Europe, My Continent
It has sometimes crossed my mind that Ireland has been comfortable as a member of the European Union because for centuries we have been well accustomed to close and positive relationships with various European countries, thanks to the religious and political situation in Ireland – a largely Catholic country ruled by Protestant England. In political and religious wars Ireland looked to Spain and France for assistance. Religious leadership came from Rome. During the period when Catholicism was repressed in Ireland, young men went to ‘Irish colleges’ in Leuven, Salamanca, Paris, and other European cities for the education which was unavailable to Catholics in Ireland. Orders of monks, priests, and nuns, such a key part of Irish life well into the twentieth century, were frequently international, in a European sense.
Doubtlessly these connections probably had little direct impact on life for the majority of Irish people, who seldom travelled outside their own immediate neighbourhood. Connections with foreign countries existed thanks to emigration, especially from the nineteenth century until today. But Irish emigrants went to the United States, Great Britain, and Australia, the Anglophone world, rather than to continental Europe. Nevertheless the sentimental regard for some continental countries was expressed in songs and poems. Most schoolchildren in my day were familiar with lines such as “Ní spárálfar fíon Spáinneach ar mo Róisín Dubh” (“Spanish wine will not be spared in the cause of Dark Rosaleen”, that is, the Spaniards are on our side). I would not underestimate the power of song and poetry in encouraging moves which were ostensibly driven by hard-headed economic thinking. Ireland has trusted Europe for centuries. A referendum to amend the Irish constitution and allow us to join the European Union was won by a c. 83% majority in 1972 – an enormous victory for the pro-EU campaign. Membership of the European Union has been extremely beneficial to Ireland, economically and sociologically. We are comfortable with membership. I feel European, and I think this sense of community with the continent is shared by many.
I come from Irish peasant stock. My parents’ siblings had emigrated from Irish countryside places to England and the US, and they migrated to Dublin. As a child I never travelled abroad. That was not unusual in the 1960s, especially for poorer families, which mine was. Some of my classmates in school went on holiday exchanges to Germany or France to practise their language skills. I envied them but there was no question of my being able to go. When I was an undergraduate, it was fashionable for students to spend the summer working in the United States – as it still is. But somehow I was always more interested in going to some European country – partly, I think, because I found it interesting that languages other than English were spoken there. I wasn’t brilliant at languages, but I wasn’t afraid of them, probably thanks to my bi-lingualism in Irish and English. The first time I went to a European country was in September 1974 when, as a way of celebrating the end of the BA degree exams, held then early September, I and a few of my classmates from UCD went to the Beaujolais district in France to pick grapes. That’s how poor we were! A year later, half way through the M.Phil. in Medieval Studies which I was taking in UCD, I went to the Frisian Islands, for the long summer holidays, to work in a café there, washing dishes, in order to learn German. Which I did – I found that I could ‘pick up’ the language rather quickly, when I was in a place where it was spoken. My employers and workmates in that café on the island of Föhr were very good about speaking German to me, painfully slowly at first, even though they might have liked to practise their English.
I don’t think I quite understood exactly where Föhr was. Of course I knew where it was on the map, and realised how far north in Germany it was – much too far to get there in one day on the train from Düsseldorf, where the Aer Lingus flights from Dublin landed back then (no flights to Hamburg, for instance). What I didn’t realise was that I was in Schleswig-Holstein, in one of the most interesting and contested borderlands of Europe. I didn’t realise that I was almost in Denmark, and as close to Copenhagen as to Berlin or Bonn or Düsseldorf.
And the next island I found myself on was a Danish island, the island of Zealand – that is, Copenhagen. In 1978 I was awarded a scholarship which allowed me to spend an academic year in Denmark, carrying out research on my doctoral thesis. I also wanted to learn a Scandinavian language. I am not sure if the Danish scholarship had anything to do with the EU, as such. But it was a European project. In 1978, freedom to travel and work within the EU was not automatic. Even as a scholarship holder, I had to register with the aliens’ office, and promise not to remain in Denmark once my scholarship period was over.
My year in Denmark was one of the best and most important years in my life. I remember, when I was deliberating on whether or not to go, which involved resigning from quite a good job, one of my professors in UCD, Proinsias MacCana, advised, “You should go. Later you’ll settle down and it won’t be so easy to do these things.” I couldn’t envisage being so ‘settled down’ that it would be impossible to take off for a year, but of course he was absolutely right. Anyway, I applied for leave of absence from my permanent job in the National Library. I didn’t get it, since I had only been working there for a year, so I resigned. My boss said, “But what about your career? Pension?” He stared out the window. “I suppose you don’t worry about these things, at your age.” He was right. (Three or four years later, a vacancy came up in the National Library and I applied, went through the whole interview process etc. again, and, to my surprise, was re-instated. I always wondered if the director, still the same, felt guilty for not giving me the leave of absence? Anyway it all worked out.)
A year abroad was much more exotic then than it is now. Countries like Denmark and Germany and Italy seemed really foreign. Far away and exciting! Denmark in 1978 was very different from Ireland, culturally, sociologically, ideologically. Economically. I lived in a student home, a Kollegium, which seemed to me the height of luxury. We would not have student homes for decades to come in Ireland. In Danmarks Internationale Kollegium, a new and beautifully designed student residency in the suburb of Albertslund, I had my own room, my own bathroom, a shared kitchen and TV room. Privacy and the companionship of all the students in my block, if I wanted it. I travelled in and out of Copenhagen on the electric train – something we did not have in Dublin then either (the Dart arrived in the late eighties). The food was different from Irish food and I took to it like a duck to water. Leverpostej, yoghurt in litre cartons, rye bread. Real coffee. All sorts of things which have been easily available in Ireland now for years and which we take for granted, but which were rare and expensive, here, back then. It seemed to me – it was a fact – that most food had a stronger, better, taste than at home, where things were still rather bland, in the kitchen. I loved Strøget, the pedestrian street in central Copenhagen – buses and cars still went up and down Grafton Street in Dublin. The idea of busy streets reserved for walkers was extraordinary, and beautiful. Of course I did not know Danish, at first, but I devoted myself whole-heartedly to learning it, going to classes almost daily, and attending lectures in the university. At the beginning, I sat through lectures without understanding a word of them. But within a few months I was fluent. Total immersion – and hard study – worked. As in the café in Germany, my companions in the Kollegium and classmates in the University co-operated totally when I asked them to speak Danish to me, and not English (which most of them could speak very well).
I read in the Royal Library in Copenhagen. I was writing my thesis on an international folktale, and as a result of my language learning was able to read the Scandinavian versions in the original. But although research was the ostensible purpose of my visit, the reason for the scholarship, I learned much more during that year. The language – a gateway to three languages, Swedish and Norwegian as well as Danish – was also a gateway to other literatures. I found the classic Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian writers – Karen Blixen (the first story I read was Babette’s Feast), Selma Lagerlöf, Knut Hamsun, and so on. Since I made friends with young Danish people I was introduced also to the contemporary Danish writers, Elsa Gress. Tove Ditlevsen. A female poet, whose name I forget, was a big hit that year. She wrote very down to earth personal poems, a revelation to me. The classics would of course have been available in translation to English, but would I have read them, ever, if I had not gone to Denmark? No. There was, at that time (and at this time) not much of a tradition of reading writers in translation in Ireland. When Irish writers referred to European writers, they were usually those who had flourished a hundred years ago. Balzac. Tolstoy. Chekhov. Ibsen or Strindberg.
I went to the movies. Watched the series Utvandrarna, about the Swedish emigration to America in the nineteenth century, with Danish subtitles on the TV set in the common room in the Kollegium. Travelled a bit, over to Jutland to visit Odense, where H.C. Andersen was born, and Ringkøbing, where the great Danish folklore collector, Evald Tang Kristensen, came from. Up to Luleå in the far north of Sweden, down to Berlin to visit friends there and to pop into the Humboldt Library in East Berlin to check up on a version of my folktale. You can pack so much into a year when you are twenty-four! My scholarship lasted for eight months, but they gave me an extension for two further months. When that ran out, I got a job in a kindergarten, as a vikar (substitute) during the summer, when the staff needed to take holidays. I got some experience of how child-minding facilities in Scandinavia work: brilliantly. Ireland has still not caught up, not by a very long way.
Everything about my year in Denmark was wonderful, and the influence has lasted for my whole life, in all kinds of ways. I would be reluctant to select any one or two experiences as the most significant. But if forced, I would say, first of all, the language has been important for me, opening a gateway to the other Scandinavian languages, literatures, and film. My own writing has been influenced by these. Second, my pals in the university, mostly young women, introduced me to feminism and socialism. They were all ardent Marxists, at the age of twenty, and in 1978 feminism was a very strong, visible, phenomenon, in Copenhagen – affecting the way women dressed, styled their hair, and other habits (girls liked to smoke cigars, or a pipe; I never adopted that custom). Women were insistently independent and dedicated to changing social mores relating to gender. I think it is true to say that I had never given feminism a second thought. I’d read Simone de Beauvoir but that was about it. In Denmark, I met women who were radically feminist. It wasn’t just an ideology. They were much more independent than Irish girls and women. Although my group of friends in Ireland represented a new wave of women, who would have careers of their own and carry on working after marriage, also ‘keep their own names’ after marriage, as they put it, they were in some ways, inevitably, very conservative. They were focussed on getting married. That was still the aim of the game, although nobody would openly admit it. My friends in Denmark would also, of course, mainly get married, in due course. But in the meantime they seemed happy to be single. Several of my mates had babies or children – they were ‘single mothers’ – in Ireland we still used the term ‘unmarried mothers’, and it wasn’t a respectable or good position for a woman. They were sexually liberated, as we were not. One or two of them had abortions, during the year I was there. A huge revelation to me was that abortion was not something to be hidden (in Ireland, abortion was a more or less unmentionable subject in 1978, and was not legalized until 2018). I visited a friend in hospital, a girl who lived in the Kollegium. She was sitting up in bed in a bright sunny ward, her boyfriend at her side. “The condom broke!” she said. “And we have decided that we would like to have a child together, later.”
This was a million miles from the society I had come from, where girls were still being told that the worst thing that could happen to them was pregnancy outside marriage.
That changed me, and my attitudes, for life.
Intellectually, as a scholar and a writer, I was changed by the folklore institute in the University of Copenhagen, and particularly by the teaching of Bengt Holbek. The first thing Bengt pointed out to me was that I was engaged in research, on my thesis, that was decades out of date. Nobody does those historical geographical studies any more, he pointed out. I considered changing my topic to something more topical, and still wish I had, but I did not. And at least the thesis I was doing forced me to learn new languages – its main advantage for me personally, perhaps, and also of course one of the reasons why nobody did that sort of study any more (far too much trouble). Bengt Holbek was at that time writing his magnum opus, Interpretation of Fairytales. The question of meaning was dominant in the 1970s and 1980s. He introduced me to a new way of looking at and analysing folk narrative, which stood me in good stead for the rest of my life. The first time I used this method in a fictional work was in my short story, written around 1987, “Midwife to the Fairies”. I have since then often used folktales in my fiction, interpreting them, as it were, by means of my own modern stories. I thank Denmark and Bengt Holbek for that.
My main relationship with Europe has been with Scandinavia. I married a Swede, soon after I returned from Denmark, my Danish morphed into Swedish, and I have been a constant visitor to Sweden ever since.
That is one part of Europe. The richest, the most advanced, the model society. The north west.
More recently, I became affiliated with another country, also via my family. That is a poor country in the south east of the continent. Sweden is one of the richest countries in the EU, and my other European country is the poorest: Bulgaria.
In 2015, one of my sons married a brilliant and beautiful young woman from Bulgaria – continuing the family tradition of marrying someone from another European country. His wife had been living in Ireland for some years, like many young Bulgarians who emigrated westwards when the country came out from behind the Iron Curtain and joined the EU. Their wedding took place in Plovdiv. I and friends and family attended. Plovdiv is an ancient, small city, very picturesque, with old cobbled streets, pretty houses dating from the Bulgarian revival of the nineteenth century, and mainly known for the Roman theatre in its centre. I and my friends quickly discovered that Bulgaria has many ancient archaeological sites – Thracian, Greek, Roman – as well as more recent stunning churches, monasteries, and vernacular architecture.
“How come we’ve never even heard of Plovdiv before?” one of my friends asked.
Part of the answer is, of course, the Iron Curtain. Between 1948 and 1991, Bulgaria wasn’t easily accessible to foreign tourists. When it became accessible, the places people went to there were the new seaside resorts on the Black Sea, which do not always show Bulgaria at its most beautiful and best. It is a stunningly lovely country.
Thanks to the happy accident of my son’s marriage, over the past six years it has loomed large on my personal map of Europe. I learned the Cyrillic alphabet and a few phrases before going over to the wedding, and when I came back I found that it was possible to take extra-mural classes in Bulgarian in Trinity College. I signed up and have been attending ever since. Now I visit Bulgaria at least once a year (when possible). For three years in a row I attended a summer school in the Bulgarian language in Veliko Tarnovo. My great teacher, Dimitar Kambourov, translated a selection of my stories into Bulgarian in 2019.
The language is more difficult than Danish or any of the Germanic languages. But I realise that it is a very useful language, in that it is a gateway to the Slavonic family of languages, one of the very biggest groups in Europe, and possibly the least well-studied outside of the Slavic countries themselves. (In a way, it would be more useful for Irish students at school to learn Polish or Bulgarian than, say, French … I am very fond of French, but it seems we continue to learn the same languages for reasons of tradition, rather than anything else, and are slow to invite new languages into our curricula.) At my age, that is not going to be useful. I don’t plan to learn Russian – but my son, who mastered Bulgarian quickly, has made that move.
Bulgaria has given me a new perspective on Europe. I have been introduced to writers I had never heard of – Gospodinov, for instance, the great Bulgarian novelist. I notice big differences between conventions regarding writing (and many other things) in Bulgaria and the west. My impression is that Bulgarian writers are much more politically engaged than Irish writers. Gospodinov has written frequent, possibly weekly, newspaper opinion pieces throughout the coronavirus pandemic. He writes opinion pieces about national events – the 9 September national holiday, when Bulgaria celebrates its communist past (or the fall of communism, depending on your point of view). In Ireland, writers of poetry and fiction are reluctant to get too involved in national debates. There is even a school of thought which maintains that creators of literature should not express political views. (“A writer’s only business is to mind his sentences,” John McGahern is purported to have said.) In eastern Europe, I think a writer considers everything to be his business, possibly because the personal and the political have been much more intensely and dramatically intertwined in countries like Bulgaria, than here in the Republic of Ireland in the recent past.
I use “his” business advisedly, because, by stark contrast with my experience in Denmark, or Sweden, I noticed very quickly that Bulgaria is a much less egalitarian society, as far as gender is concerned. And one occasionally encounters racism and homophobia – more often than in Ireland. But there is a sparkle, a brightness, a cheerfulness, as well as a dark sense of humour, in most Bulgarian people I have met. It is a beautiful country, largely untouched (?), waiting to be discovered, and hopefully not spoiled. Its history has certain aspects in common with Ireland’s (it was ruled by a bigger neighbour, Turkey, for five hundred years). Landlocked, it is perched at the south-eastern extreme of Europe, while we, sealocked, are perched on the north-western edge.
I feel lucky to have family at both ends of Europe. This sounds excessively sentimental, but the truth is that my sense of belonging to the European family has been strengthened by personal family links, and this fills me with joy. I have loved the continent of Europe for such a long time. “Age cannot wither, nor custom stale, her infinite variety.” It would indeed be enough to be an armchair traveller exploring this continent in literature and art, to be a tourist traveller visiting in person the rich and beautiful lands of Europe, and, to be, politically, a citizen of Europe. But having family at each end of Europe deepens these somewhat abstract feelings. It ignites them with the spark of life.