IRELAND [1913] BY RICHARD ARNOLD BERMANN

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2021), Reviews, Volume 29

LEESA WHEATLEY and FLORIAN KROBB (trans. & ed.)
Cork University Press
€29
ISBN 9781782054351

Reviewed by Róisín Healy

Róisín Healy lectures in History and Philosophy at NUI, Galway.

A journalist based in Berlin, Richard Arnold Bermann travelled to Ireland at a moment of great political uncertainty for both Ireland and Europe. In the summer of 1913, the recently formed Ulster Volunteer Force was buying arms to fend off the imminent arrival of Home Rule, and antagonism between England and Germany reached dangerous levels. This book, the first translation into English of Bermann’s travel account, provides a fascinating perspective on both conflicts.

For the most part, Bermann indulges the prejudices of his German readers by criticising British rule—or, as he consistently writes, English rule—in Ireland. He claims that, despite its proximity, England has failed to assimilate Ireland. Indeed, for all its apparent pride in the union, England has consistently put its own material interests before those of Ireland. While he reprises the Irish nationalist catalogue of English misdeeds in a style bordering on parody, Bermann testifies to his own disappointment with the legacy of British rule. During a visit to Kerry, the obligation to pay a fee to Lord Bandon to access the lakeshore in Killarney leads him to rail against the ownership of the land by Anglo-Irish aristocrats. Bermann opines that ultimately English rule in Ireland serves England badly, pointing to the drain on the English purse, and he believes, contrary to the British government, that the British navy could defend Britain without resort to bases in Ireland.

Not surprisingly, Bermann is critical of unionism. The level of his antipathy is striking, however, especially given the warm reception he was given by Edward Carson, a fan of all things German, at Craigavon. Bermann found Carson’s threats of violence offensive, his ambitions for the location of a putative North–South border excessive, and his fears of the domination of the Catholic Church under a Home Rule regime paranoid. Unlike many German observers, however, Bermann was not the product of strongly confessional cultures. He was a secular Jew who had grown up in the largely Catholic world of Austria-Hungary and had later moved to Protestant Berlin. He was thus freer to acknowledge similarities between the Catholic and Protestant political cultures of Ireland, not least their attachment to animosities rooted in events that occurred centuries before. His account also offers a very cogent comparison between the Irish and the Jews in terms of attitudes towards cultural revival and statehood.

Bermann draws on his experience of the Habsburg monarchy to offer illuminating comments on Irish nationalism. Like many Continental observers, he is shocked by the contrast between the strength of Irish nationalism and the weakness of a distinctive Irish culture. He repeatedly remarks on the dominance of English products, architecture, fashion and language, especially in Dublin and Belfast. While he appreciates the urge to preserve Gaelic culture, he is quick to point out how few understand, let alone speak, Irish. Conscious of the advantage that oft-cited models of cultural revival like the Czechs had over the Irish in starting from a stronger base of native speakers, he has a much better grasp than contemporary Irish nationalists of the uphill battle ahead. He also challenges the view that Home Rule or independence will help matters, predicting a waning of enthusiasm for Gaelic culture once the hostile environment of British rule is removed.

Although political interests dominate, Bermann’s account is structured as a travel narrative. His travels carry him along a south-west to north-east trajectory and he offers entertaining, if rather superficial, observations on the places he visits. The towns of Macroom, Killarney, Limerick and Bray will not be quoting him in advertising features. Yet Bermann, like many travel writers of this period, is determined not to be confused with a tourist. He makes strenuous efforts to resist tourist traps. He makes fun of guidebooks and considers package holidays by Thomas Cook a particular scourge. He shuns souvenirs, forewarned by the example of lace sold in Germany as Irish although actually made in Thuringia. The discovery that the hosts of a Bray guesthouse in which he stays hail from Berlin confirms the need for scepticism towards all claims of authenticity.

He also points to one of the principal ironies of travel: that it functions as a means of better understanding one’s home. His sojourn in Bray brings him to the realisation that the Wannsee is to Berlin what Bray is to Dublin—an urban resort. He acknowledges the pull of the exotic in pointing out that his friends in Berlin will be more impressed with his visit to Bray simply because it lies abroad, although to his mind it is a poor substitute for the Wannsee. While he cited Bray’s lack of a beer garden and poor beach facilities, the anti-German jibes that he experienced at the local cabaret probably did not help.

Bermann’s book is, of course, one of many travel accounts of Ireland written by German-speakers. It belongs to an era of travel characterised by trains and buses and his experiences are thus closer to those of Heinrich Böll in the 1950s than to those of Hermann von Pückler-Muskau in the 1820s. While Bermann is unlikely to replace Böll in the affections of Irish readers, his is a valuable perspective on Ireland and Europe on the eve of the First World War. The standard of translation is excellent and the introduction masterfully situates the account within the broader history of Irish–German and Anglo-German relations, while also revealing the formative role of the 1913 trip for Bermann himself. This was the first of many accounts of places much further afield that he penned in subsequent years before his premature death in 1939, having fled Austria in the wake of the Nazi take-over in 1938. The editors are to be complimented on bringing his work to the attention of Irish readers.

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