You know what they say about us Irish immigrants—we leave the country for a better life and then sing sad songs about how we want to go home. We don’t think of using Gaeilge until we’re surrounded by people using their own native language.
I really bought into that stereotype when I moved to Frankfurt, Germany last July. I got a job in 5 Elements Hostel, where my friend Len has worked since 2015, and I have since become the human embodiment of Amhránn na bhFiann.
While I love Germany, and life in Frankfurt is more fun than I could have imagined, I’ve also never been more patriotic. Some days are worse than others—the other week, the only music I listened to was Irish trad and the soundtrack to the 1916 Centenary. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve watched Riverdance. Len, meanwhile, swears she knows more Irish now than she ever did in school.
We don’t know every word, and we’re definitely making mistakes in grammar and verb conjugations at times, but the fact is that we’re speaking it; all the time, every day, and we love it. Once we bumped into a guy on the street (not as dodgy as it sounds) who recognised our accents and started speaking to us as Gaeilge. We, of course, all ended up in O’Reilly’s Irish pub.
Our Irishisms are spreading—we’re greeted by co-workers of all nationalities asking “What’s the craic?” and if you ask “Cén t-am é?”, almost everyone knows to look at the clock. I asked Sarah, from Germany, a question the other day and she shrugged and said, “Níl a fhios agam”—“I don’t know”. One of our housemates, Fabian, originally from Indonesia, has even begun to decipher our conversations. Len once asked me where something was, and I answered, “Imithe”.
“Gone,” Fabi said from the other side of the room.
“What did you say?”
“Imithe—gone,” he said.
“How do you know that?”
“You say it all the time, man!” he laughed. “I also know ‘Bfhéidir’—maybe.”
Len and I looked at each other, halfway torn between pride and worry. Most of the time, our conversations in Irish go no further than what we’ll get to eat, what we’ll do later that evening—or simply telling each other we’re going to the bathroom—the one thing every Irish person is guaranteed to know is “An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas?” But even so, we had never imagined the possibility of people being able to understand us.
Perhaps the most heavily influenced by us Irish girls is our Slovenian housemate, Ursi. Her favourite song is by Galway-based Daithí, and her dream is to visit Kilfinora. Somehow she’s picked up a Dublin accent, despite Len and I both being from County Limerick, and if she’s in any way stressed out you can hear her shout of “FOR FOOK’S SAKE” echo around the hostel.
Once, she walked into the apartment to myself and Len watching the Bórd Gáis 1916 Centenary celebration. Curious, she sat down to watch it with us, and Len and I explained some historical context to her along the way.
By the end of it she was like some direct descendent of Michael Collins himself. She became angry and patriotic on our behalf. “But it’s YOUR land! How could they do this to you!? For fook’s sake!”
It’s unreal to still be surrounded by such familiar sayings when I’m not at home; it’s a far cry from when I first arrived, and the reply to ‘What’s the craic?’ was either ‘What?’ or ‘I don’t have any crack, sorry’.
Just today, Ursi was on an Aldi website, and when we realised she had somehow ended up on Aldi Ireland, a cheer erupted in the apartment. “IT’S ALDI.IE!” “ALDI IRELAAAAAAND!” “WOOO!”
Len and I thought, Frankfurt is like a mini Ireland–we wouldn’t find this anywhere else in Europe.
But when we left Frankfurt, that’s when things got—well, weird.
We travelled to Berlin, to a two-day party for hostel workers, and as we arrived at the hostel, Len asked, “D’you think there’ll be any Irish guests here?”
Before she had even finished speaking, a voice piped up from a big group of people sitting around a table at the back of the lobby, “C’mere lad, where’s the toilet?” in the thickest Cork accent I’ve ever heard.
Len and I just looked at each other and laughed. Of course the first thing we find in Berlin is a group of thirty-strong Irish!
Later that evening, we hostel-workers all sat around getting to know each other. Most of the workers were German, and Len and I were the only native English speakers. The inevitable question came up. “Where are you from?”
“Ireland,” we said.
“IRELAND!” came the response from Emily, a German girl. “I lived in Ireland for a few months!”
“No way, where?” – expecting to hear the usual response of Dublin.
“I worked on a farm in Sligo and spent some time on Achill Island!”
Okay—unexpected. “And did you pick up any Irish while you were there?” I asked jokingly.
“Fuair,” she replied—the Irish for cold.
She didn’t know the word for hot—she must have missed the Week of Irish Summer.
“I lived in Ireland for a while too!” added Stefanie, from Austria. “I was an au pair in Skibbereen!”
A little while later, the group of Irish we had seen earlier had left the hostel and were on their way to the pub, chanting “UP THE ’RA!”
Were we really in Germany? Had we accidentally travelled back to Limerick? Was home-sickness making us delusional?
After a great few days, Len and I flew from Berlin to Bratislava, where we would subsequently catch the bus to Vienna to see one of our favourite artists, SOHN, perform. I know, I know’— ’tis far from casual trips to Slovakia and Austria we were reared.
We were buzzing, partly from excitement, partly from getting to Slovakia without incident, as we had gotten lost for four hours in Berlin just a few days before. Our mood was improved even more by the friendliness of the Slovakian bus driver, who chatted away to us as he put our luggage in the compartment.
“So where are you ladies from?” he asked as we paid for our tickets. (Which, by the way, were seven euro. SEVEN EURO. Seven euro won’t get you thirty minutes down the road with Bus Éireann, and here we were crossing borders!)
“We’re from Ireland,” we said, for what felt like the thousandth time that week.
“Ahhh, I worked in Ireland for some years,” he said.
“Cool! In Dublin?” I said, because surely, surely, it couldn’t be another—
“Ballinasloe, it’s a few miles from Galway,”
Of course it is.
Flash forward to the next day, veering down the sunny streets of Vienna doing the whole tourist thing, completely in awe of the buildings and artwork. Posters were everywhere advertising Georgia O’Keeffe Art Exhibitions—and SOHN’s support act that evening was someone called William Doyle. American and English artists respectively, but with obvious Irish roots.
“It’s like we just can’t escape it,” Len said in disbelief.
We decided to find a café with outdoor seating where we could sit in the sun and people-watch for a while. Sounds like an easy thing to find in a city like Vienna, right?
We must have walked up and down for thirty minutes looking for something suitable. For some reason, not one of the cafés had outdoor seating. Even restaurants that also served coffee didn’t have chairs outside. Some had high metal tables where you could stand but not sit—but sure couldn’t we stand in the street for free without having to buy a coffee?
The only places we could find with outdoor seating were, you guessed it, Irish pubs. We must have found four or five of them in the time we were searching. We hesitated outside one and gave each other the should-we-shouldn’t-we look. “Rach, we can’t—we’re in Vienna. We can’t go to an Irish pub. We go to enough of them in Frankfurt.”
In the end, we got a to-go coffee and sat on a bench in the street. All-in-all a bizarre experience—but the strangest was still to come.
Valentine’s Day, Vienna. Len and I are killing some time before our bus back to Frankfurt, and end up in Karlsplatz, a beautiful park surrounded at all sides by different museums. We’re joking about how this is the most romantic Valentine’s either of us has had, when suddenly our attention is drawn to a man near one of the museums. He’s rambling around in all directions, twitching, muttering and occasionally shouting.
“Your man’s off his head on something,” Len says. “We should avoid him.”
She doesn’t need to tell me twice. We put a good bit of space between us and him.
“Wait a minute—” Len says then. “Is he Irish?”
“Not a hope,” I laugh. “Not a hope in hell,”
“I think he is, Rach—he’s shouting something about education.”
“No way,” I say.
“MÚINTEÓIRÍ NA HÉIREANN!” Teachers of Ireland!
“Is he doing some sort of….like, performance art?” I say, gaping at him.
Just then he turns to us. “I’LL F***IN’ BRAIN YA!”
Nope—not performance art. We hurry on our way.
Rachael O’Connor hails from Newcastle West, Co. Limerick and holds a Masters in Writing from NUI Galway. She has previously published articles, short stories and excerpts via Campus.ie, The Galway Review, and Sin Newspaper. She currently lives in Germany.