Tragic fate of the Niedermayers a sign of history's long reach
Living memory is a strange term. An awful lot can happen within it; an awful lot more than you would think. Living memory shifts and moves. It is only as you move away from an era that you can – almost – see it, in all its strangeness. The Boomtown Rats, the Magdalene Laundries – to take only the revivals from last week’s news – are both in their different ways flickers of a past that we’re just beginning to glimpse; even though they both existed within the lifetimes of many of us.
And so it is with Thomas Niedermayer. Here is a name that pulsed out of our television and radios from time to time for years, until it faded from our screens, seemingly forever. When he was kidnapped, on December 27th, 1973, Niedermayer became the “missing industrialist” at a time when Ireland didn’t really have industrialists – indeed we don’t have any now. Niedermayer was “the German businessman” who could not be found.
Even children watching the news from Northern Ireland during the 1970s knew that Thomas Niedermayer was certainly dead. There was a chill around the name. Was he one of those black and white photos of missing persons on the news? I don’t remember. Those photos, so casually taken, of missing people squinting into holiday sunshine, or with their 1970s hair curling over their tuxedos at a wedding.
In fact there were quite sharp photos of Niedermayer available. Unlike most of the missing and murdered in Northern Ireland, he was an executive. He was the managing director of the Grundig factory, a big employer in Belfast then. He was 45 when he died, but in the photos he looks much more. That was the severe style of the time.
The news bulletins did not tell us that when the kidnappers came to the Niedermayer house, which, far from being a mansion, was quite an ordinary house in suburban Belfast, in December 1973, Mrs Ingeborg Niedermayer was in hospital. One of the two teenage Niedermayer daughters, Renate (15) and Gabriella (18), opened the door. The kidnappers said that they had run into Thomas Niedermayer’s car outside, and asked the girls to fetch their father. He went outside to look at the car. They never saw him again.
In 1973 it was said that Thomas Niedermayer had been kidnapped to be traded for the repatriation of the Price sisters, among others, who were IRA prisoners in British jails, sentenced in November of that year for their part in the Old Bailey bombing. Within the past fortnight, Dolours Price died here in Dublin.
It was his name that saved Thomas Niedermayer from fading completely from public consciousness: it is foreign, yet easy to say, easy to remember. But over the years we heard it less and less. Other names came and went. Despite the pleas of the Niedermayer family – the girls apparently sounding very Belfast – his body was never returned to them. It was found seven years later by the RUC at a rubbish dump on the Collin river, at the Glen Road in west Belfast. He’d been buried bound and gagged, face down.
And then, in January 2012, Joe Duffy had Rose Dugdale on his programme Liveline, to discuss a controversial television series in which she was featured, Mná an IRA. A discussion on kidnapping ensued – also in the 1970s Eddie Gallagher had kidnapped Tiede Herrema, another industrialist, in an attempt to get Rose Dugdale released from jail.
Subsequently Joe Duffy was contacted by those who knew that Thomas Niedermayer’s widow, Ingeborg, had died by suicide in 1990. She drowned herself off Greystones, Co Wicklow.
Joe Duffy and Ciarán Cassidy, of RTÉ’s documentary unit, soon found out that Thomas Niedermayer’s daughter Renate had killed herself the following year, in South Africa, in 1991. Niedermayer’s older daughter, Gabrielle, took her own life in 1993 in the south of England, near Torquay. Gabrielle’s husband, Robert, killed himself three years after that.
Duffy and Cassidy discovered all this through talking to the granddaughters of Thomas and Ingeborg Niedermayer. These young women, Robin and Tania, both now mothers themselves, are the children of the late Gabrielle Niedermayer.
Their terrible history, and their survival, gives another dimension to the term living memory. With their grandmother, their mother, their father and their aunt all dead, they are the only living links to the grandfather they never knew.
We talk comfortably about the history of the Troubles, but it is impossible for us to know it. The suffering of the Niedermayer family, the McConville family or any of the Bloody Sunday victims’ families, to give just three examples out of thousands, is impossible for us to understand. No one can say where political violence meets everyday vulnerability to send an entire family hurtling to disaster.
No one can explain the long-term results of violence on the victims’ relatives years and decades later.
So it is salutary as well as fascinating to listen to a documentary – to be broadcast on Saturday week – that outlines the history of the Niedermayer family, and of all that has happened to it since December 27th, 1973.
A Knock on the Door, Documentary On One, RTÉ Radio One, Saturday, February 16th, 6pm