Emigrating in our forties: ‘My art is a vessel for dealing with the trauma of moving our family to Berlin’

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Emigrating in our forties: ‘My art is a vessel for dealing with the trauma of moving our family 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 our own. Then, out of nowhere, the landlord ended the lease and it felt like the bottom fell out of our world.

At the time it was devastating because we had two young children (7 and 10 years old at the time). It was an absolute blow out of the blue and it completely changed everything for us in an instant.

I remember we went out into the back garden and we looked up at the Donaghmede sky. We started talking about what we were going to do next. Are we going to continue to rent from people who can control or take control of our lives in just a second?

We thought, ‘Is this it? Is this our life? Are we ever going to 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 getting a house in Leitrim and commuting to my teaching job in Dublin every day.

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

Truth be told, Richie wasn’t happy in the suburbs anyway. Funnily enough we went to see a David Bowie exhibition in Berlin that summer and when we got back to Dublin he randomly opened a David Bowie book to a page that said, ‘the suburbs is the death of the soul’.

We had to fight very hard to have any kind of cultural life in the suburbs. Plus, if you have children in Ireland, you are shut out from most of society and your world becomes very small.

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

And so, in July 2015, we came to Berlin with a wing and a prayer in our white Ford Transit van, with two children and our dog. Richie works as a carpenter and he basically crammed his entire workshop into the back. We had no apartment lined up and no job lined up, but we just knew we had to make a move.

We left during the worst storm in years and the boat was so bad that we basically spent 12 hours in the cabin vomiting. The dog was very nervous and I basically had a nervous breakdown – I kept thinking the weather was not a good sign. By the time we arrived at the campsite in the thunder and lightning, I was like a shadow of a woman.

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

To make matters worse, the children did not fit in at the first school they went to. We just weren’t made to feel welcome. I remember a teacher saying, ‘Your children are very strange’. The language they used was about 20 years behind Ireland.

It was a baptism of fire, but then things started to change. I got a job as an art teacher and the children started attending the same school. I was the head of the art department in the school I worked in in Dublin, but I had to start at the bottom of the pile in Berlin. However, it was much better suited for the children.

We are not going to buy an apartment here, but we are members of a real estate collective just outside of Berlin. There are six of us, including our children and we are protected by German legal structures. We have tenant rights that we didn’t have in Dublin and what happened to us in 2015 cannot happen to us here.

In saying that, it sometimes feels like we entered Berlin on the last train and the last wagon. Since then it has become harder and harder. These days there are young Irish artists paying €600 for a small room [Berlin district] Neukölln.

Still, at the moment I believe that Berlin is a better place to be if you are an artist. There is only a willingness to co-create. It feels like there is more creative generosity and people are more collaborative than they are competitive.

It also inspires 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 Grommer started as a painful aunt in my friend’s magazine The Wild Word. Grommer is an 82-year-old vulva of the Liberties. She is a drumming, shamanic alchemist, who conveys women’s pain through storytelling, song and spoken word.

Initially, Grommer would become a glove puppet and I was going to perform with her for the first time at Craw, an Irish music and arts festival we founded in Berlin. It was my friend Eva Garland who suggested that I was Grommerand then created the costume.

When I performed her at Craw, it was a disaster, and I forgot all my words. This was around the time of Revocation and I had full-blown endometriosis at the time. It was like art in action and I learned a lot about boundaries from that experience.

Since then I’ve done some really loud gigs where I’ve just been met with a wall of silence. People don’t get it and I think, ‘Is this shit art?’ But every time I perform her, there is always a woman in floods of tears. After that they come to me and say: ‘I was born in a Mother and Baby Home’, or ‘my mother was born in a Mother and Baby Home’ and that’s exactly what I needed have 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 in Grommer and I would like to push it more. It sounds pretty nuts but the more and more I do it, I step aside and Grommer emerge. 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 believe that suffering is essential to making art, but in my case it definitely became a tool to deal with the trauma of transplanting our family to Berlin.

I found a space to express my inner life that didn’t mean sacrificing my mental health.

Leaving Ireland tore me in two, but gave me a perspective I never would have had by staying. I’ve learned to live with homesickness, but not let it cloud my judgement. I am more connected to my ancestors and Ireland than I ever was in Ireland. You absolutely can have your heart in two places at the same time.

For the foreseeable future, Berlin is our home, Grommer was created here, she made me face my fears; she brought me home to myself, rooted in the heart, not to place.

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

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

As told to Katie Byrne

Dee Mulrooney’s Growler will be performing as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival in Dublin Castle from 10 to 14 September. See fringefest.com; deirdre-mulrooney.com

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