Fed up with the precarious Dublin rental market, artist and performer Dee Mulrooney and her husband decided to up sticks when they were in their forties and move their young family to Germany
Back in July 2015, my husband and I were renting a house in Donaghmede. It was basically beside my mam and dad and we were saving up to buy it and make it our own. Then, out of nowhere, the landlord terminated the tenancy and it felt like the bottom dropped out of our world.
At the time it was devastating because we had two young kids (then aged seven and 10). It was an absolute bolt out of the blue and it completely changed everything for us in an instant.
I remember we went out to the back garden and we were looking up at the Donaghmede sky. We started talking about what we were going to do next. Were we going to continue to rent from people that could just control our lives in a second or take charge ourselves?
We thought, ‘Is this it? Is this our life? Are we ever going to live where we want to live?’ It was as if we just had to take what we got. It sounds crazy now, but I was even thinking of getting a house in Leitrim and driving back and forth every day to my teaching job in Dublin.
At the time, we had been spending our summers in Berlin because my brother was living there, so I turned to my husband, Richie, and said, ‘What about Berlin?’ He said yes immediately because, in his heart, he’s a traveller.
Truth be told, Richie wasn’t happy in the suburbs anyway. Funnily enough, we had gone to see a David Bowie exhibition in Berlin that summer and when we got back to Dublin, he opened a David Bowie book randomly on a page that said, ‘the suburbs is the death of the soul’.
We had to fight very hard to have any kind of cultural life in the suburbs. Plus, if you have kids in Ireland, you’re excluded from most of society and your world becomes very small.
You’re not really welcome in restaurants, especially if your kids are in any way neurodivergent or not impeccably behaved. Yet in Berlin, it’s more of an outdoor lifestyle and there are playgrounds every couple of hundred metres. And I can’t tell you how much as a parent of young kids, that changes your life…
And so, in July 2015, we came to Berlin on a wing and a prayer in our white Ford Transit van, with two kids and our dog. Richie works as a carpenter and he basically had his entire workshop stuffed into the back. We had no apartment lined up and no jobs organised, but we just knew we had to make a move.
We left during the worst storm in years and the boat was so bad that we basically spent 12 hours in the cabin vomiting. The dog was really nervous and I was basically having a nervous breakdown — I kept thinking the weather wasn’t a good omen. By the time we arrived at the campsite in the thunder and lightning, I was like a shadow of a woman.
When I look back at that first year now, we were so fragile. We were middle-aged, pretty much — I was 42 and Richie was 44. We took the only apartment we could get and we didn’t have one piece of furniture. I remember Richie was making furniture in the middle of the night and bringing it downstairs so the landlord didn’t know he was making it.
To make things worse, the kids didn’t fit into the first school they went to. We just weren’t made to feel welcome. I remember a teacher saying, ‘Your children are very strange’. The language they were using was about 20 years behind Ireland.
It was a baptism of fire but, then, things started to change. I got a job as an art teacher and the kids started attending the same school. I was the head of the art department in the school I worked in in Dublin but I had to start at the bottom of the pile in Berlin. Still, it was a much better fit for the kids.
We’re not going to buy a flat here but we’re members of a property collective just outside of Berlin. There’s six of us including our children and we’re protected by German legal structures. We have tenant rights that we didn’t have in Dublin and what happened to us in 2015 can’t happen to us here.
In saying that, it sometimes feels like we came in on the last train and the last carriage to Berlin. Since then it has gotten harder and harder. These days, there are young Irish artists paying €600 for a tiny room in [Berlin district] Neukölln.
Still, right now, I believe that Berlin is a better place to be if you’re an artist. There is just a willingness to create together here. It feels like there is more of a creative generosity and people are more collaborative than they are competitive.
It sparks creativity too. I became an artist in Berlin — and I never would have used that word to describe myself before.
My alter-ego/performance piece Growler started as an agony aunt in my friend’s magazine The Wild Word. Growler is an 82-year-old vulva from the Liberties. She is a drum-banging, shamanic alchemist, who transmutes women’s pain through storytelling, song and spoken word.
Initially, Growler was going to be a glove puppet and I was going to perform with her for the first time at Craw, an Irish music and arts festival we set up in Berlin. It was my friend Eva Garland who suggested that I was Growler, and then created the costume.
When I performed her at Craw it was a disaster, and I forgot all my words. It was around the time of Repeal and I had full-blown endometriosis at the time. It was like art in action and I learned a lot about boundaries from that experience.
Since then, I’ve done some really hard gigs where I’ve just been met with a wall of silence. People don’t get it and I think, ‘Is this crap art?’ Yet every time I perform her, there’s always a woman in floods of tears. Afterwards they come up to me and say, ‘I was born in a Mother and Baby Home’, or ‘my mum was born in a Mother and Baby Home’ and that’s exactly what I needed to hear…’ And that’s why I do it. Even if I touch just one woman — that’s enough.
I’m really interested in what happens to me as an artist when I’m in Growler and I’d love to push that more. It kind of sounds nuts but the more and more I do it, I step aside and Growler emerges. I put her on and she smells like an ancestor….
We moved to Berlin out of necessity, as an emergency of sorts. I don’t believe that suffering is essential to making art but in my case it certainly became a vessel for dealing with the trauma of transplanting our family to Berlin.
I found a space to express my inner life that didn’t mean sacrificing my mental health.
Leaving Ireland tore me in two but gave me a perspective I never would have had by staying. I have learned to live with homesickness but not let it cloud my judgement. I am more connected to my ancestors and Ireland than I ever was in Ireland. You can absolutely have your heart in two places at the same time.
For the foreseeable future Berlin is our home, Growler was created here, she has made me face my fears; she brought me home to myself, rooted to heart, not to place.
We could have stayed in Ireland and made it work somehow, but at what expense? It was so hard to leave Ireland, especially with kids, and it was almost impossible to escape the hamster wheel and the mountainous inequity.
It seems a crazy thought to take control of your own destiny when it comes to the property market in Ireland, but that’s what we did. We’ve realised that people aren’t meant to just survive. They’re meant to thrive.”
As told to Katie Byrne
Dee Mulrooney’s Growler is performing as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival in Dublin Castle from September 10 to 14. See fringefest.com; deirdre-mulrooney.com