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‘It’s an easy place to live’: Meet the growing band of Irish artists at the top of their game in Berlin

Many Irish creatives have moved to Germany. A new culture programme, Zeitgeist Irland 24, aims to promote their work throughout this year

It’s a long way from Banbridge to Berlin, but the German capital is now the playground of celebrated Northern Ireland DJ, Cormac.

In demand all over Europe for his techno and Hi-NRG sets, Cormac is a regular, too, at Berlin’s Panorama Bar weekend parties.

Crowned one of “24 reasons to love Berlin in 2024″ by Exberliner magazine, he is part of a growing band of Irish artists who are at the top of their game in Germany.

On Thursday, Tánaiste Micheál Martin was in Berlin to launch Zeitgeist Irland 24 in Germany, a year-long programme of cultural events and experiments by Irish creatives.


With €2.5 million in funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Culture Ireland, the hope is to broaden and deepen German understandings of what, in 21st century Europe, Irish identity and culture actually are. So what are they?

Definitely not “Guinness and stew”, as one German national radio station suggested in a recent Zeitgeist report. Instead, the programme includes everything from electronic music to edgy dance shows. As a busy cultural year kicks off, then, what do Irish people already here have to say about making it in Germany?

Cormac McAdam grew up in a musical family and two worlds: between Newry and Belfast for daily life and in Dublin and Monaghan for many St Patrick’s Days and summers.

His gateway drug to electronic music was when raves came to Banbridge in the 1990s after “certain paramilitary groups realised there may be money to be made by certain things that go along with a rave”.

There is a recognition here that clubs are cultural institutions, so the likelihood that they will continue here is at least greater than elsewhere

—  Cormac McAdam

After studying psychology in Derry, he moved to London aged 20 and, after a period as a self-described “club ornament”, he began learning the DJ trade from friends. Bookings, residencies and success followed, but a shift in club music tastes saw him taking longer trips to Berlin. Soon he found in the German capital things no longer available to him in London.

“The main thing was space: not just physical space but mental space,” said the DJ, who is open about his mental health and past substance abuse issues.

Even with growing price pressures in Berlin, Cormac still sees the city as an “incredibly easy” place to live: accessible and somewhere where people “feel less pressure to do the 9-to-5″.

The possibilities of this flexibility and accessibility – from public transport to therapy covered by public healthcare – are all issues he raises with creative friends in his thoughtful new podcast, Cormac’s Queerly Beloved. So how has Berlin helped him?

“As a creative you have to have time to ponder things here, even be bored, to fail better as a skill to succeeding in something,” he said. After watching gentrification eradicate many old haunts in London, Cormac hopes Berlin will be more far-sighted about its famous nightclubs.

“There is a recognition here that clubs are cultural institutions,” he said, “so the likelihood that they will continue here is at least greater than elsewhere”.

Combine these locations with Ireland’s growing electronic music superstars – think Bicep and Saoirse – and Cormac sees a bright future for Germany and Ireland in Berlin.

One of Zeitgeist Irland 24′s aims is to reach far beyond Berlin, given Germany’s cultural jewels – and audiences – can be found across this vast country of 16 federal states.

Already leading the way here is Killian Farrell. After spells in Bremen and Stuttgart, the Dublin conductor picked up the baton last September as general music director at the Meiningen State Theatre’s hoforchester (court orchestra). Around since 1680 in eastern Thuringia, the Meiningen orchestra worked personally with the biggest classical music names, from Franz Liszt to Johannes Brahms. Richard Wagner hired the orchestra for his first Bayreuth festival.

Now halfway through his first season in Meiningen, the 29-year-old has already presented a range of Irish music including contemporary Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy’s new violin concerto and Bill Whelan’s Riverdance suite.

“They were well received, there’s an interest and mystique to Ireland that Germans are aware of,” said Farrell.

While long planning times in Germany mean he won’t be participating in the Zeitgeist programme, Farrell has other ideas for sustainable cultural diplomacy.

“I would love to commission three works by Irish composers as that is an area where Ireland is under-represented,” he said. “But commissioning is expensive and it would be wonderful to have external funding from Ireland for that.”

Like all Irish people interviewed for this article, Farrell is wary of being seen to be offering unsolicited advice, or be accused of comparing Irish and German cultural worlds – given very different historical traditions.

The arts are not there to make money or break even, and considering the arts financially is a fallacy that is never going to be realistic

—  Killian Farrell

But there are hard facts, too. Among his fellow arts students still working in the field, he says none are working in Ireland. Many have been attracted by generous German support. Take the Meiningen theatre and orchestra: its annual budget of €22.5 million is almost 10 times the entire funding for Zeitgeist.

That creates space for creating, says Farrell. Surviving a very different Irish reality – of annual arts budgets and itinerant companies – requires a very different kind of creativity.

“The arts are not there to make money or break even, and considering the arts financially is a fallacy that is never going to be realistic,” said Farrell. “We need to accept that, as taxpayers, we pay money into the arts to enrich our society in general.”

Tara Erraught is confident things are changing for the better in Ireland. The German-based mezzo-soprano from Dundalk was set to sing at Thursday’s Zeitgeist opening concert. Then a last-minute call came from Munich asking her to parachute into Ariadne auf Naxos at the Bavarian state opera.

It was an echo of her big break there in 2011, as a last-minute replacement Romeo, that helped launch an international career.

Given Zeitgeist literally translates as “spirit of the moment”, 38-year-old Erraught thinks the year-long programme is well-timed to highlight a “huge classical music renaissance” she sees in Ireland.

From the transfer of the RTÉ orchestras to the National Concert Hall and Irish National Opera’s joint productions with European houses, Erraught hopes 2024 will see more than one-way traffic of Irish creatives to Germany.

Tara Erraught: Mezzo-soprano

“We have to make sure the German industry and performers know they are welcome to come and help us make – or, rather, remake – our own classical tradition,” she says. While some might see her musical world as alien or elitist, Erraught points out that things looked very different three centuries ago.

“Dublin was the king of what now [is called] baroque music,” she said, “so, in a sense, this could be a homecoming.”

Thinking big in 2024 is the wish, too, of Marguerite Donlon. The Longford-born dancer and choreographer has made it in her career, working with Rudolf Nureyev and William Forsythe. Her dancing life in Germany began at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper in 1990 and, as a choreographer now, she has worked on leading stages in Germany, the US and around the world.

Tight deadlines and budgets means she views her upcoming Zeitgeist show – a collaboration with actor Mary Kelly and DJ Dara Smith – as a creative “blind date” of poetry, dance and electronic music.

“For the Irish diaspora here, Zeitgeist is a great chance to help and give back what we have gained in experience outside the country,” said Donlon. “But with the amazing creative ingredients and talent we have in Ireland, people should have even more faith in themselves and go for something even bigger.”

The questions Zeitgeist Irland 24 hopes to address in Germany – what is Irish culture today, and who gets to define it? – are not new. The same questions framed Ireland’s last big cultural push into Germany in 1996 as a guest country at the world’s largest book fair in Frankfurt. Under the theme “Ireland and its Diaspora”, London-based Edna O’Brien was the only diaspora member in an Irish delegation that included John Banville and Hugo Hamilton.

Still, then-president Mary Robinson used her visit to acknowledge “the significance of the Irish diaspora in helping to define Irishness and to renew our sense of Irish identity”.

Ireland is basically Norway-lite but instead of oil it has tax breaks for its multinationals

—  Dr Fergal Lenehen

Amid the talking, reading and drinking, a running joke among the visiting Irish writers was: “I didn’t feel too well this morning, but it’s nothing that a couple of diaspora can’t cure”.

Nearly 30 years on, is the talk of the diaspora any further along? A very different Ireland has, at home, embraced many new and diverse ideas of Irish identity. How ready are the island Irish to accept a redefinition of Irish identity and culture from the Irish who left?

In a 1996 Sunday Tribune article, German-Irish writer Hamilton wrote that the Irish diaspora idea “was a success as a marketing exercise”. Nearly 30 years on, how does he think Zeitgeist Irland 24 will play out in Germany? He sees potential – and a need – for reinvention of Irish identity, once it sticks to what has been proven to work.

“Perhaps what German people admire so much about the Irish is our ability to remain outside the facts,” he said. “We keep making it up. It’s part of our identity to fabricate our identity. A cultural survival story.”

But is reinvention enough as a unique selling point in today’s Europe? Is today’s Ireland really that different any more from its European neighbours?

“Ireland is basically Norway-lite but instead of oil it has tax breaks for its multinationals,” suggests Dr Fergal Lenehan, a German-based academic employed by ReDiCo, a federal research programme on digital interculturality.

Rather than cling to care-worn cultural touchstones – Ireland is Joyce, stout, harps – he sees potential to align with Germany on “transnational commonalities”. By that, he means embracing shared values as bridges, seeing cultural exchange “as a kind of international solidarity rather than trying to ‘market’ Ireland in cultural terms”.

Any such ambition will have to overcome deep-seated habits of Irish cultural diplomacy. In a 1996 report on the Frankfurt Book Fair, an Irish Times report warned that Dublin’s “penny-pinching” had brought the Irish participation to “dance on the edge of disaster”.

“Funding for the event was so low,” wrote Paddy Woodworth, “that, several times last spring, it appeared that it was not going to happen at all”.

The cultural, economic and academic arguments in favour of offering and supporting German are now further strengthened by Ireland’s special position as the largest English-speaking country in the EU since Brexit

—  Prof Gisela Holfter

Some of those participating in Zeitgeist Irland 24 – and many who chose not to – question just how far €2.5 million can stretch over an entire year in a country four times the size of Ireland.

With 110 projects and 400 artists involved, participants say they have been paid mainly for covering travel and accommodation.

“Isn’t Ireland lucky we can create for free,” joked one artist.

Another described the Zeitgeist funding – and deadlines – as “absurd”. A third observed that the open-call approach taken guarantees “a year of the best Irish talent at cultural funding application-writing”.

A final consideration for closer cultural exchange is former chancellor Willy Brandt’s advice that, if you want to sell to the Germans: “dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.”

As largely monolingual islanders, more at home on Spanish beaches than atop the Bavarian Alps, Ireland’s interaction with Germany carries a huge cultural imbalance both in visitor numbers and those who speak the other’s language.

University of Limerick professor Gisela Holfter points out it is nearly 250 years since the first German studies chair was founded, in 1776 at Dublin’s Trinity College. German language-learning in Ireland today is mixed at best.

And this is despite the new opportunities – and challenges – of the UK’s departure from the EU.

“The cultural, economic and academic arguments in favour of offering and supporting German are now further strengthened,” argues Prof Holfter, “by Ireland’s special position as the largest English-speaking country in the EU since Brexit”.

After 12 years, singer-songwriter Wallis Bird is putting down roots with friends to renovate a 150-year-old farmhouse outside Berlin. She is optimistic about the year ahead of diverse artistic encounters.

“All the world is art but art cannot exist without space . . . and moving inspiration,” she said. “I’m excited that the Irish embassy in Berlin and Culture Ireland are highlighting German and Irish mutual respect and exchange.”

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