I don’t know if the late TK Whitaker and (the even later) Heinrich Böll ever crossed paths during their very different lives. But if they’ve met anywhere since, posthumously, they had enough in common for an interesting conversation.
Both were December babies, for one thing, born a year apart in 1916 and 1917.
Whitaker just outlived his 100th birthday before leaving us last January. Böll would have been 100 this coming Christmas, although he died a long way short of the century, in 1985.
But this year also marks two other Böll anniversaries: the 60th of his famously influential (in Germany anyway) Irisches Tagebuch, and the 50th of its translation into English, as Irish Journal, for which he wrote a new foreword.
And even in that short interval of a decade, he found Ireland utterly transformed from the country he first visited in 1954. It had since "caught up with two centuries," he suggested, "and leaped over another five". Allowing for some poetic licence, the changes Böll noticed in 1967 were largely due to the Whitaker-Lemass reforms that had indeed produced a Great Leap Forward, economically, during those years.
But perhaps behind his exaggeration of their effect, there was defensiveness.
Maybe in 1967, Böll was himself experiencing the doubts that, on the book’s first publication, he expected from some readers. Hence his mock-legal disclaimer in 1957: “This Ireland exists: but whoever goes there and fails to find it has no claim on the author.”
He needn't have worried about his compatriots' faith, at least. Germany's love affair with the Irish Journal was consummated early on by a fellow writer who declared it among "the most beautiful and worthy books written in the last 50 years".
And about two million sales later, in 2010, another German novelist recalled it in spiritual terms as a “bible” that had inspired generations to follow Böll’s footsteps here.
It was with some of his belated Irish readership that Böll had problems, either for seeming to romanticise the picturesque poverty, or for overstating it. From the former camp, Conor Cruise O’Brien called it a “ghastly little book”. From the latter, at least one reviewer demanded an apology. But even if the poor, devoutly religious country with which Böll was so charmed is long gone, it’s a sorrowful mystery that the book has remained so little known here outside a niche readership, in a country usually obsessed with what outsiders think of us.
Recall the furore in 2007 when a later German missionary to these parts, Ambassador Pauls, uttered some home truths about the Celtic Tiger, which were accidentally relayed to a wider than intended audience. It's probably just as well, if Böll was dazzled by the changes brought in by Whitaker-Lemass, that he didn't live to see the 2007 version of Ireland.
But then and now, the original Journal has remained a cult affair here, perhaps imprisoned by an outdated English translation.
It remains to be seen whether the author’s centenary will revive interest. Either way, the birthday celebrations have already started – yesterday – because the April/May bank holiday brings with it the now annual Böll weekend on his beloved Achill.
This year's opening day featured a bus tour of the island, a lecture last night by Hugo Hamilton, and introductory remarks by the current German ambassador, Matthias Höpfner (which had not caused any diplomatic incidents at time of going to press).
The festival continues today, when events will include a lecture by the Swedish novelist Lotta Lundberg, who herself may illustrate how much we are confined by the English language in this country.
I had – frankly – never heard of Lotta Lundberg until now.
Neither had you, probably.
But she's well known on mainland Europe, both for her books and for her regular newspaper column (usually about Germany, where she lives) in Svenska Dagbladet.
And we should certainly know her a bit better, because not only did she spend some years among us, in 1980s Limerick, she immortalised that "memorable time" in one of her novels.
Her talk today – on "The Right to Remain Romantic" – is at 2pm in Dugort, where there will also be readings of Böll's work, and where his old cottage will be open to the public. Tomorrow's programme is dominated a boat trip to Clare Island, for more tours and readings. But the weekend will end back on the mainland – the Achill mainland, that is – on Sunday evening, when Ambassador Höpfner unveils a centenary plaque. (boll100.ie)