Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1957 – Irisches Tagebuch, by Heinrich Böll

In his quirky, incisive account of life on Achill, Heinrich Böll celebrated the consoling power of a simple life on the edge of Europe

A great irony hangs over the Irisches Tagebuch, or Irish Journal, of the German novelist Heinrich Böll. As mass emigration reached critical levels, Böll reinvented Ireland not as a place to escape from but as a place to escape to. Especially in Germany, Böll's brilliant, quirky, incisive account of his long stays on Achill Island from 1954 onwards positioned Ireland as western Europe's great elsewhere.

“Sitting here by the fire,” he wrote, “it is possible to play truant from Europe, while Moscow has lain in darkness for the past four hours, Berlin for two, even Dublin for half an hour: there is still a clear light over the sea, and the Atlantic persistently carries away piece by piece the Western bastion of Europe; rocks fall into the sea, soundlessly the bog streams carry the dark European soil out into the Atlantic; over the years, gently plashing, they smuggle whole fields out into the open sea, crumb by crumb.”

Böll had good reason to play truant from Europe and from historical time. Although he came from a liberal Catholic and pacifist family in Cologne, he was drafted into the Nazi army, fought on both the Eastern and Western Fronts, was wounded four times, and was imprisoned in an American prisoner-of-war camp. The enormous success of his Irish Journal in Germany had much to do with its vision of a frontier where the dark and blood-drenched European soil could be washed away at last. For many Germans the book took on an almost religious significance. In his 2010 novel, Was Zussammengehört, Marcus Feldenkirchen writes that later German travellers "followed Böll's footprints and worshipped his book as others worshipped the Bible".

Böll spent a month on Achill in 1954, then four months in each of the next two years. His modest manner meant that most locals were unaware that he was a famous writer until much later, when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1972.

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He initially published his impressions in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, before revising and expanding them into a bestselling book. But they are not documentary accounts. They have an often dreamlike and sometimes surreal quality, and they are always a novelists's transformations of direct experience into art.

He sometimes sees what he wants to see – his vision of Achill as a “classless society” has less to do with Irish social reality than with his own need to escape the tensions and divisions of the cold war.

Even so Böll is no mere romantic. His eyes are open to the long history of poverty and the suffering of mass emigration: “These farewells at Irish railway stations, at bus stops in the middle of the bog, when tears blend with raindrops and the Atlantic wind is blowing . . .”

He can be remarkably acute. He identifies, for example, the imagination and humour in Irish culture as being rooted in a kind of fatalism: “When something happens to you in Germany, when you miss a train, break a leg, go bankrupt, we say: It couldn’t have been any worse; whatever happens is always the worst. With the Irish it is almost the opposite: if you break a leg, miss a train, go bankrupt, they say: It could be worse; instead of a leg you could have broken your neck, instead of a train you could have missed Heaven . . .”

In some respects the Irish Journal fed into a consoling fantasy: that Ireland's underdevelopment made it spiritually rich and therefore a potential saviour for Europe. But Böll himself never lost sight of the fact that this idea was much more consoling to visitors like himself than it was to the people who had to live with it all the time.

You can read more about Heinrich Böll in the Royal Irish Academy's Dictionary of Irish Biography; ria.ie