Boston or Berlin?

It was the summer of 2000 and things were going swimmingly. Ireland was the fastest growing economy in the developed world and the unemployment rate had dropped from 10% to 5% in three years. Mary Harney, second in command, had been invited to address the annual meeting of the American Bar Association at Blackhall Place in Dublin.

Mary Harney’s message was a positive, American-friendly one. Image source:

Her short speech sparked a debate which has since become known as “Boston or Berlin.” Harney drew attention to Ireland’s unique position wedged between Europe and America and summarised the characteristics commonly associated with each continent. Europe stood for social inclusion and governmental regulation while America championed the freedom of the individual and minimal government involvement. She acknowledged that they were simplified descriptions but concluded that “spiritually we are probably a lot closer to Boston than Berlin.”
Twelve years later, Ireland’s unemployment rate is 14.9%, emigration is at its highest rate since the 1980s and the continents on both sides of our shores are in crisis.

Without the background roar of the Celtic Tiger and the allure of shiny cars and kitchen extensions, now might be the time to revisit the debate from a more sober perspective.

What did Harney mean when she said we were “spiritually” closer to Boston than Berlin? Was she referring to our economic model, which had been defined by tax cuts and incentives for foreign investors? Or was she talking about our common language, our history and culture; our national psyche?

Image Source:

Whether or not economic policy can be divorced from the ideology or “spirit” of a place is debatable but given that Ireland matched corporate incentives with a generous welfare system, our affiliation with either Boston or Berlin isn’t even clear in fiscal terms. Our identity crisis is totally understandable. We are a tiny, teddy-bear shaped island on the outskirts of Europe and on the passageway to America. We’ve only been independent since 1922. And we stayed out of the Second World War.

This second fact is absolutely central to any lack of affinity we have with Europe. The European Union we know today is the product of a collective abhorrence of the horrors suffered and inflicted during the war and a resolve – at all costs- to prevent evil from recurring. The focus has always been on unity. The foundation of the United States, on the other hand, arose from a very different impulse: a determination for independence and resistance to the coloniser.

We can relate more to the latter than to the former. We too rose up against what we conceived as an oppressor. And though we can read and learn about it, we cannot really fathom the horrors of World War II. Here in Berlin, they are etched into bronze plaques on buildings, in concrete slabs on train platforms and in the minds of thousands whose lives were brutally dismantled.

Ireland is in a lucky place: we are liked by our neighbours on both sides. Americans find us charming and endearing and mainland Europeans find us wholesome, mysterious and other-worldly.
And while we happily consume and model American culture, we are less familiar with that of our closer neighbours in Europe.

German, with over 90 million native speakers, is the most spoken language in Europe but only 18% of Irish school pupils learn the language. That compares with the 94% of German and 99% of French pupils learning English. Of course, English has become the biggest international language of trade and technology and we can easily “get away” with not knowing another foreign language, but we also lose out on the opportunities to work and travel elsewhere in the European Union, safe in the knowledge that our basic living needs will be met by our membership.

To live and work in Boston you must prove that no American would be fit to take your job whereas to live and work in Berlin, you just need to turn up and register yourself with the authorities.
America is a place where a large portion of people do not believe that it is the government’s responsibility to protect its most vulnerable citizens and where a channel with as big a following as Fox News can claim without irony that the Muppets movie promotes a Communist agenda. It might be united by a common language and culture but its artificial two-party system results in less understanding and consensus than the 23 languages of the European Union do.

Berlin Image Source:

Back in Blackhall Place in the summer of 2000, Mary Harney, referring to Ireland’s economic model said, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Now that it’s very much broken, we might do well to look at Berlin as well as Boston.

10 thoughts on “Boston or Berlin?

  1. Personally, while I liked the piece, I wasn’t convinced by your argument that we share more with America due to the notion of the resistance of the colonizer which I really don’t see as prominent in contemporary American identity. Rather I think this can be explained by emigration flows – which is partly connected, of course, to language. I’ve yet to met a single Irish person excluding yourself who has decided to emigrate to Europe – while I can think of countless who have gone or are going to Australia or Canada (and then never to Quebec). And while it is changed for the moment, which country has received the most Irish fleeing our native shores since at least the 1840s…..?

    Furthermore, I think we have inherited from our prior colonial overlords a habit of not thinking ourselves as European in any meaningful way. Europe is where foreigners – Europeans – live (would we still consider Brits as foreigners?). It has been that way for a while, if you look at the history of Irish culture at least over the past 200 years or so, it is notable how little it has been influenced by (Continental) European culture. When we learn Irish Celtic culture or History (to beat my own drum for a minute) at school, we rarely look at its connections to Europe but tend to think of it as something isolated or aloof from the rest of the continent. When looking to abroad for ideas, we always look to Britain or the United States.

    (P.S: 99% of French students learn English in school? While, in principle, it wouldn’t surprise me, I did have a French student in one of my classes in Cork that told me she studied only Allemand at school. Perhaps she was one of the 1%. Occupy German Class ;).)


    • Hi Daniel,

      Thanks for leaving such a thoughtful comment. I agree that Britain’s default is to treat the rest of Europe as “foreigners” and perhaps we have been influenced by that too. I agree that the teaching of history makes it seem like we’re awfully aloof.

      I think the emigration flow to English-speaking countries is a symptom rather than a cause of our disconnection with “Europe” (I’m speaking of it as if we’re weren’t a part of it). I think with more emphasis on European languages and culture in our education system, this might change.

      Sure you are soon to be a fellow “European” immigrant and I do know a couple of others personally! I found the stats for language-learning in the EU here in case you’re interested: I’d scour Central Bank for your friend 🙂


  2. Thought provoking piece and interesting analysis. As we learnt from Derek Scally this week, Berlin has attracted some Irish people. So they are not all going to English speaking countries.


  3. But, just to let you know, there is nothing quite like trying to set up a bank account in another language – one in which you perhaps know no more than 100 words in while the bank manager knows none of yours (Obvious disclaimer: I have done this). No doubt though in general things are much easier for the English native speaker, well, anywhere. *Is currently being very impressed by the multilingualism of the Dutch*.

    But also, yeah, let’s avoid America (to state, yet again, the obvious).


  4. I enjoyed this piece thoroughly as I never thought of Ireland being in the centre of the two influence. I have this impression that most Irish are only fluent in English and dont really speak a second language(or maybe Irish?). They might have learnt in school but most have forgotten. I am concluding based on a sample size of 6(my two colleagues, a friend and three ex colleagues) Three of the former have come to GB to work and two of the latter doesnt seem to speak a second language. Only one of the latter speak and appear to have interest in languages(german, english, irish and now spanish). Not right to jump to conclusion but I am afraid I have just done that.
    Hence by reading your article, I am starting to see Ireland in a different light.


  5. Pingback: Is Ireland a Legitimate Country? | State Legitimacy

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