Emigrating in the 40s: “My art is a vessel to process the trauma of our family’s move to Berlin”

In July 2015 my husband and I rented a house in Donaghmede. It was basically next door to my mom and dad and we saved up to buy it and make it our own. Then, out of nowhere, the landlord canceled the lease and it felt like the bottom of our world had fallen.

It was devastating at the time because we had two young children (ages seven and ten at the time). It was an absolute bolt from the blue and it completely changed everything for us in an instant.

I remember we went into the back garden and looked up at the sky of Donaghmede. We started talking about what we would do next. Would we continue to rent from people who could control our lives in a second or take charge themselves?

We thought, ‘Is that it? is this our life Will we ever live where we want to live?’ It was like we just had to take what we got. It sounds crazy now, but I even thought about buying a house in Leitrim and driving back and forth to my teaching job in Dublin every day.

At the time we were spending our summers in Berlin because my brother lived there, so I turned to my husband Richie and said, ‘What about Berlin?’ He agreed immediately because he is a traveler at heart.

To be honest, Richie wasn’t happy in the suburbs anyway. Funnily enough that summer we had been to see a David Bowie exhibition in Berlin and when we got back to Dublin he happened to open a David Bowie book to a page that said ‘The suburbs are the death of the soul’ .

We had to fight very hard to even have a cultural life in the suburbs. Plus when you have children in Ireland you become excluded from most of society and your world becomes very small.

They’re not really welcome in restaurants, especially if your kids are in some way neurodivergent or impeccably behaved. But in Berlin it is more of an outdoor lifestyle and there are playgrounds every few hundred meters. And I can’t tell you how much this changes your life as a parent of young children…

And so we came to Berlin in July 2015 in our white Ford Transit, with two children and our dog, on a grand piano and a prayer. Richie works as a carpenter and basically had his entire workshop crammed into the back. We had no prospect of an apartment and no jobs organized, but we just knew that we had to move.

We left during the worst storm in years and the boat was so bad we spent practically 12 hours in the cabin throwing up. The dog was very nervous and I basically had a nervous breakdown – I always thought the weather wasn’t a good omen. When we arrived at the campsite in thunder and lightning, I was like a woman’s shadow.

Looking back on that first year now, we were so fragile. We were about middle-aged – I was 42 and Richie was 44. We took the only apartment we could get and we didn’t have a single piece of furniture. I remember Richie making furniture in the middle of the night and taking it downstairs so the landlord wouldn’t know he was making it.

To make matters worse, the children did not fit into the first school they went to. We just didn’t feel welcome. I remember a teacher saying, “Your children are very strange”. The language they used lagged behind Ireland by about 20 years.

It was a baptism of fire, but then things started to change. I got a job as an art teacher and the kids went to the same school. I was Head of Art at the school I worked at in Dublin, but in Berlin I had to start from the bottom. Nevertheless, it was much more suitable for the children.

We will not buy an apartment here, but we are members of a real estate community on the outskirts of Berlin. There are six of us with our children and are protected by German legal structures. We have tenant rights that we didn’t have in Dublin and what happened to us in 2015 can’t happen to us here.

Sometimes it seems to me that we came to Berlin on the last train and the last wagon. Since then it has become increasingly difficult. These days, young Irish artists pay €600 for a tiny room [Berlin district] Neukoelln.

Still, at the moment I think Berlin is a better place if you’re an artist. There is simply a willingness to create something together. It feels like there is more creative generosity and people are more cooperative than competitive.

It also awakens creativity. I became an artist in Berlin – and I would never have used that word to describe myself before.


Dee Mulrooney as Growler. Photo: Kyle Ferguson and Richard Heffernan

My alter ego/performance piece growl started out as agony aunt in my friend’s magazine The wild word. growl is an 82-year-old Vulva from the Liberties. She is a drum-beating shamanic alchemist who transforms women’s pain through storytelling, song and spoken word.

Initially, growl was going to be a hand puppet and I would be performing with her for the first time at Craw, an Irish music and arts festival that we hosted in Berlin. It was my friend Eva Garland who suggested this growland then created the costume.

When I performed them on Craw it was a disaster and I forgot all my words. It was around the time of Repeal and I had full blown endometriosis at the time. It was like art in action and I learned a lot about boundaries through this experience.

Since then I’ve played some really tough gigs where I’ve just met a wall of silence. People don’t get it and I’m like, ‘Is that crap art?’ But every time I perform them, there is always a woman in tears. After that, they come up to me and say, “I was born in a mother and child home” or “My mother was born in a mother and child home,” and that’s exactly what I needed to hear…” And that’s why i do it . Even if I only touch one woman – that’s enough.

I’m really interested in what happens to me as an artist when I’m at it growl and I would like to take that further. It sounds kind of crazy, but the more I do it, I step aside and growl arises. I put her on and she smells like an ancestor….

We moved to Berlin out of necessity, as a kind of emergency. I don’t think suffering is essential to making art, but in my case it certainly became a vessel to deal with the trauma of our family’s transplant to Berlin.

I found a space to express my inner life, which didn’t mean sacrificing my sanity.

Leaving Ireland tore me in two but gave me a perspective I never would have had had I stayed. I’ve learned to live with homesickness, but not to let my judgment cloud. I am more connected to my ancestors and to Ireland than I have ever been in Ireland. You can absolutely have your heart in two places at once.

Berlin will be our home for the foreseeable future, growl was created here, she made me face my fears; She brought me to my home rooted in heart not place.

We could have stayed in Ireland and made it work somehow, but at what cost? Leaving Ireland was so hard, especially with children, and almost impossible to escape the hamster wheel and mountainous injustice.

It seems like a crazy thought to take charge of your own destiny when it comes to the property market in Ireland, but that’s exactly what we’ve done. We realized that humans are not just meant to survive. They are meant to thrive.”

As Katie Byrne was told

Dee Mulrooney’s Growler performs at Dublin Castle from September 10th to 14th as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival. See fringefest.com; deirdre-mulrooney.com

https://www.independent.ie/life/family/emigrating-in-our-forties-my-art-is-a-vessel-for-dealing-with-the-trauma-of-moving-our-family-to-berlin-41914056.html Emigrating in the 40s: “My art is a vessel to process the trauma of our family’s move to Berlin”

Fry Electronics Team

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