Monday, April 18, 2016
A German’s view of subdued Ireland exposes raw nerve
Pointing out our failure to learn from painful past continues to enjoy an enduring appeal
German chancellor Angela Merkel: Indicated “contempt” for such people following the Anglo Irish Bank tapes revelations. Photograph: EPA
Once upon a time, today’s news was tomorrow’s fish-wrap. But, no more. Almost three years after “Conned, A German View Of Ireland" made its first appearance in The Irish Times, the article has just made its fourth comeback on the Irish Times. Why?
The story goes back to July 2013, when I spotted the original article, “Abgezockt”, on the prominent page three slot of the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung. The article, written by the newspaper’s London correspondent Christian Zaschke, was a striking read.
Like most German media outlets, the Süddeutsche has no full-time correspondent in Ireland, meaning that coverage of the island is sporadic and often superficial.
But this article was different. It was clear Zaschke had spent time travelling Ireland, talking to people and listening to what they said – and asking them about what they were not saying. Unlike most German media coverage of Ireland – often superficial and cliche-ridden – this got under our skin.
The article was well-observed, beautifully written and well-timed. Days earlier, the infamous Anglo Irish Bank tapes had leaked, exposing the full contempt of its bankers for the Irish taxpayers and – in the infamous Deutschland Über Alles segment – for Germany. When I asked Chancellor Angela Merkel about the tapes, after another late-night emergency summit in Brussels, she said she had “contempt” for such people.
Zaschke wanted to know why Irish contempt for people who had screwed them over in the past – over oil and fish reserves – didn’t stop us allowing them do it again
Aisling Murphy, a psychologist and member of a Dalkey protest group against off-shore oil drilling, told the newspaper: “We are a land that lies still while we are bled dry.”
But why? Ms Murphy suggested it originating in the Irish fear of making a fuss.
“On top of that is something that, in psychological terms, you call ‘acquired helplessness’,” she said. Ireland was the sovereign equivalent of a battered wife, she suggested, that “quietly puts up with it”.
For Zaschke at the time, the article turned on his head the image he – and many of his German readers – had of the “fighting Irish”: fearless rebels who delight in challenging authority.
It was a daring article for a German newspaper to run in 2013, given the popular crisis narrative in some Irish quarters at the time that the Germans, and not the Irish, were primarily to blame for the country’s misery.
I got permission to run the article, translated it quickly, and it appeared on our pages on July 6th, 2013, under the headline: “Conned – A German View of Ireland.”
It shot to the top of the most-read articles, with the first online comment: “Why can’t we get critical analysis like that from our own journalists?”
“Conned” went viral and enjoyed a second coming in October-November of 2013. By year-end, “Conned” was the most-clicked article on Irishtimes.com. But things did not end there. “Conned” rose from the dead a third time in August 2015 – again pushed by social media. And yet again in the last seven days.
The largest spike in readers comes from Facebook links from posting such as “Call for a revolution in Ireland”. Another reason is the virtuous circle of online journalism, where most-read articles get a bounce for featuring on the most-read list. And perhaps the headline triggers a “what do the Germans think of us?” itch that many cannot resist scratching.
David Cochrane, Irish Times social media editor, refers to the article as “evergreen content” – something with a lasting message that remains relevant despite the passage of time.
That’s a view shared by Zaschke. He thinks the article touched a nerve not because of the various political sell-outs he described – of oil, gas and fish reserves – and more because of the red thread linking them.
“I think people see an elite in Ireland that doesn’t care for the country, an elite people have tolerated for too long and which now has to be held to account,” he said. “When people contact me after reading the article now, they are baffled to hear the story is almost three years old. I guess they think its message is still valid.”