Diplomatic baggage – Frank McNally on a milestone in official relations between Germany and Ireland

What might the collective term for a gathering of diplomats be? A whisper? A (garden) party? A bag? I can't decide, but whatever you call it, there will be one in the University of Limerick today, at an event to mark the 90th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Germany.

It's approaching 90 years since a full German legation was established in Dublin, anyway: one of only four here then, alongside those of France, the US, and the Vatican.

The first German consul general, however, had arrived even earlier, in 1923.

Georg Von Dehn was so enthusiastic about the job that when the consulate was upgraded a few years later, unusually, he was appointed minister too, as which he remained here until 1934.


That was a golden era for Irish-German relations, marked by such joint endeavours as the great Shannon hydro-electric scheme at Ardnacrusha. The spirit of the age was expressed too in the flight of the Bremen, the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic east-west, which had an interesting sub-plot involving The Irish Times.

After putting the paper to bed in the early hours of April 12th, 1928, editor Robert Smyllie went out to Baldonnell aerodrome, invited by Von Dehn, to see the two German crew members and Irishman James Fitzmaurice off.

So carefully calibrated was the flight, Smyllie recalled, that the men were “peeling the oranges” they would bring on board, to minimise weight.  This didn’t stop him his slipping two copies of the newspaper, fresh off the presses, under Fitzmaurice’s flying jacket. Unknown to the Germans, it thereby also created a bit of history as the first newspaper to make the crossing.

For this and other reasons - his parties were famous too – The Irish Times sounded genuinely emotional when Von Dehn left Ireland for Romania in 1934. A sombre editorial recalled the great optimism Irish people had felt during his early years, while regretting that he was now leaving a land "not far from despair".

This bleak note seems to have been inspired mainly by the rise of Eamon de Valera and Fianna Fáil.

By contrast, a report on the diplomat's departure from Dún Laoghaire included this breezy detail: "As the ship moved away, Herr Von Dehn, who was much moved by the farewells of his friends, raised his right arm in the Nazi salute, to which the crowd on the pier replied."

He would himself soon be a victim of the sinister developments at home. One of the last things he did here was visit his friend, the papal nuncio, during which he was photographed kissing the apostolic ring, a normal thing to do then.

As viewed by Hitler, however, this was unbecoming for a representative of the Third Reich. When the picture surfaced in Germany, Von Dehn was recalled from Romania and sacked. On a later visit to Munich, Smyllie found him a “broken man”, followed everywhere by the Gestapo. He died soon afterwards, “hounded to his untimely grave.”

But getting back to the University of Limerick today, the main event is a colloquium, to be addressed by eight current or former ambassadors, from Ireland, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

The backdrop – UL’s Centre for German-Irish Studies – will also include an ongoing exhibition on Operation Shamrock, which brought hundreds of German children to Ireland after the war.

But the programme also features the launch of the "Gottschalk Collection", thought by the centre's director Gisela Holfter to be the biggest trove of German-Irish books anywhere. The late Jürgen Gottschalk was founder and for many years president of the Irish-German Society in Würzburg, who earlier this autumn donated his vast library – some 4,000 titles – to the University of Limerick.

He was due to have performed this afternoon's official opening alongside current German ambassador Deike Potzel. Alas, he died last month. The Gottschalk Collection, which includes travel literature, books of history and politics, and some very rare lithographs of Ardnacrusha, will be his monument.

The link between Ireland and Würzburg, by the way, goes back to a thoroughly undiplomatic incident in the seventh century, when the Christian missionary St Kilian, along with two companions, was beheaded by a vengeful duchess, angered by his preaching against her incestuous marriage.

The duchess was one of the ruling Franks, a notoriously wilful tribe (not to be confused with any newspaper columnists you know) who gave their name to Frankfurt, a postal stamping device, and the English adjective meaning “outspoken”.

This last quality is unusual in the diplomatic service. A German ambassador of recent vintage here was an exception and survived. But it probably wouldn’t lend itself as a collective noun. A Frankness of Ambassadors might risk an early recall.