An Irishman's Diary
Many doubted the truth of the first story I brought back from Denmark nearly 40 years ago, and since then several visits have yielded other surprises. A young married couple, he a highly qualified colour printer, she a research assistance in a medical laboratory, bought a derelict farmhouse about 15 miles from their Copenhagen apartment.
Each weekend they worked hard and harmoniously at restoring it, but that did not stop them taking the unusual decision to get a divorce because they considered that a piece of paper was not necessary to keep them together. There were tax reasons also.
But when it came to the decoration stage, Jette and Carl had frequent rows which revealed, they believed, growing differences in taste, and they decided to split.
Having two children at this stage, with typical Danish responsibility they contacted the family solicitor who informed them that as they were no longer married, a legal contract protecting their two children's interests might not be safe. So, being typical methodical Danes, they remarried, then divorced again, writing into the second divorce terms the property rights of their children.
When I returned to an Ireland that did not have divorce as a considered possibility, no wonder my friends expected me next to say, after I had I told them of my conversation with Jette, that Danes had four legs or three eyes.
Half the size of Ireland with poorer soil, Denmark is a world leader in agricultural efficiency. A land reform in the 19th century rearranged all Danish farms to sizes equal to productivity potential, and the reform went ahead with very little opposition from the logical Danes.
Indeed when I visited a Danish farm about 35 years ago a lorry drove up to the front gate while I was meeting the pig farmer in his nearby yard and talking through an interpreter. The driver loaded his lorry with about 30 pigs of identical weight from an adjacent pen, wrote a receipt and pinned it on the gate and drove away. There was no chat or even personal communication.
On another visit I remarked to a Danish businessman, who knew Ireland pretty well, that I had seen very few banks in a tour I made around the country. "Bank branches as in Ireland," he told me, "are to collect deposits, and that's why you can see three or even four banks in an Irish small town. Here we all borrow."
Like so many Danes he had very good English, but I alarmed some when I told them that the government was attempting to substitute English for their own national language. They hadn't regarded the presence of many official notices in English as being a step in this direction.
Nationalism shows itself strongly in love of a country and a reluctance to emigrate permanently, but when they do, they readily assimilate.
Some years ago a Danish trawler arrived in Killybegs having been registered under the Irish flag with the intention of fishing from there. The local fishermen called a meeting of protest as others might follow. After a full show of hands on a resolution asking the Danes to leave, Verner Neilsen and his crew, who actually attended the meeting, got a friendly reception in the Bayview bar. Two years later Verner was chairman of the local fishermen's association.
Today Denmark reflects the national obsession with planning by helping it through a period of reduced economic activity. Unlike Ireland, there are few public schemes necessary to be carried out, and capacity for industrial production is near to peak.
There have been cuts in some social services, and an element of anti-foreigner attitudes is creeping in in some districts due to imported labour. Although certain holy days are observed as holidays, church-going is not a feature. The unfounded reputation for liberal sexual morals was strongly contrasted with something I saw a few years ago in Copenhagen: the manageress of a pornographic book-shop on her knees washing the doorsteps outside her premises.
A firmly law-abiding country, only two per cent of the national budget goes on police, prisons and the courts. Rape is rare and an experience I had tells a lot. In the big fishing port of Skagen the crews of several countries mingle as they land their fish for high-priced sale. In the bar of a local hotel I spoke to a shipyard engineer and told him how I admired the town, which was always clean and had no signs of crime or vandalism.
"It's sure you have not been here for a long time," he replied. "In this bar, two weeks ago, a man had his overcoat stolen. It was in the newspapers."