Guests of the nation – An Irishman’s Diary about two German visitors who had contrasting experiences of Ireland: Ludwig Hopf and Heinrich Böll

Today marks the 100th birthday of writer Heinrich Böll

Today, in one of those accidental Christmas traditions, a group of people who would otherwise be strangers will meet once again in Dublin’s Mount Jerome cemetery to commemorate a man none of us ever knew.

His name was Ludwig Hopf and he was a brilliant German-born physicist of the early 20th century who, among other things, worked (and played musical duets) with Einstein.

Thanks to another accident of history, however, he ended his days in Ireland.  A refugee from Nazism, he came to Dublin in 1939 for a job in Trinity College.  Alas, he died only a few months later, on that year's winter solstice.

Hopf’s daughter Liselore did not long outlive him, and she now shares his grave in Mount Jerome.  But having no other connections here then, his wife soon left the country.

So the grave became forgotten until the 1990s when, half a world away, in Kenya, an Irish priest named Willie Walshe performed the funeral rites for Hopf's son Arnold, who the war had sent in a different direction, never again to see his father.

With the Irish link re-emerging, the priest’s family tracked down Ludwig’s grave, then a friend restored it.  And now, every year, they and others gather there around this date for an informal commemoration.

The number usually includes another distinguished guest of the nation, Tomi Reichental.  Born in Slovakia, and a childhood survivor of Belsen, Tomi usually says the Jewish prayer.  Then the group adjourns for tea.

By a happy coincidence, today also marks the 100th birthday of another great German who spent time in Ireland: the writer Heinrich Böll.

Böll wrote many books in his lifetime: enough to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972.  But he will be best remembered in this country for his Irisches Tagebuch (Irish Journal), inspired by a series of visits that began in 1954.

Actually his book had never been as well known here as it once was in his native country.  This is odd, because in Ireland we usually have an insatiable hunger for reading what people overseas think of us.

Sodden countryside

Yet

Irisches Tagebuch

wasn’t even translated into English for a decade after it appeared.  As late as 1967, a shamefaced

Irish Times

literary editor had to admit not having known the book existed.

By then, it had cult-like status in Germany, Böll's somewhat romanticised view of Ireland devoured like the Bible by a post-war generation desperate for escape their own grim reality.

He was criticised, unfairly, for glossing the poverty.  And he did admit that, having been introduced to the country by the writings of Yeats and others, he found it much less gloomy than expected.

But he did lament the mass emigration, the urban slums, and – in a chapter called "Mayo God Help Us" – the relentless rain falling on an already sodden and depopulated countryside.  It's just that, even when the pictures were bleak, he painted them with a gentle, subversive humour.

Dead come alive

In one, fairly typical passage from

Irisches Tagebuch

, he describes the “pious, cunning blackmail” in the local habit of people affixing little plaques to church benches, asking strangers to, for example, “pray for the soul of

Mary Keegan

, who died on May 9, 1945”.

By this method, he said, “the dead come alive again”. And the effect was only heightened in his case when the dates coincided with events he remembered, such as the rise of Nazism or, in the aforementioned example, Germany’s surrender.

Reading a plaque somewhere for a boy who had died on 20.12.1930, aged 13, he wrote, “a shock went through me like an electric current, for in December 1930 I had been 13 myself: in a great dark apartment in south Cologne [...] clutching my Christmas report.”

Well, in similar vein, and as repayment for some of the pious blackmail inflicted on him, we will probably spare Böll a thought in Mount Jerome this afternoon.  For on the day Hopf died, the future writer was turning 22, with most of his eventful life still ahead.

The experiences awaiting him included conscription and being four times wounded on the Russian front.  Literary greatness loomed too.  But in between, not least among the surprises for this survivor of Nazism and war would be crossing a street near Heuston Station one day in 1954 and having an uncomfortably close encounter with a truck bearing the name and insignia of that then well-known Dublin business: the Swastika Laundry.