Auf Wiedersehen, Ireland!
A few weeks ago, the Eagles gave several concerts in Dublin. The lyrics to the band's rock classic Hotel California that culminate in two cryptic lines: "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave." I have struggled with this brain-twister ever since I first heard the song. But no more. The solution to the riddle is Ireland. My wife and I will soon check out of Ireland, but we will never leave Ireland.
The Ireland of the land and the people. Having seen quite a bit of the country in the past three years, we agree with those who say you don’t have to leave this island to know Ireland boasts one of the world’s most stunning ensembles of landscapes. And all of it decorated in an eye-soothing colour that is the Irish green.
But what really makes you feel you will never leave Ireland is the Irish people. In the course of our three years here we had numerous visitors who took trips throughout the country. All returned with very fond memories of the Irish they had met. And they had met many!
For this is one of the first things you experience when you come here. People will start talking to you at the drop of a hat. They do it with a smile, a warm-hearted curiosity, and a genuine willingness to help. So even if you are shy and not used to it, you begin to like it. Maybe not instantly, but what might be called the “great Irish embrace” proves irresistible in the end.
“A stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet.” I have thought long and hard to find something that would sound even more Irish. Here it is: “A stranger is a friend an Irish person hasn’t spoken to yet.” No wonder Ireland has more mobile phone subscriptions than people.
Something uniquely Irish
The people are this country’s greatest asset. It’s their friendliness and humour, their optimism and resilience that blend into something uniquely Irish.
"Angela Merkel thinks we are at work" on an Irish flag taken to Poland for the Euro 2012 soccer championship: to the German ambassador this stands out as a paragon of Irish humour. As for positivity, there is hardly a better proof than Irish demographics. Ireland has the youngest population and it has retained the highest fertility rate in the European Union even after the Celtic Tiger, but not the Irish people, had run out of steam. In the global happiness index Ireland is in the top group.
Last year The Irish Times compiled a list of "50 reasons to love Ireland despite the rain, recession and repression". One was "because we're good at funerals". And it wasn't meant as a joke. It was meant to highlight two traits of the social fabric: that cohesion of family and friends is strongest when needed most; and that keeping upbeat in the saddest of moments can alleviate grief.
The Celtic Tiger had been riding high on positive assumptions about the future. They helped create a virtuous circle that catapulted the Republic to being one of Europe’s best economic performers. It became a role model for what a small country can achieve when it nurtures its comparative advantages, harnesses the forces of globalisation and seizes the opportunities offered by the European single market.
But then the Tiger went astray in a property, construction and banking bubble, fuelled by cheap money and overly optimistic assumptions about the durability of the boom. Perhaps the worst could have been averted if some healthy scepticism had informed economic behaviour and political decision-making at the time.
We all made mistakes during the good times. What’s important is to learn from them and stay positive. In other words, do it like the Irish! Since the bursting of the bubbles the Irish have shown exemplary resilience. Finally, the light at the end of the crisis tunnel is getting brighter. But neither Ireland nor the euro zone are out of the woods yet, although the Irish combination of determination and optimism offers a compass for charting the path out not only for Ireland but the zone as a whole.
Europe may have many shortcomings. We can and should debate whether our response to the crisis has been the right one. This year we commemorate the outbreak of two world wars and celebrate the end of the division of Europe some 25 years ago when the Berlin Wall fell. Not just this year, but especially this year, we should not lose sight of the historic achievement our EU represents.
Neighbours together in Europe
Peace and prosperity, freedom and democracy, a life in dignity for all – their preservation should never be taken for granted but are aspirations that must be pursued ceaselessly. The more we do it together as neighbours in Europe and for Europe, the closer we will come to fulfilling such aspirations and enjoying them together.
That is why I am not only the German ambassador. I am also a fellow European citizen. It has been a privilege to represent Germany in Ireland, and it has been a source of great satisfaction to engage in a dialogue with fellow European citizens from Ireland. A critical dialogue at times. And that is as it should be. No one has a monopoly on wisdom. Not only economic, but also political and intellectual progress thrives on competition. As the French philosopher Émile-Auguste Chartier noted: "Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it's the only one we have."
My wife and I now have more than just an idea of Ireland. The people of this island have given their face and heart to the Ireland that we have come to love. So much so that we will not say goodbye but "Auf Wiedersehen" – because even though we are checking out now, we will never leave Ireland.
Dr Eckhard Lübkemeier is departing German ambassador to Ireland