The first time I lived out of Ireland I went to Freiburg for five months from January to May 1976. There are two places of that name, Freiburg (or rather Fribourg) in Switzerland, and my destination that year, Freiburg im Breisgau, in south-west Germany; they are quite close to each other. My partner at the time, a university lecturer, had a sabbatical on one of the new Council of Europe Fellowships to the Max Planck Institute; while I took six months unpaid leave from school teaching. I was twenty-four. The house we owned had been let to the German assistant at the university. Effectively it was a people swap: she came to Northern Ireland, while we went to Germany. We drove from North Antrim taking the ferry from Larne to Stranraer; then all the way through England spending our first overnight in the West Midlands. I remember the underpasses of Birmingham City Centre, on a road which brought us to a friend’s apartment in Moseley village. I would return to live in Moseley eight years later, and marry a man whose relatives distinguished themselves as members of the White Rose; the protest group of anti-Nazi students who were executed for leafleting Munich university during the Third Reich. But on that morning in 1976 leaving Birmingham, the road to Europe was open.
We stopped next in London to get a specialist service at the MG garage on the Great West Road. When I worked in London in the nineties, on my way to Ealing studios, I used to pass that place: the garage had long gone but the logo remained, imprinted on the brickwork. We spent the second overnight staying with my relatives in Elstree. On the third morning on the road, we must have got the ferry from Dover to Ostend and travelled through Belgium crossing the border at Aachen into West Germany. I only remember the Aachen border because at first attempt, I mistakenly directed us on the road to Holland, and had to come back. Despite passing my driving test eighteen months earlier, I did not share the driving. I was the navigator. The car, a sleek blue sports MGB GT, with overdrive, was deemed more likely to drive me. Behind our double seats were a black trunk and two sets of skis. My partner was a keen skier and determined to share his enthusiasm. By early afternoon as I remember we were flying through wintery autobahns heading south to Baden Württemberg. We left the motorway behind at Stuttgart and drove to Freiburg arriving in the dark.
We had to locate the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Law. The first surprise was the resemblance of Gothic script to the Irish I had been taught to write at school; I could read the street names. The second surprise was that everyone we stopped to ask spoke American; and the third, that the institute was open, it was after seven thirty in the evening.
It was in the old part of town with trams running uphill and many turreted towers at the side of the grand houses and old apartment blocks. Having registered our arrival, we drove off to find the accommodation which was in an area called Sundgauallee. By a man-made lake in a small park, a two-storey modern building, the residence, housed many English speakers: American, Canadian and Vietnamese.
Our immediate neighbour, a Canadian chemist, took us out to find something to eat at the railway station on that first night. We had pizza served on wooden boards and wine in glasses with stems of green or brown rings, indicating Hock or Riesling. The chemist, obsessed with Pierre Trudeau, introduced us to Canadian politics, via an illustrated cartoon book: Frog Fables and Beaver Tales. Trudeau was depicted as a slim tall frog with a rose in his teeth trying to woo the beavers, who were not slim and had a lot of hair. We did not see much of our neighbour; he worked in the labs at night and slept during the day, inspiring the first phrase of German I learnt from the woman who serviced our rooms: Er schläft. The room we lived in for five months resembled an office; with four club chairs, a large desk, bookcases, a coffee table, and a mattress on the floor in an alcove. Everything was chrome and black leather. But what really impressed me was the central heating, and the double glazing. We still had a Superser and storage heaters in North Antrim.
We shared a kitchen which only the Vietnamese couple seemed to use. The woman prepared sumptuous feasts for two people. While I understood the absorption in the preparation of food was one of the benefits of peace, I could not understand how they managed to eat so much when they were both so slim and small-framed. As for ourselves, we lived like students.
There was a tv lounge, which no-one in the building used but me. In the afternoon I watched Jack Nicholson speaking German in Five Easy Pieces; Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were in the German cinemas; but they were not subtitled, they were lip synced to German voices. I also watched a black-and-white film called Jacob the Liar, which did have subtitles, and I found myself plunged into the debate in modern Germany about whether Jacob, the storyteller on the train, was right to distract the children from the real nature of their fate as they travelled towards Auschwitz or whether he was morally complicit in not preparing them for reality. I spent a lot of time thinking in that empty tv lounge because, at first, I was alone during the day.
Mornings I walked to the bakery and bought Brötchen with poppy seeds; we would meet at the Mensa for lunch, which became our main meal of the day. The university canteen was subsidised and particularly good. The German colleagues were very hospitable to their visitors. So we had invites to people’s apartments for supper, or we all went out to a Weinstube, where the fare seemed wines and cheese. When we enquired about the hours at the office, they told us, seven to seven. And no one left the building before the professor went home. And everybody, the secretaries included, went for coffee and Kuchen at five. (I do not know how I stayed skinny in Germany, because I ate an awful lot of cake. At the same time I walked everywhere.)
Since I didn’t have a job, I was the person who shopped. My first visit to the supermarket was a great shock. There were wheels of cheese stacked high (and piled against the windows); next to whole sides of smoked ham; and every kind of sausage, wurst, salamis. And I foolishly wondered how they would manage to sell it all before the end of the day; or before it went off. The store was slammed with produce. Such as I have never seen before or since.
The only people who spoke German to us were the service people, shopkeepers and waitresses mainly. Everyone at the Institute spoke impeccable English and waved away any attempt on our part to string a sentence together. I took myself off to a German language class at the Rathaus for Turkish Arbeiter (workers). This was challenging as it was conducted in German and Turkish. But unlike a course at the Goethe Institute it was affordable.
And once I did establish a work routine, I made my way to the city library, to find a place for myself. It was a glass and polished wood interior; the building discreetly wedged in behind the medieval arches of the old town centre. I wanted to be a writer; perhaps to write a novel. But first I knew I had to make sense of what had brought me there. I did not observe Germany, on a daily basis, I wrote about the previous year and a half of my life. From when the death treats began. Because in this half medieval, late Gothic, half modern, cloistered university town, on the lower slopes of the Black Forest, I felt safe to do so.
Freiburg sits on a border with the Alsace between the Vosges Mountains to the east of Strasbourg and the Black Forest mountains to the west of the city. The Rhine is the natural border between Germany and France, while the Swiss city of Basel is twenty minutes on the autobahn to the south. On Sunday evenings, we would drive to the railway station in Basel to change money and go to the cinema, where films were left in their original soundtrack and subtitled. Strasbourg was further away, and we had to drive through Colmar, which was the nearest French border crossing, ten minutes from our apartment. And Strasbourg, I came to understand in retrospect, was why we were there: it was the home of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. Eighteen months before I set out on this journey to Freiburg, an RUC man stood in our cottage with an anonymous letter threatening my life. The letter was addressed to my father in Belfast but postmarked Manchester; he passed it on to the police. He might have attracted attention on his own behalf; a founding member of the SDLP, he was Minister for Health in the first power-sharing executive the state of Northern Ireland had ever known. But I had my own notoriety because of an early involvement in student street politics; there was more than one Devlin among the students. I felt the death threat was serious, not a hoax; someone had gone to the trouble of travelling to Manchester to post it to my father with a warning. The policeman was very sympathetic; we were standing in our living room with plastic sheeting covering the back wall; we were renovating. He said: It’s a pity, you have a lovely spot here.
When I was making that journey through England what I didn’t know and wouldn’t until after the thirty-year rule was lifted from the National Archive in Dublin: in 1976 the high command of the UDA and UVF in England, the British Loyalist Council, was based in Manchester. Several cases had been brought by the English police before the Courts, under Barbara Castle’s direction. In other words it was not North Antrim loyalists or my neighbours who had sent me a death threat. They might have simply sent it to my address anyway. What was significant was the gathering up of arms by English Loyalists for when the British Army withdrew. An arms route from Canada to Southampton docks had been identified.
In January 1976, on the very days I was travelling, the Grand Orange Lodge of England announced that the organisation had drawn up plans to evacuate Ulster Protestants in the event of Civil War. Civil War warnings were being reported in the Andersonstown News in November 1975, and by Rev. Desmond Wilson, who told RTÉ at the same moment: “The only way to avoid a civil war was to enter into communication with the UDA and others like them.”
I had come from a trade-unionist (my father) young socialist (me) background; anti-war and pro-civil rights, more influenced by America than Europe, it seemed. The point about this moment in the seventies was the growing awareness that we were facing the wrong direction. I was not the only one of my generation to take the road through Europe that year. Everything that was going to come into being was there that winter shading into spring in Freiburg.
My father’s disappointment in me was tangible. He had wanted me to be a lawyer; I had studied English literature. My degree had left me with a dislike of literary theory and a great desire to be a writer; which was probably the intention of my teachers. At the same time, I was living among “the critical criminologists” according to Mike Chinoy in Are You With Me?, his recent book on Kevin Boyle and the group around him; like my then partner, a lecturer in criminology who also believed that social conditions made criminals. Kevin Boyle found a way out of the ideological impasse of identity politics and embraced human rights law; appealing for change via the European Court of Human Rights as a higher court of appeal, against discrimination in the country we lived in. Boyle had been one of the student leaders, along with Michael Farrell whom he would influence, to take the route to Strasbourg out of the old binary politics. An influence apparent on Bernadette Devlin’s later advocacy of migrant workers. It was Farrell who suggested to Mike Chinoy that law not republicanism was Kevin Boyle’s guiding light.
But there were other escapees, other travellers: Mike Hall, also from Belfast, one of the more rank-and-file members of the student movement, has published Remembering the Hippie Trail, his own account of how he, newly married to a Catholic, spent months in 1976 sleeping out with hundreds of others, in the Vondel Park in Amsterdam while gathering the funds to travel on to Greece; then the gateway to Asia.
I thought of myself as a free spirit, but I wasn’t a hippie or even an anarchist; the magic bus wasn’t for me. I didn’t even like camping, I didn’t yet know I was an Irish European, that awareness was slow to dawn. I was incredibly naive; I had wanted to change the world before I knew how it operated. The rising tide of the Civil Rights Movement had lifted my father from the flour mill into parliament.
It was the rising tide of sixties radicalism. And the young people who were around us in Freiburg had not gone to Vietnam, but had been able to come to a European university instead. So it felt like we were all on the same privileged page.
I wasn’t a drop-out; I had distanced myself from my early friendships because I felt responsible for the violence that the student movement, I believed, provoked. After graduation, I had taken a job in a Protestant school to teach English, hiding my true affiliation.
The notes I made in the library in Freiburg in the winter of ‘76 I would use as a source for a screenplay for Danny Boyle, ten years on; about that experience.
While outside on the streets of Freiburg in front of C&A the camera I am pointing captures for later use the unprocessed scene passing before my eyes. It is as if what is going on in my mind from the past is blocking my view of the present so that I can only hold the external world in snaps. The eye sees more than the heart knows, is what Blake tells us.
I am looking at a passing parade of jesters, birds, bears, ravens, cloth costumes with bells and wooden face masks; a clown waves at the camera. This is the pre-Lenten Fasnacht. They are the local guilds or lodges representing Swabian folklore. Its roots are medieval not Romantic. It celebrates the enjoyment of Fasnacht before the deprivation of Lent. The institute secretary tells me at coffee about it; and offers to take us to the four a.m. Fasnacht or Fasmorgen in Basel. The kingdom of the devil versus the kingdom of god. An opportunity to criticise the authority of the church; it is Protestant. What made me think I was escaping religion in Europe? The characters are fools, witches, and alte Vettel (men in women’s clothes) and the lodges were totem animals, bears, wolves, ravens and other birds; we would meet these characters sitting in groups, foursomes usually, including the Virgin (not Mary) and the Hunter, in the inns or biergartensin Freiburg, throughout that short and vivid winter. We were living in southern Germany, the Alsace, the Vorarlberg, and Switzerland, at the meeting point of this tradition. We travelled to Basel in the pitch dark to meet our guide sitting out in the street café when the lights went out waiting for the start of the lantern-lit parade. The streets were steep and cobbled. The first sound of pipes coming out of the darkness threw me into the panic I felt lying awake at night listening for the violence which always seemed to seek me. The threats the policeman read out; the slow tread of a police Land Rover would take two tours past our cottage to give us protection; I had not slept for about a year. Until the dawn chorus threw the flower patterns on the bedroom curtains; I had stayed alive another night. I wished I had had the courage to sleep through those nights, but I fled. As I did at four a.m. in Basel. Instead of being safe I felt threatened by the music. My partner explained I was ill.
The young Germans had a penchant for theatricals; about a month after that, meeting at the student Mensa with an American friend from the apartment, and his German girlfriend, to plan a walk in the Black Forest, a group of students walked towards the refectory table next to us and sat down. They wore black gowns and had heavily made up white faces. They looked like a tragic chorus. I asked if they were drama students. But the others explained they were protesters, defending old buildings against the developers. The Berufsverbot was the reason they dressed up.
Beruf is ‘calling’ or ‘vocation’, and Verbot means ‘ban’. Any student caught protesting would be denied a teaching or civil service job on graduation. The German students were not only theatrical but politically sophisticated. Our lawyer friends at the Institute were insistent that to protest you wore masks; or painted your face; or you did not protest at all.
Here is a story: one day in the summer of 1973, July, I was crossing Sloane square with a friend who had been to Trinity College with Max Stafford-Clarke, the artistic director of the Royal Court, and we had tickets for the matinée. There were some Morris dancers in the square, a very English setting. But another little troupe is galvanising our attention, they are presenting as a group of travelling players. A woman in very long hair and a very short skirt, among the actors, was enticing a male member of the public to follow her into the dark auditorium, promising a more contemporary afternoon than that held out by the Morris dancers. In the theatre, we soon found ourselves on the balcony watching a play unfold in which a group of terrorists have kidnapped a cabinet minister. What struck me was the stance of the writer: it was completely non-judgemental of the ethics of people in the room on stage.
Magnificence by Howard Brenton was a play about the Angry Brigade, which in 1973 was obsessing a generation of English student protestors. I did not want to be in the same room as the characters on stage. The thing I could not think about was the public knowledge that the Price sisters had attempted to bomb the Old Bailey in March, a few short months before my visit to the Royal Court. They were at my school, but I did not get to know them until they turned up at the student movement meetings.
It would take me twelve years to return to that theatre with a play confronting the subject matter of personal and political violence, involving the lives of three truculent women from West Belfast; the subject of terrorism which haunted my own generation , as much as the generation of students in Freiburg that day in the Mensa was haunted by the spectre of Baader-Meinhof.
I would use the theatre to examine what I could not contemplate. It was what I had displaced, instead of protesting in the streets.
The young Germans were combining a protest and theatrical tradition which they could draw on, in much the same way that the XR movement draws on Brazil’s carnival to present ‘arrestables’ for their protests. What I was witnessing in Freiburg in the student Mensa, highly camouflaged in make-up and black clothes, was the young, as yet unnamed Green movement, which the city became so successful in nurturing from the remnants of the anti-war, anti-nuclear protests. It was my first encounter with the environmentalists.
It would put in context Margaretta D’Arcy’s phone call to me when Ourselves Alone opened at the Royal Court. I had a baby on my hip and the phone at my ear: Why aren’t you at the Yellow Gate?, she asked.
Where is that?
At Greenham Common.
I’m breast feeding.
You’re a Chinese woman with bound feet!
What she meant to say is this: the theatre is not in the theatre anymore, it is at the Yellow Gate.
I understood this from a book she wrote, called Loose Theatre. As I now understand her concept in 2006 when she protested the use of Shannon airport as a base for refuelling American war planes. My own experience, and that of the young Germans I was witnessing, warned of the need for protection; if one were not to remain silent; recognising the collusions of silence.
The flaw with Loose Theatre as I understand it is two-fold: A play has to present an opposition, an unbearable tension, even if it is built into a monologue. But importantly the theatre is protection, that is why its entrances and exits are so closely guarded. Protection is not just dressing up, disguise. It allows you the space to think about something unthinkable. It allows you to bear the intensity of a conflict. I stopped being an activist because I thought the marches were too dangerous; the point is not to go to prison.
Fintan O’Toole once drew from Olwen Fouéré this observation: “Contrary to popular opinion actors don’t need a play to practice the art of theatre, it is a way of life.“ His question about her father is the most pertinent for me: “what is it like to work in the shadow of great political passions?” It is a question he could ask of my whole generation. What is it like when great political passions are themselves a prison?
The trip to Salzburg in 1976 was the outer limit of our European journey, via Innsbruck, where the Winter Olympics were being staged. My father was attending the Salzburg Seminar at Schloss Leopoldskron, Max Reinhardt’s old house at the lake. It had been used as the setting for the schloss in The Sound of Music. Maurice Hayes, the civil servant liaising between Harold Wilson and the power-sharing executive, had recommended him for the residency. This anti-military moment in the wake of the Vietnam War, keeping the peace in Europe, with human rights in foreign policy and Jimmy Carter on his way to the Presidency, was the new zeitgeist.
After Freiburg, we knew we were not returning to live in North Antrim, and my father was looking for his next political step. That evening we joined him, to dine at round tables, each with a dozen or more seminar participants, from Poland, Spain, Romania, among the American hosts. I seem to remember wandering through marble halls and arriving under the gaze of Mozart’s archbishop.
My father shared a high-ceilinged room with a French man whose skis stood in the corner. When we were introduced, we asked where it was good to ski nearby. Next day we took Paddy with us for a short trip to the icy slopes. About my ability to ski he was frankly sceptical. We put him in a chairlift while we skied down and waited. I have a memory of him dangling out in a small swing chair over the mountain, snow in patches, eyes firmly shut. It was then he told me he was afraid of heights. Until that moment I thought he was afraid of absolutely nothing.
Later at the schloss I found some Joyce scholars sitting on eighteenth-century furniture and I made my own pitch for Joyce as a Cubist; Paddy left me and went off in search of other company. The old socialist was at home. He had his own group. He virulently resisted any attempt to browbeat him into accepting the wisdom of conservatism, from the more right-wing think-tank members of the seminar. Like some international global religion he found Labour wherever he went; wandering around Mozart’s birthplace in his leather jacket and side burns, extolling the virtues of the Austrian Labour party.
Warst du in Freiburg? A friend recently asked.
The reality for me was I didn’t have any official purpose there; until I returned to Germany, in 1987, to work at the Schauspielhaus in Hamburg on my first stage play with Peter Palitzsch; who had been trained by Brecht at the Berliner Ensemble. I have always felt I had an audience in Germany that understood the themes of my work, east and west, north and south, but it was something around the issues examining the impact of silence on the people who didn’t kill anybody. The generation that inherits the silence. I did not lose theatre in Freiburg, I found it. And the sound through the open stone gullies between the pavements and the street was of growing and receding thaw.