| 16.2°C Dublin

John-Paul McCarthy: The ties that bind in a city once divided

Taking the train from the airport into central Berlin last week, I was thinking about the various ties that bind Germany and Ireland.

The material ones require no further recapitulation alas, but there are other more spiritual ones that loom into view.

I thought I saw Hugo Hamilton get on the train at one stop, the Irish-speaking son of a German mutti who wrote a beautiful childhood memoir recalling the linguistic jousting of his Irish youth.

Hamilton's book, The Speckled People, was a sensitive play on the old Irish term for religious converts, na breac -dhaoine, one that squarely faced the ugly footprint left by German romanticism on Irish nationalism from Corkery to MacStiofain.

But it wasn't Hamilton I saw, just some other traveller on the highway of exchange.

Before you hit the city centre, you swing by Speer's huge Tempelhof complex, the last remaining part of the Hitlerian Germania fantasy that demanded a world airport worthy of a world capital. Tempelhof now looks like an empty flank of the Pentagon.

Glad to see the back of that as we close on Mitte's cafes.

Many of the neat rows of houses in the centre of the city have a ghostly 19th century vibe, what with their polished name plates, antique bells and long door handles.

They look exactly like the photos of the Ringstrasse houses of Vienna from the early 1900s, home at that stage to Freud, Klimt and Hitler's first mentor, anti-Semite mayor Karl Lueger. But something about the primness of these houses makes me think you'd have a hard time extracting a glass of water from the housewives within.

Germans react badly to naked petitioning. That's why they don't use referendums.

The prim houses reminded me of how Haughey flew to see West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in Berlin in 1981 on a top secret mission.

Convinced that Ireland was about to go super-nova in the petro-chemical stakes, Haughey asked Schmidt to loan Ireland some serious money on the back of what the then Taoiseach assumed to be millions of incoming oil pounds.

As Frank Dunlop told the story in his memoir, Yes, Taoiseach, Schmidt chain-smoked in silence as Haughey unveiled his vision of a Kuwaiti Cork before running him out of town on a rail.

One of the great surprises about Berlin to a newcomer are the boats that merrily bisect the once divided city.

Berlin's boats take you from the stunning Domkirche zu Berlin in the city centre, the Dome Cathedral built to honour Luther's dream of justification by faith alone, down the Spree until you come to the 'Washing Machine', Dr Merkel's squat cuboid chambers that loom over the water.

You can see the Charite hospital standing sentinel far off on the right as you chug down the river, widely thought to still hold the battered corpse of Rosa Luxembourg, the communist icon who was murdered by fascists in 1919. This discovery was a bit like someone announcing that the Mercy Hospital in Cork, rather than the ghostly screws of Kilmainham, had Pearse's body.

That resonant leftist tradition has reached as far as Ireland over the years. Even Albert Reynolds tried to recast aspects of the West German socialist case against partition during his brief premiership. In his O Dalaigh lecture on self-determination and international law in 1994, Reynolds said Irish nationalism was no less worthy of respect than the clause in the 1949 West German Basic Law that proclaimed the German people's desire to protect their national and civil unity.

An interesting move, probably devised by Reynolds' German-speaking adviser Martin Mansergh, who worked in Berlin during the Seventies. But augmenting nationalist claims to territorial integrity via the German Basic Law begged too many questions.

Did this mean that Reynolds saw Irish partition in 1920 as analogous to the Stalinist diktat that destroyed the political unity that Germany had enjoyed since the Franco-Prussian war?

And if so, then what to do with the unionist insistence that partition was the product, not so much of treachery at Yalta, as of deep existential cleavages in Irish society?

I thought about all this during my boat trip, as I adjusted my Panama hat to shield my eyes from the sun, and dared the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to do its worst when arrayed against my Leaving Cert German.

Not a bad bunch this faction, as financial captors go.

Sunday Independent