German travel writer visited Clare on eve of WWI – Book translated

German travel writer visited Clare on eve of WWI – Book translated

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In 1913, the ‘Irish Question’ was hotly discussed in European capitals, because on the eve of the Great War the stability in the British Empire’s ‘back yard’ was considered of the utmost strategic importance.

The Berliner Tageblatt, the leading liberal paper in the German capital, dispatched its rising star reporter Richard Arnold Bermann (1883-1939) to Ireland to give their readers an insight into the culture and politics on this remote Atlantic island.

His book, Ireland [1913] which has been translated for the first time, is an entertaining yet informative, ironic yet sympathetic, personal yet factual account of his summer spent crisscrossing the island of Ireland. Bermann took a steamboat on Lough Derg in County Clare.

The book, published by Cork University Press, has been transplanted by Leesa Wheatley and Florian Krobb.

“The next morning we travel upstream on a steamboat. Near Killaloe, the Shannon forms a large lake called Lough Derg, a gentle body of water surrounded by green hills and even greener pastures. Sometimes there are ruins or a castle tower on an inlet – after all, you wouldn’t want to assume that there are no lords with their parks here. Or you see a church tower waving across the water – Irish national saints were founding churches everywhere, you see.

St Anmchadh from the ‘sacred island’ Iniscaltra even made it to Germany (where they probably couldn’t pronounce his name correctly) and became a hermit in Fulda. Legends, legends – it really is like on the Rhine, the only difference being that the countryside along the Rhine has very much awoken from its reverie, while the Shannon dreams on. The hill with a strange hole in the side is a prime example of this.

According to the Irish, one day the devil took a bite out of the mountain. But for the greedy guts his eyes were bigger than his belly and, just like the English years later, he bit off more than he could chew. And so he spat out the piece of rock in Cashel, County Tipperary, where it can still be found to this day”

The lake now turns back into a river and the hills have disappeared, as if the devil dined much more successfully here. It is simply a slow, winding, viridescent river between meadows full of reeds – and it goes on for hours on end. Sometimes a broad sail appears, sometimes you see cattle grazing along the banks. That’s it.

A few Irish fellow passengers hang around on deck merrily playing a game of patience. The aim of the game is to slot a cunningly twisted iron ring into another one. It’s terribly exciting. One of the men holds out the rings to me – I should try it too. I politely take the rings and twist them about over and over again. The Irish have a right laugh at me, for of course I cannot solve the puzzle, even if I wanted to.

When I, this strange foreigner, have spent enough time amusing the children of this land with my ineptitude, I hand back the toy. I can think of a much more suitable game of patience to play at this exact moment in time: to watch how the river winds and twists its way along the flat, reed-lined banks. So this is the heart of Ireland: water, vast cow pastures, everything as green as can be, and topped off with a cloudy sky. I must say that for the whole time I have been in Ireland, I have been very lucky with the weather, something that is unheard of in the country’s annals: it doesn’t rain that often, but it always seems as if it’s about to rain. The people live in an eternal damp mist, and it is particularly bad here on the river.

So, that’s what Ireland looks like when you have passed by the picturesque spots, the repositories of legend, the ruins. Green solitude for the cattle. I again look in vain for fields full of crops – where are they? A sullen, dreary air of melancholy hangs in the air. The heart of Ireland beats rather listlessly.

In the 110 years since, Bermann’s vivid prose and astute observation have lost nothing of their charm. But most notably, Bermann has a gift for anecdotes and capturing an essence of the Irish character. The book is evidently a serious historical and political source, unique because it marks one of the last outsider’s views of a situation that, with the outbreak of the Great War a year later and imminent Irish independence, was to undergo a radical upheaval. But it would also make for intriguing reading when touring the country today because the author notices details and opens up historical and folkloristic contexts, offers assessments and provides insights that have not lost their resonance.

*Ireland [1913] is published by Cork University Press

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