Irish in Germany refuse to look back with harshness on economic problems at home
YOU HEAR the roar from Berlin’s “Bearpit Karaoke” before you see it, tucked into the side of a hill in the Mauerpark.
For two decades the “Wall Park” – a scrappy patch of green on the former no-man’s land between East and West Berlin – has been home to a free-for-all flea market.
These days another big draw is the rollicking karaoke organised by wise-cracking master of ceremonies Joe Hatchiban – also known as Gareth Lennon from Palmerstown in Dublin.
Every Sunday afternoon he unpacks his karaoke kit – a microphone, two custom-made wooden speakers, a car battery, laptop and umbrellas against sun and rain. What happens next is entirely up to the 1,000-plus crowd packed into the semi-circular, outdoor amphitheatre.
The crowd is international, as are the performers and repertoire; a recent session runs the musical gamut from German kitsch too terrible to mention here to Celine Dion, Backstreet Boys and that rarest of karaoke events, a non-ironic rendition of Total Eclipse of the Heart.
The biggest cheer is for an Indian man’s knockout version of Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child o’ Mine that has two young boys with painted Spider-Man faces rocking out like Axl Rose and Slash.
The Irish-run karaoke show, like the city of Berlin around it, seems a world away from the euro zone crisis. It shares an important lesson with the Eurovision Song Contest: if we can still a laugh at each others’ singing then things can’t be that bad.
“It started with me going around the park asking people to help me see how long it would take to sing the car battery empty,” said Lennon (39) who has lived in Berlin for a decade.
Like the thousands of Irish living in Germany, Lennon finds himself in the curious position of looking back at his homeland from a country that some view as our tormentor-in-chief.
Regardless of their backgrounds, however, a common feature of the Irish in Germany is their unwillingness to play the bad emigrant, passing harsh judgment from a distance on difficult circumstances at home.
That said, their distance from Ireland in recent years has helped keep fresh their memories of the bad side of Ireland’s good times.
When Lennon thinks of the Ireland he left, he recalls the surreal era of 100 per cent mortgages.
“I don’t think it was German money that made people lose their heads. I think it was the feeling – among Irish people and Irish banks – that property prices were never going to drop,” he said.
“I don’t notice Ireland as a huge talking point here or that German people feel that they’re having to tighten their belts on account of anything happening in Ireland over the last years.”
Mark Willis (30) from Rathmines has had many lively conversations on the crisis with his roommates – a German, a Greek and a Spaniard – since he came to Berlin 18 months ago.
An analyst with Roubini Global Economics, Willis senses a strong moralising streak running through both German economics and its crisis narrative. He sees a rise of late in negative sentiment towards Greece, “even among friends I would consider reasonable people”. Ireland is seen as a “poster-boy, taking our fiscal medicine”.
He sees little awareness among Germans he meets of how tough things continue to be in Ireland. And any suggestion that the crisis had many causes, including the euro zone’s design, or even that Germany is partly responsible draws an “overwhelmingly negative reaction”.