Europe Through the Looking Glass – a Journey in Books
When I was growing up, the nearest we got to Europe was when my father would take us for a family day out, on a drive to Dublin or Shannon airport, to watch the planes take off and land. That was a popular practice for Irish family outings in the 1960s and ‘70s, before travel was affordable and common, certainly for those with small children. We would go into the departures area, in those days utterly and blissfully free of any restrictions, and be allowed to roam around and choose one special treat from the unusual shops there. I was collecting stamps in those days and so I would spend a long time poring over the options, sifting through the rainbow-coloured packets for my album, bigger and smaller than Irish stamps, in unfamiliar lozenge and triangular shapes, in swirly or angular script – the metaphorical look of international languages. This was as close as I could get to even the idea of leaving Ireland, of there being an elsewhere.
There was also the examination of artefacts – more proof that this other world existed. My grandfather, unusually in those days, was a regular traveller and he brought back some fascinating souvenirs which were left to gather dust in his upstairs living room, above the pub he ran in a small village, where, I discovered afterwards, he was also the patron of the local poet. I recall a bronze-hued plastic replica of St Peter’s Basilica, which lit up from inside when you pressed a switch (for as long as the batteries were working), and there was also a bottle of dark Madeira wine, encased in a pretty woven lattice, which played music when you tilted it to pour, provided you had remembered to wind the key in the music box which was hidden in its base. Europe seemed to me then to be a place of secret, magical wonders. It was also a place in technicolour, as was evidenced not just by the stamps but by the postcards sent by my aunt, the only one of my mother’s sisters who was unmarried and therefore had held on to her job outside the home (it would be our EU membership which removed the infamous marriage bar), which meant she was free to go on holidays in Torremolinos, Benalmadena, Fuengirola, none of which I could pronounce properly and each of which looked more impossibly blue and golden in every succeeding postcard, from which you could almost smell the Ambre Solaire and feel the warm sand, so different from the cool grey Irish variety which smuggled its way into our sandwiches every summer.
And then, there were books … My first home in a small village had no local library, so, apart from my schoolbooks, I was dependent on the comics that my father and my grand-aunt bought us each weekend, and on the rapidly devoured Enid Blytons that were special presents, as well as the other, fairly limited, material in ‘the good sitting room’ at home – including the Bible, the collected works of Shakespeare, which were a bit beyond me at that stage, and a coffee table book about Princess Elizabeth, which I adored, being especially impressed with one photo of the young princess with her head in her hands as she watched the ballet – holding my head up with my hands as I read or watched TV was something I was frequently told off for but if it was good enough for a Queen ...
My well-travelled grandfather decided early on to remedy this deficit in my reading material by investing in a complete set of the Children’s Encyclopaedia Britannica, which I duly read from A-Z; I can still vividly recall the feel of the red leather binding and the gilt embossed thistle on the cover - as well as a monthly subscription to the Readers Digest, where I learned to ‘enhance my vocabulary’, among other things … until my father decided that perhaps this subscription was a little ahead of the reading needs of a seven-year-old child.
My horizons really changed when I turned ten, getting to double digits at last, and we moved, not far away, but to a town with a real library. Before this, I had been used to the mobile library which had stopped on our hill once a fortnight and which never had anything much for a child to read. The biggest thrill had been wondering if the brakes would fail and we would go careering down the hill at speed, books flying up in the air. There was also, I recall, a very odd smell. Not the smell of old books, which I love with something close to addiction, but something more off-putting, which my brother reminded me recently was probably because the mobile library was housed in a re-purposed horsebox. But now, at last, I was introduced to the dedicated space of a firmly built library, with an entire, glorious Children’s Section. It took me about a year to get through all the books for my age, and after I had worked my way through the various fairy tales collected by Sinéad Bean de Valera there was not much left for me to read; but the kindly and understanding librarian allowed me in to the adult section and I discovered the entire world of Agatha Christie, whose Death on the Nile had first captured my attention on an overnight visit to my grandfather after my usual Enid Blyton had run out. Christie introduced me to the glamour of continental travel on airplanes, in velvet-trimmed trains and by luxurious steamship, and to the sounds, smells, tastes and languages of places far beyond my eleven-year-old understanding, never mind all the murders! From the age of two, when apparently I first began to read by myself (The Little Red Hen …), I had never been without a book in my hand and now it was always an Agatha Christie; thankfully, there were plenty to work my way through as for the next seven years books, books and more books were my only passport to travel and I worked my way with glee from Alison Lurie to Evelyn Waugh, dipping in to Graham Greene, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Barbara Trapido and Somerset Maugham along the way, each one a new adventure.
I got my first actual passport, a dark green hardback, when I was eighteen years old and had already started work in the civil service, as an Executive Officer (a junior manager entry grade) in the Department of Education. My first ever flight was to the beautiful Greek island of Corfu, where a friend was working for the nascent Budget Travel, and, true to form, I had read everything by the Durrells long before we even got there, and was already able to draw the map of the island freehand. I had filled half my small suitcase with books, much to the annoyance of my travelling companion. I did the same thing a year later, for what quickly became our annual girls’ getaway, this time to even more exotic Cyprus, which required a train to Belfast to catch the direct flight, adding to the drama; and since then, for me, it has always been books first and bikinis second.
Funnily enough, my mother always said that I was bound to travel, to live and work abroad and to marry someone from overseas, because, she said, I was always reading books! In this, as in so many things, our mothers are often correct – I have been living and working in various countries now, in Europe, Africa, and Asia, for over 35 years and while my husband became a proud Irish man in the early 1990s; he wasn’t one when I first met him … but that, as they say, is another story entirely.
One thing is for sure. My adventures in reading grew in me a desire to see the world and a belief that I could only reach fulfilment by going outside of and beyond my current understanding. I have had a lifelong commitment to learning which has only increased with age. The greatest experience of my life so far has been to have the honour of serving in Brussels, at the heart of Europe, as Ireland’s Ambassador ‒ and only our second woman Ambassador ‒ to the Kingdom of Belgium. It is my very special privilege every day to promote Ireland and the relations between our two countries and to support our citizens here. I love meeting and talking to people, listening to their stories, and sharing our own narrative, and being an Ambassador is the ultimate opportunity to do so. I believe we are building new bridges and reinforcing the existing ones, so that this strong and deep connection between Ireland and Belgium, which goes back centuries, will continue to flourish and to endure. Culture has tremendous potential, as a window and as a mirror, opening us up and revealing more, both for ourselves and our relations with others. Every day brings new ideas and new possibilities and one of the loveliest discoveries for me here, as a Kilkenny woman, has been to learn more about the different migrations of Flemings to Kilkenny, and as a reader (and a writer) to learn more about the Joyce family holiday in Flanders and their epic day trip on the bus to Waterloo, ripe for comic interpretation. Who would have thought that, as an early lover of Agatha Christie’s writing, my first ambassadorial posting would be to the birthplace of her great detective Hercule Poirot? Or that as a lover of books, and of the book as an artefact, I would one day make an official visit to the outstanding Plantijn Moretus Museum in Antwerp and break down in tears (discretely and diplomatically, of course) in front of the last surviving original printing presses in the world, or that I would have the honour of speaking in front of a thousand guests to introduce our Minister on Saint Patrick’s Day here and discover afterwards that our magnificent venue in BOZAR stands on the footprint of the Brontë sisters’ home in Brussels – the Brontës who trace their roots to Ireland, and where Charlotte spent her honeymoon, ah, the connections, the synergies, the serendipities seem endless …
I am a great believer that books bring people together, instilling empathy and promoting understanding and awareness, and everywhere we look, there are more and more connections between Ireland and Belgium, of which we can be proud, including the Kilkenny limestone on the paving beneath our feet each day as we walk into the embassy or down to Place Jourdan for lunch – from a quarry not five miles from where I grew up and which we drove past nearly every week when I was a child. The European Union truly is a shared home we have all helped to build but long before that, when the early Irish monks first settled in Leuven and when future Irish saints walked the fields here, the connection between our peoples, our scholars, our traders, was born and reborn.
As a child, sitting in Kyteler’s Inn in Kilkenny munching Tayto crisps, I never knew that Dame Alice Kyteler’s father hailed from Flanders. Nor did I know that Kilkenny’s renown as the cradle of design and craft may be due to Flemings. Indeed there were at least two migrations from Flanders, one in the 1300s and another towards the end of the sixteenth century. The earlier group (artificers and traders – fullers, cooks, brewers and weavers of linen and wool) once lived in a townsland which became known as Flemingstown, or ‘the town of the Flemings’. This townsland, together with Englishtown and Irishtown, eventually forms the now hidden footprint for the current City of Kilkenny. The latter group were also artificers, skilled in fine manufacturing and embroidery and they made tapestry, carpets and cushions for the occupants of Kilkenny Castle and other nobility and wealthy denizens. Up to this day it is the home of Kilkenny Design and the HQ of the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland, as well as a great brewing city with Smithwick’s and Kilkenny ale!
Growing up and playing traditional board games each Christmas (including my favourite, Cluedo, of course), I never realised that most of these are made by a Belgian company just down the road from where we lived. I never knew then that, one day, I would be honoured to present my letters of credence to the Belgian King, himself a reader of Ulysses, and, yes, in a real Royal Palace, one not dissimilar from the gleaming photos in the book that I had pored over as I lay on the carpet of our good front room as a small child, trying to imagine places I had never been and people I had never met. I never knew either that one day I would get the chance to dance a waltz (no, not Riverdance, despite being asked…) in Buckingham Palace, or that one balmy evening in Bangkok I would have my photograph taken with that very Princess, now Queen, when we were both there to attend the first Asia Europe Summit. That same Queen stood with our then President, Mary McAleese, and Belgium’s then King Albert, to inaugurate the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines on 11 November 1998, the year of the Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to our island. Belgium, at the heart of Europe, and a country which has suffered and learned so much from the ravages of war, has provided us with a shared, inclusive and respectful space where we can explore and honour all of our identities and all of our histories and the memories which had also fallen victim to war. This year, on 7 June, we will mark the fifteenth anniversary of the Peace Village, which provides accommodation for visitors to the Peace Park, and where I hope to plant a tree to mark the significant contribution of Belgium, and indeed Europe, to the peace process, which remains an ongoing, vital and living commitment for us all. And we will continue to tell all of our human stories, not to remember divisions but to inspire us to overcome them.
So, the little girl that lost herself in books, like Alice in Wonderland or (the even better story, I believe) Through the Looking Glass, surfaced to find herself in Europe, and beyond. And that, I firmly believe, is where imagination, and collections of texts in whatever format, just like this one, can transport us, thanks to the work of EFACIS, Dr Hedwig Schwall and the brilliant Irish writers whose words illuminate the page. I hope you enjoy the journey within this text and that you will find your own path of discovery and learning and joy, in Europe and in the world, for it is only by going beyond and through the looking glass that we can ever truly see, ourselves, the world and the possibilities of our place within it, how we can play our own small part in adding to the story and find, as Eavan Boland says so eloquently in her one of her final poems, a region for ourselves.