mountains. That is what the German packages want; they want to see wilderness and sheep. Achill hasn’t developed in ways that other destinations have. We have managed to maintain our heritage and culture.”

Böll’s affection for the island seeped through the book but he did not conceal the grind of poverty or the heartache of emigration – nor the stubbornness of a local person who insisted that Adolf Hitler, as Britain’s enemy, did some good things, an encounter that the anti-Nazi writer likened to pulling teeth.

René has also explored a heartbreaking side of Achill – its cillíní, unconsecrated burial grounds of unbaptised and illegitimate children. He has found 25 on Achill and Currane peninsula, discoveries that he has channelled into his poetry and paintings. “The reactions were very moving in Ireland and in Germany,” he said. “Many were unaware of their existence.”

John McHugh, a member of the Achill Heinrich Böll Association, on the island. Photograph: Rory Carroll/The Guardian

Some Dublin critics accused Böll Sr of conjuring a folksy vision of Ireland, but the depiction of island life was largely accurate, said John McHugh, a member of the Achill Heinrich Böll Association.

He said the impact of Böll’s book in Germany should not be exaggerated. “Irish people think Germans love Ireland, but most don’t know where it is. The minority that do are really interested – they love the Dubliners, the Pogues and Böll’s book.”

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