A first-rate piece of historical investigative journalism
BBC Northern Ireland’s output can often be, to put it bluntly, drearily parochial and of little interest to anyone outside the local audience. To be fair, this can also be true of RTÉ at its laziest and least ambitious.
So when something with genuinely universal appeal does come along, it’s easy to miss it. Credit, then, to TG4 for showing the excellent documentary Nazi sa Ghaeltacht (tonight, 9.30pm), which, to my embarrassment, slipped below my radar when broadcast on BBC2 NI two years ago.
There’s a faint whiff of Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle about this extraordinary story — minus, of course, the murder, mayhem, melodrama and a naked Kate Nelligan.
That’s not intended to trivialise the story, but merely to underline its stranger-than-fiction qualities. With a few fictional embellishments, it would fit comfortably between the covers of a wartime espionage novel.
Presenter Kevin Magee, a veteran investigative journalist, went to the tiny hamlet of Teileann in South Donegal to learn Irish over 40 years ago. He was fascinated by a rumour that a Nazi spy had lived in the community for a spell in the immediate pre-war years.
With the help of historians, archivists, military experts, documents written by the man at the centre of the story and contributions from the descendants of key witnesses to what happened, Magee unearths a tale as sinister as it is bizarre.
Ludwig Mühlhausen, a linguist and professor of Celtic studies at Humboldt University in Berlin, arrived in Teileann in 1937. The ostensible purpose of his visit was to polish his already proficient Irish and to learn about Irish folklore.
This is not as odd as it seems today. Apparently, Celtic studies had surged in Germany at the end of the 19th century, so a German academic turning up in Teileann made perfect sense.
Mühlhausen was unwittingly welcomed by noted local folklorist Seán Ó hEochaidh, who took him under his wing, having no idea of who and what the German really was.
Mühlhausen didn’t exactly hide the fact that he was an enthusiastic Nazi. The first thing he did after moving into a house owned by a local fisherman, where he stayed for six weeks, speaking only Irish for the duration, was to put a picture of Adolf Hitler on the wall.
In the mornings, he could be heard singing along with the Nazi anthems blaring from his gramophone. Then again, this was 1937, two years before Germany invaded Poland.
Mühlhausen’s presence might have passed with little more than short-lived curiosity were it not for what he got up to when he wasn’t recording — on paper and on the wax cylinders of an Ediphone — the folk tales spun by renowned local storytellers such as Seamus Ó Casaide, who he befriended.
He took photographs of everything he saw. He was particularly impressed with the landscape and with how the pier opened out onto the sea.
A strong swimmer, he used plumb lines to measure the depth of the water in and around Teileann Bay. Locals later speculated he was trying to ascertain if it would accommodate German submarines.
In the evenings, he frequented those Céilí houses where the talk was usually about current affairs and farming. Mühlhausen openly criticised local farming methods, which he saw as shockingly inefficient and wasteful. It would be much better, he suggested, if Irish farming was put under the control of Germany.
He had clear-cut views on the Irish as a race, too. They were, he told his superiors, split into two types: those who blindly believe everything the Catholic Church tells them, and those who form their own opinions.
Mühlhausen sent all the information he amassed — photographs, documents, recordings — back to Germany. The spy was helping lay the groundwork for a planned German invasion of Ireland, which Hitler saw as a backdoor into Britain.
All this is fascinating in itself, but the story really takes off when we learn what happened two years later, when Mühlhausen, who was a decorated member of the SS, was back in Berlin and Germany was rampaging across Europe.
This is a riveting, first-rate piece of historical investigative journalism by Kevin Magee.