The fractured metropolis?


THE IRISH IN BERLIN:Is Berlin a capital of creativity, as the hype would have you believe, or rather a slacker's paradise, where every day is a Saturday? DEREK SCALLY talks to some Irish immigrants who have managed to forge careers there

JOHN LENNON ONCE remarked that life is what happens while you're busy making other plans. For many Irish, the German capital is a place they never intended to make their home but, to stretch Lennon's logic, they have found Berlin to be a fine spot to live while making other arrangements.

The Irish have always come to Berlin: Francis Bacon's father sent him here to "butch up" in 1927 in the company of a distant uncle. Things didn't go as planned because the uncle was as gay as his 18-year-old charge. After enjoying Weimar Berlin's seedy charms, they spent days in bed together at the old Adlon hotel.

A decade later, Samuel Beckett spent a cold, miserable Christmas alone in the Third Reich capital visiting museums and wondering where all the artists had gone. He fled his first choice of hotel after just one night when someone was murdered on the street outside.

Today, as the 20th anniversary of its rebirth as a united city approaches, Berlin is once again the in-word among the Irish for late nights and cheap thrills.

Although the Irish have always come to Berlin, the introduction of direct flights from Dublin in the past decade changed things drastically. First came the weekend trippers, followed by Irish property investors who "discovered" the city's real-estate market, before the bust at home saw them beat a hasty retreat.

Considering Berlin's popularity among Irish visitors, it's a surprise to find just 1,811 Irish registered as living in the city - up just 15 per cent on a decade ago.

In a city of 500,000 foreigners from 180 countries, finding the Berlin Irish is a tricky business. Few tick any of the usual emigrant boxes: they rarely hang around with each other, most are well-integrated into daily life with fluent German, a German partner and often a job working solely with natives.

Even shoe-horning them into an article about "the Irish in Berlin" is, in many ways, a contradiction because, at heart, the Berlin Irish don't move with the herd.

"Berlin is a collection of individuals pursuing their own interesting paths," says Paul McNamara, a tenor who first visited the city in 1992 and moved here nine years ago. "It has everything a city has to offer without the stress of every other city."

McNamara is a regular performer at Berlin's biggest houses, the Deutsche Oper and the Berlin Philharmonie.

Like many artists, he spends most of his time on the road and views Berlin as the perfect place to recharge his batteries.

"It's a super affordable place with well-serviced neighbourhoods you never have to leave," he says. "It's not as glamorous as Paris or Rome by any means, but people who live here can say, when they add it all up, that they have the best deal. I don't think you can say that about London."

Quality of life - it's something anyone who has visited the city raves about. Start with housing so affordable that 70 per cent of Berliners live in the city centre.

Berliners still have the luxury of being able to choose where in the city they want to live and then what they want to pay in rent; in London, Paris and elsewhere, it's the other way around.

Although it is becoming more expensive, Berliners still enjoy a low cost of living, public transport that works, a low crime rate, dozens of parks, canals and rivers - and bike lanes everywhere. Quality of life is rarely what is on people's minds when they come here, but it's the most frequently mentioned reason why people stay.

Two decades after the city was reunited, it's still possible to pick up the east-west divide, although in many places the border is blurred and old truisms no longer hold.

Eastern neighbourhoods such as Prenzlauer Berg, with a wild post-unification art and party scene, have been colonised by middle-class young families with nightmarish children. The fleeing masses have once again taken refuge in former West Berlin neighbourhoods.

East or west, the Berliners are generally open and unflappable people.

But there is an insecurity there, too, about their own and their city's place in the world. If Paris is an elderly dowager and London a jaded teddy boy, Berlin is an anxious punk.

This uncertainty attracted photographer Mark Curran to the city in 2004. For the 44-year-old, Berlin is the living embodiment of what German writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin called the "fractured metropolis".

"I immediately picked up on the sense of displacement in Berlin, not just because of history but because it has a quarter the population of similarly sized cities, with a quarter of the population from elsewhere," he says. "The space in Berlin offers room for ideas and licence to live differently."

Although Berlin is home, Curran makes regular trips back to Dublin to lecture in photography at IADT in Dún Laoghaire, Dublin. He is completing a PhD through DIT and, in Germany, is working on a project supported by an Arts Council bursary in a declining industrialised region in the former east.

Curran says that commuting between Berlin and Dublin has sharpened his senses to the effect on cities of money - or the lack thereof.

"Most people in Berlin are just trying to live another way with enough to get by, though, of course, one witnesses property developers trying to get a hold, too."

Berlin has been an interesting observation point for the financial crisis. The worst excesses have passed the city by because, from the hyperinflation of the 1920s to four decades of West German subsidies, Berlin has been a financial basket case for most of its modern history. With 87 per cent of Berliners renting their homes, and an average monthly income of just €900, people here never had any money to play property snakes and ladders.

It's the same story with the city government, nursing debts of nearly €70 billion since the West German subsidies drip was removed. Widespread poverty, negligible industrial activity and low economic demand has left post-unification Berlin a complete commercial failure and a huge artistic success.

A recent survey suggested there were more than 25,000 artists living in Berlin. Most survive on less than €10,000 a year, dividing their time between cheap ateliers, €5 dinner joints and pay-what-you-can wine bars. If they're lucky, the government will agree to pay half of an artist's health and social welfare costs - a big deal in the expensive German health system.

Living frugally is less of a struggle in Berlin than elsewhere, though some take it to extremes. "One friend of mine could survive on €250 a month, keeping warm in the winter by burning wood he found on the street in his apartment's furnace," says painter Finbarr Kelleher, a Clonmel native who moved to Berlin nine years ago.

His spacious atelier in the eastern neighbourhood of Friedrichshain is filled with what he calls "subconscious" works: huge, conceptual pieces he says draw on the work of Francis Bacon and Sean Scully.

Like most artists living here, Kelleher uses Berlin as a base but shows elsewhere, selling to collectors in wealthier, western cities such as Düsseldorf or Munich.

"If you're an artist there's a good motivation to come to Berlin," he says. "There are no collectors but a good scene and lots of galleries. For creative people it's a good place to come. In Paris, for example, you'd have a lot more problems trying to keep going. Like anywhere, though, it helps if you know what you want to do."

Brian O'Connor moved to Berlin in 1995 and, like many, didn't plan on staying. He remember his first years as a mixture of hard winters, long summers, casual jobbing in Irish pubs and, as he puts it, "party party party".

Today he is one of Germany's most sought-after print designers and works as creative director of the Welt newspapers at the Axel Springer group.

"We moved around every three years in Ireland when I was growing up so I've lived here longer than anywhere else in my life," he says atop the Springer tower, with spectacular views of Berlin.

Of his circle of 20 or 30 Irish friends from 15 years ago, O'Connor is one of the last still here. "All but one or two left in the end because people couldn't get proper jobs or break through the German management structure," he says, touching on a reality most arrivals find out sooner rather than later.

Finding work is difficult in Berlin, the 16 per cent jobless rate is the main reason why cafes are rarely empty and why bars still have customers at 3am on a weekday morning. There is casual work waiting tables or teaching English, but many new arrivals struggle to find something more permanent and leave again, frustrated.

Nigel Kinnarney managed to crack the Berlin job market after moving to Berlin 13 years ago "for the love of a woman". After starting alongside Brian O'Connor in Irish pubs, the 35-year-old now works at the federal finance ministry.

Having two children acquainted him with another up-side about Berlin life: having a family doesn't inevitably end in banishment to the commuter belt. "The facilities in the city are great for families, starting with kindergartens a quarter the price of their Irish equivalent. It's a big city yet there are huge green spaces," says Kinnarney. "You can live near the city centre with a playground every 100m and a swimming pool every 300m."

What's interesting about many of the long-term Berlin Irish is how they fit no mould and have resisted the easy temptation of the pub ghetto and Irish company.

"The Irish don't stick together in Berlin because they get on and do their own thing," says O'Connor. "The city is so big and the neighbourhoods so self-contained here that you might never see people living in another part of town."

The slack employment market leads to the second caveat about life in the Berlin Big Easy: the temptation to coast. "People read that Berlin is a paradise where you hardly have to work," says Kelleher. "That attracts people who come here but don't know what to do next. People can get trapped by that."

Most long-term Irish agree that anyone aspiring to be more than a Berlin hipster will require iron will and clear goals. "Berlin isn't for the fainthearted, particularly in the winter," says tenor Paul McNamara. "And you can't expect a lot of help from the locals, particularly if you don't speak German."

The importance of learning the language is the other piece of advice on which the Berlin Irish agree. As Nigel Kinnarney points out, the initial impression that English is widely spoken in Berlin can be deceptive.

"You'd be a bit of a fool not to learn the language living here. People will still talk to you in English, but you will have wasted a wonderful chance."

So will Berlin amount to anything? Are great works of art being produced in courtyard ateliers? Or will the new Berliners follow the new Bohemians in 1990s Prague who had their fun for a few years but never set the world alight?

The Berlin Irish jury is still out on the city that has spent most of its history on the brink of, but never quite achieving, true greatness. Perhaps Berlin will turn out to be the promised land for people looking for a way out of the late capitalist rat race.

Or maybe it will amount to nothing more than a paradise island of easy living, a hedonistic graveyard for ambition. Either way, Berlin has a great history ahead of it.