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At Second Glance


"Why Ireland again?", people asked me two years ago. Except for the "again" the question was familiar. It was put to me first in 1984 when - together with my husband - I moved to the Emerald Isle. At that time I was - born and bred in Basel - in my late twenties, too young to settle permanently into Swiss structures, too curious about what was beyond the borders. On a by now legendary evening in a Basel pizzeria we chose Ireland because it seemed (then) the most un-Swiss of all European countries and because we had never been there.

Two months later we boarded the ferry from Liverpool to Dublin and my husband, a medievalist until then, decided to call himself a foreign correspondent now; I was an economist but would try to be a novelist. We were lucky. After a somewhat turbulent initial phase we were able to realise our professional dreams - and more importantly: Rosemount, the place covered in brambles and nettles we naively bought head over heels north of Dublin, turned out to be a paradise. Ireland was good to us, and the "few years" we had planned to stay turned into a quarter of a century.

How it came about that I was banished from this paradise is a sad and complicated story (we all know that there are no snakes in Ireland) and when the gate crashed into the lock behind me I was first under shock. Withdrawal was the only option – to Zurich. I never felt the wish to return to Switzerland although and because I enjoy my stays there, and now, as nothing and nobody held me back, I took every opportunity that presented itself: travels to Amsterdam, Berlin, a month in the US, an atelier scholarship in Krems on the Danube, a stay in the Böll House on Achill Island in the West of Ireland. There, at the desk of my famous "colleague" looking over the flowering fuchsia down to the sea it dawned on me that my (love) story with Ireland was by no means over.

The conviction that our language forms our thinking may well be a "déformation professionelle". But I have experienced myself to be somebody else in another language. Gestures, countenance, how you say something but also what you say depends on the language and it - as a manifestation of environment and culture - forms our identity. After 29 years in Switzerland and 26 in Ireland I have two identities: one is Swiss, one is Irish. In both I feel at home, each one is me and together they constitute what I am. To live in two worlds, lead two lives is, I believe, an great privilege, especially for a writer who, when writing needs to observes her world - or worlds - from a distance, with some detachment. With my then 55 years I was not ready to surrender one of these identities. And I was longing - for the sea, that soft moist air in which, as George Bernard Shaw in John Bull's Other Island says, "your wits can't thicken", for "the colours in the sky, the lure in the distance, the sadness in the evenings, the dreaming, the dreaming ." And therefore at the end of 2010 I bought a house again in Ireland.

It was a good time for buying houses. After the "Celtic Tiger", as the Irish economic boom was called here, had mutated into a dormouse, the prices had dropped and the workmen waited in line. And again I was lucky. The builder my friends recommended was not only - contrary to the going cliché - reliable and competent, but also - complying with the cliché - very friendly and witty. He drew my attention to the little farm labourer's cottage from the 1930s in Termonfeckin (Feichín, I'm told, was an Irish saint, Tearmann Feichín, anglicised Termonfeckin, his retreat), and although the house was smaller and more derelict than most others I looked at, I bought it. On the many lonely drives from one viewing appointment to the next I often pondered where I would like to return in the evening, and it was always the image of this small yellow witch house, in which another single woman with a strange destiny had lived before me, that appeared before my eyes. Thanks to Mark, the builder, within three months the unheated, non-insulated and dark four-room-ruin was transformed into a bright and warm home, without losing any of its dreamy charm, I believe; and amongst the highlights of my career as a home builder features a trip to the local gravel pit in Mark's lorry - but this is another story.

Today, I live in Ireland again with Moses, my brown Newfoundland dog that conquered the hearts and kids of the neighbours, not in Rosemount the lovely valley full of birches and willows through which a magic river runs, but in Thunderhill in a tiny cottage on a hill, not in the Garden of Eden anymore, but - for all its name - not at all in hell; and like all exiles I have the consolation of having gained some insights on my (de)tours. One of them is that this island despite and because of all changes has lost nothing of its fascination and it still entices me and many other people to writing. The reflections and stories collected in this volume are the result of a second glance at Ireland, which is not wiser but freer, because a place - like a person - you fall for the second time, has nothing more to prove. While the summer rain patters on the roof of my little witch house I now look from my desk at a church spire and a graveyard - reminding me to live life every moment in face of its transience - and at my garden, where I planted an apple tree last summer. Because of course in every paradise there has to be an apple tree.

Thunderhill, June 2012