Europe in Ireland: an introductory essay
“Europe in Ireland” offers over forty contributions, touching upon many aspects of the topic, and assuming many different forms. Some captured their impression of Europe in a poem (Leontia Flynn and Doireann Ní Ghríofa) or in a sequence of poems (Frank McGuinness and Medbh McGuckian). Some focused on art, like Rita Duffy: Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe has been firmly lodged in her head ever since she first saw it: to a girl who grew up in the thick of the Troubles it showed that there was a wider world than Belfast. Gabriel Rosenstock wrote haikus as an accompaniment to the photos of Roman Vishniac, while John Banville focuses on two striking paintings by Piero della Francesca and Rosso Fiorentino as he visits his beloved Italy. Some travelled extensively over many years, such as Theo Dorgan, Christodoulos Makris, Helena Nolan, Roisín O’Donnell, Rosemary Jenkinson and Colm Tóibín; others gather the world in their homes, like Wendy Erskine whose kitchen contains a beguiling Dutch art collection, albeit in mundane forms; or Jessica Traynor, who finds many links between the Dublin suburb of Ballybough and Europe. Others again settled abroad, like Tomás Mac Síomóin who loves his home in Cadiz while Philip Ó Ceallaigh observes the world from Bucharest.
The permutations of Brexit negotiations get pride of place in Lia Mills’ diary as she lived in England during the process; these events likewise heavily affect Lucy Caldwell. Mia Gallagher, in her “Letter to Europe”, is the only writer to view Europe through a COVID lens. Links between Northern Ireland and Europe are prominent in the contributions by Neil Hegarty and Rosemary Jenkinson as well as in the hilarious fiction of Jan Carson.
All the authors have one common theme: the necessity of familiarizing themselves with a range of European lifestyles. Each writer (or indeed, the characters in their stories) had her/his own introduction to Europe: a first trip to Lourdes, a school excursion, an au pair experience, a period of teaching abroad or peregrinations in search of a different, more authentic life. All of the participants came away fundamentally changed by their early experience of Europe, with Mary O’Donnell’s description of the enhancing aspects of belonging to Europe as the most encompassing:
I have felt the difference in my life that being part of Europe has made, both legislatively and economically and in terms of a broadening of attitudes. The key to Europe, I believe, is respect for difference.
And, surprisingly, most contributors would subscribe to the way the Wexford bishop cited by Colm Tóibín saw the EU in the late ‘70s: “Europe was not about money, as most Irish politicians and journalists seemed to be suggesting. Europe, in his opinion, was about culture.”
This European culture seeping into Ireland since the 1970s brought huge changes, and they were especially felt by Irish women. While Dee Kinahan wrote a dramatic scene highlighting the inhuman behaviour of “the Catholic Caliphate in Ireland” in the 1940s towards unwed mothers, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s response has more concretely autobiographical origins: She had to leave Ireland to be able to marry, went to live for years in Holland and Turkey, and could only come back to Ireland thanks to a grant from the Irish Arts Council in 1980, to find “a new country [….] I still think that joining the EU was the best of all things for Ireland. It made us equal to the great nations of Europe and yet at home with ourselves”.
Danielle McLaughlin depicts the oppressiveness of the marriage bar and describes ingenious ploys used by a few women to circumvent it; but the process of achieving equality for women was only properly set in motion by the EU: “it was the requirements of EU membership that dragged Ireland, kicking and screaming, closer to achieving such rights”. Éilís Ní Dhuibhne learned in Denmark in the late 1970s how the state supported child care and “that abortion was not something to be hidden”; she observes that Ireland only caught up on Denmark by legalizing abortion in 2018 but that child-minding facilities are still minimal. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s contribution opens a completely different vista when she traces the complex – and often overlooked – relationships between Irish nuns and the continent. Throughout the centuries they looked after Irish compatriots in their European convents while offering refuge to their European co-sisters in Ireland, but they also upheld an aesthetic of their own which inspired the communities around them.
In these contributions people criss-cross Europe in search of freedom and a widening of the mind: Theo Dorgan’s travels took him all over Europe; Evgeny Shtorn leaves his home in central Asia, studies in St Petersburg, stays for a while in the Basque country and, after eighteen months under Direct Provision in Ireland, becomes an active defender of people seeking international protection and LGBT rights in Ireland. Éilís Ní Dhuibhne works in France and Germany, studies in Denmark and marries in Sweden, then finds herself introduced to Bulgaria by her son and his wife, thus encompassing the richest and the poorest members of the EU in her family. Of course Europe is also enriching because of the literary vistas it opens up. Ní Dhuibhne is fascinated by Bulgarian writers like Georgi Gospodinov, while Alan McMonagle is captivated by Czech and Russian novelists, including Bohumil Hrabal and Sergei Dovlatov.
At the core of all these intense exchanges is, of course, language. Yet Bernie McGill notices that foreign language learning is no longer compulsory in Northern Ireland for pupils aged fourteen and above; since 2010 the study of languages at GCSE level has declined, the learning of French dropped by 41% and German by 18%. McGill, growing up in rural Northern Ireland and bombarded with English and American culture and discourse, remembers “thinking that English was the default language for the earth”, but at least at school she learned that it was only one of many thousands of world languages. Later, she and many people of her generation left good jobs to work for a year abroad, finding that living “your everyday life through a language that is not your own” is an excellent exercise in empathy. When Ní Dhuibhne learns Scandinavian languages and later Bulgarian, she stresses that you do not so much need talent for this as confidence, which seems stronger in children who grew up bilingual. This is a fact that is echoed by other Irish-speaking contributors. Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh raises the problem minority languages in Europe share, such as Galician, Sardinian, Occitan, Basque and Catalan. Though some people feel strongly about these languages they rarely study them it as they seem secondary and less important. Ní Ghearbuigh notes France’s reluctance to ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, but she is grateful that Gaelic has been acknowledged as an official European language (though it will only fully acquire this status next year  at the end of the derogation period).
Living in another culture brings about a thorough kind of bodily translation, as Jan Carson’s narrator experiences in Paris. Colm Tóibín, Bernie McGill, and Roisín O’Donnell draw out the effect of different kinds of sport, hospitality, food and drink, rituals, and miracles that are at once familiar yet different. To Anne Devlin, the Basler Fasnacht with its eerie nightly parades reawakens the traumas incurred the previous year as she got death threats in her Northern Irish home. Later, different forms of German student protests and theatrical performances reveal new forms of public debate to her which will inspire her own concept of political theatre which, unlike “loose theatre”, offers a sanctuary for deep analysis. European countries surprise young Irish travellers with their debating culture, such as the lively student councils in secondary schools in Germany which delighted Mary O’Donnell in the 1970s; Tóibín is electrified by the post-Franco exchanges in Barcelona, Philip Ó Ceallaigh by the complexities of dealing with the past in Romania. Additionally, foreign languages grow on visitors: Sinéad Morrissey notices that “my diary entries flipped over to German” and feels how “without the lifebelt of translation [she] could swim”. For Glenn Patterson the first trip from Belfast to Paris was arduous, both psychologically and physically: “First trip for me, first trip for anyone in my family. […] Four train journeys, two sea crossings, seventeen hours”. Yet he was keen to be submerged in a new culture: “I have become, in effect, a francophone sleeper”. Yet another important experience is the fact that empathy is always limited, as Pat Boran observes: “here is also much to be learned from not understanding, from being a little out of one’s depth, from learning to pay attention to atmosphere and texture and nuance as well as meaning”. Conversely, from working with the translators of her novels Lisa McInerney notes: “It is from learning other languages all bold notions come,” and she explains how translation and interpretation remain a radical act.
In these texts many Irish people stand out for their radical acts, even to the extent of a wholesale uprooting. William Wall observes how Irish monks left their green knoll to found monasteries throughout Europe between the sixth and eighth century; in the seventeenth century some of the aristocracy of the North resettled in Europe and hedge schoolmasters came to train on the continent. Unique military men, like Field Marshal Alejandro O’Reilly became Capitan General of Andalucía (1780-1786) and Governor General of Cádiz were obviously highly integrated. The Irish señor Garvey changed his name in order to have a more marketable name with Harvey’s Bristol Cream sherry; other Irish men from Cadiz moved to South America, where Bernardo O’Higgins became the father of the liberator – and subsequently dictator – of Chile. Since the Famine people from Ireland have moved mainly to English-speaking countries. In the twentieth century Tóibín sees Bloody Sunday as a milestone determining whether the Republic of Ireland would choose protest or peace, anger with one neighbour or a debate in a bigger European context.
The EU is a relatively loose political framework. As a result, it neither weighs strongly on its constituent members nor does it play a major international role on the levels of the US or China. All of the contributors to Kaleidoscope 2 love Europe’s multiculturality but they struggle with its borders, especially the external ones. Evgeny Shtorn, Roisín O’Donnell, Frank McGuinness, Gabriel Rosenstock and many others are ashamed of Fortress Europe and of Ireland’s approach to refugees, especially that the latter as “a nation of emigrants” devised “the abhorrent system of Direct Provision” which O’Donnell compares to “an indefinite lockdown”. Mary O’Donnell holds up the alternative example of Merkel’s Germany which took in over one million refugees; other contributors plead for a Europe that should share the burden of migrants and refugees. But internal borders still pose a problem as countries are reluctant or refuse to subscribe to joint policies on immigration. Yet borders are only “conceptual affectations, and more permeable than we allow ourselves to think,” Lisa McInerney maintains, and Rita Duffy illustrates the porousness of borders in her art. Due to his nomadic life spent in different European countries Christodoulos Makris has “grown deeply mistrustful of the placement of national labels on people” and notices that the younger generations too seem to feel “a composite of many elements, national and other, the accumulation of your ongoing presences and actions, many of which are […] flexible and changeable”.
So what about the future? Brexit has now been effected but continues to impact negatively on Irish affairs. Yet, the international outlook of the UK was once attractive to many. Makris, who grew up in Nicosia and thus belonged to the Commonwealth, enjoyed the chances this situation offered him to work and pursue an existence in Britain. As a result, he has a great affinity with the country, and much of his network is situated there, as it is for several Irish authors. By contrast, others such as Neil Hegarty, Lucy Caldwell, and Lia Mills complain about the “willful ignorance” of the English about Northern Ireland, but maybe also about the Republic. The end of the free exchange of people and goods now turns out to be a huge disadvantage to British citizens as well as to everyone outside the UK who enjoyed a lively interaction with its institutions and individuals. Yet this situation also offers new possibilities to Ireland.
Tóibín feels excited about the way Ireland has globalized, citing the example of Irish engineers in Barcelona who talk in Spanish to Spanish computer experts from Barcelona living in the West of Ireland. This glimpse of a polyglot Ireland contrasts sharply with William Wall’s observation that “proficiency in European languages is an issue of great concern to industry and business”: the only way in which Ireland can counteract its position on the outer rim of the continent” and avoid “becoming the outsiders in what is largely a multilingual club” is to teach foreign languages from a young age. Since Brexit only 1.5% (some sources say only 1%) of the 450 million EU citizens have English as their mother tongue, which means that the other European languages will have a more important role to play. Therefore, William Wall suggests taking on board Michael Cronin’s observation: “Literary translation brings the world to Ireland and Ireland to the world and we need this worldly conversation more than ever.” Martina Devlin and Lisa McInerney note that Irish authors are much appreciated in Europe, but Wall declares that “our island [needs] to reciprocate in kind” and “introduce European languages and authors in the curriculum”.
Mary O’Donnell concludes that “the key to Europe, I believe, is respect for difference” and this is nicely illustrated by Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh’s experience in France where “no one ever asked me what my name was in English”. As Lucy Caldwell says repeatedly, strength lies in “being various”. In this spirit, Shtorn may be right when he observes that “those who I met in direct provision […] are the future, the love, the joy, and the hope of Europe. Europe is a place where diversity meets freedom”. Danielle McLaughlin is happy that her fifteen-year-old daughter “was taking part in the European Youth Parliament,” joining more than 30,000 young people in 40 countries across Europe to debate telemedicine, mental health services for young people and many other topics. Collectively, these authors find that it is up to Irish people to decide whether they remain “on the other side of Britain,” or the hub of the club, choosing to be central to the European Union in all its diversity and become deliberate, active and more conscious contributors to the cultural kaleidoscope of Europe as well as its political structure, the European Union.