Growing up in a fifth floor flat in landlocked Bavaria I dreamed of the sea like others dream of a bicycle. I had a bicycle. I had many things, pencils, books, T-shirts for summer, woolly hats for winter. My parents had been young children during the Second World War. They talked to me about air raids and frostbite, playing among rubble. They didn’t talk about peace. By the time I was born in the mid-1970s it had been there for three decades, like negative space surrounding the actual shapes in a drawing, like water when we ran the tap. War was a black and white world, like a clip on TV, the thing my parents had been through.
I first came to Ireland after I’d finished school. A favourite teacher’s tales of Dublin and Donegal convinced me that I, too, had to go there. It was simple, a call of the wild. Once there, something clicked. Like my teacher, I kept returning, travelled the length and breadth of the island. History wasn’t something I thought much about in those early days. I thought about water instead, how it surrounded the place I had hopped onto as if in a dream. I felt alive in Ireland, alive and receptive. These were the things I wrote about in my journal, tried to explain to friends and family. I walked beaches, watched my feet disappear in sand, saltwater swirling as I listened to the same Cranberries album over and over again on a Walkman: No Need to Argue.
Staying in a place for brief periods of time is a different experience from living in it. Excited by the challenge, in 2000 I settled with my partner in the border area between Derry and Donegal. Up until then my knowledge of the Troubles was based on news reports and hearsay. Yet, when I walked the streets of Derry I was struck by two things: how safe I felt, and how architecturally beautiful the city was. Over time I understood that, despite the recent Good Friday Agreement, the situation was anything but straightforward. I crossed the border most days, did my groceries in British chain stores, witnessed bomb scares in the city. Nearby Inishowen was wild and beautiful, a haven for my old dream of Ireland. At first, my attempt to reconcile this dream with the area I now called home seemed like a jigsaw puzzle: as if, once certain parts were in place, some kind of all-encompassing whole would emerge. This never happened. Instead, I became accustomed to paradox as a baseline to virtually everything. I got to know stories of different alliances, different people talking about the same issue in wildly different ways, locked into viewpoints like Bavarians are locked into land. On certain days Ireland seemed small, impossible. There was a lot to learn: history, a living thing, with everyone involved, everyone shaping it, a state of flux, no end in sight, the old water imagery taking on new meanings. ‘The dynamics of conflict are predictable. Peace is a different matter,’ a mediator in the Northern Ireland peace process commented on his work in a public talk.
A side effect of all this was that I began to look differently also at Germany. In a small bookshop in Belfast I found Rachel Seiffert’s novel The Dark Room and devoured it. Exploring the impact of the Second World War from three German generations’ perspectives, not only did the book bring my parents’ experiences back into view, it shifted them: the negative space around our shared time, was it really peace? The closer I looked, the more I saw, here, there and everywhere. I understood that I had lived through a childhood where the residue of conflict was as palpable as the bicycle I used to ride. Just like people on this island, I, too, had been shaped by silences, assumptions, longings not entirely my own.
I have lived on the island for so long now that sometimes I forget to walk the beach. I’ve absorbed patterns of questioning, responding, forgetting. I’ve blended into something like leaves into soil. I don’t know much about farms and lambing really, but all year round, I walk the country lanes in awe. My knowledge of the people who were killed or disappeared is limited, yet I’ve come to learn that peace, while supposedly wanted by all, is daily work.
This is a place where people are trying to heal. They talk a lot. They’re good at silences, too, healthy and not so healthy ones. For centuries people on this island have travelled huge distances, both physically, to other countries, and in conversation, over cups of tea in small houses, all the way to the bottom of history and back. I’m still an outsider, but I’ve always felt welcome here, even if the contradictions make me nauseous sometimes, and the old contrast between land and water has long worn thin.
Despite all this, or maybe because of it, these are times I, like many others, didn’t expect. More than anything history seems like a feeling right now. A feeling of being locked into something many believed to have left behind. The impulse is to howl from a hilltop: Give my head peace. Give this place peace.
When things get complicated it helps to describe what’s in plain sight: no border. ‘Some roads start here and end there, somehow allowing a wound to heal,’ Clare Dwyer Hogg observed beautifully in her 2018 short film Hard Border.
I have never once doubted the possibility of peace. I’m a German woman in a remote place. There are others like me, people from all over the world who call this place home alongside those who have lived here all their lives, all of us with reasons of our own, for being where we are, for wanting to sustain this possibility of peace. In the face of history, here’s hope we amount to a critical mass.
[This essay was inspired by my participation in the XBorders ‘Accord’ programme run by the Irish Writers Centre. It was first published by The Corridor, March 2019.]