Fergal Lenehan (Creagh, Ballinasloe to Leipzig, Germany)
Fergal Lenehan and family
Fergal Lenehan's interest in all things German was pricked during his secondary school years in Garbally College, Ballinsloe. Now married to Kirsti and with two children, Clara and Rosa, he lives in the eastern German city of Leipzig and lectures in cultural theory and cultural history in the nearby University of Jena.
Name: Fergal Lenehan
Now living in: Leipzig, Germany
From: Creagh, Ballinasloe
Fergal Lenehan’s interest in all things German was pricked during his secondary school years in Garbally College, Ballinsloe. Now married to Kirsti and with two children, Clara and Rosa, he lives in the eastern German city of Leipzig and lectures in cultural theory and cultural history in the nearby University of Jena.
I am originally from Creagh in Ballinasloe; where county Galway segues ambivalently into county Roscommon. The river Suck is the actual county boundary, but the councils don’t go by that and Roscommon has probably lost about two miles of territory since the town of Ballinasloe has expanded! The house in which I grew up from the age of 10 is in county Roscommon for some things, and in county Galway for others. I was born in Tuam and lived from the age of 2 until 10 in the hurling-mad village of Kiltormer outside Ballinasloe, so my east Galway heritage is pretty strong. If a county existed that consisted of east County Galway and south Roscommon it would probably best reflect my personal geographical Irish identity.
I went to secondary school at Garbally College in Ballinasloe, which in many ways opened the world up to me, in terms of learning foreign languages anyway. There were very dedicated German teachers there then, and I really enjoyed learning the language. I liked the mechanics of German, figuring out the intricate grammar. Around this time, I also started reading spy thrillers and watching foreign-language films on Channel 4 and my interest in German culture was solidified. As a teenager, I was also a good athlete and represented Galway in the Community Games, and competed with Ballinasloe Athletic Club at Connacht and national level. The geography of wonderful mid-week training sessions, with the Ballinasloe A.C. Coach Padraig Hennelly, are etched into my mind; we would run up the hill from the Fair Green in the centre of Ballinsloe, site of the annual Horse Fair, to St. John’s Church of Ireland Church.
I studied Arts in UCD because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. My degree was in German and History. I then did a Masters Degree in Cultural Studies also at UCD, a PhD in Cultural History at the University of Leipzig in Germany (funded by a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Foundation) and recently, while also teaching at the University in Jena, I acquired the German ‘Habilitation’ from the Friedrich-Schiller-University of Jena. This is the formal post-doctoral qualification, which you need to complete to ever get a full-time university-teaching job in Germany, and it basically involves writing a second doctoral thesis and also being judged on your teaching.
So what brought me to Germany initially? I was lucky enough to be able to do an Erasmus year (the European Union student exchange programme) in Leipzig as part of my degree, which is when I first met my wife Kirsti, who is from outside Dresden, and why I ultimately came back to Leipzig to do a PhD. I didn’t really know anything about the city before I came there, except that it was in the former East Germany and was famous for classical music. I remember I was a bit shocked when I first saw the main university campus, then dominated by a very large monument to a bearded, bedraggled Karl Marx. I remember thinking “Oh Christ, I’m in Moscow!”. I liked the city straightaway, though. There was always a lot happening culturally and was very student-friendly, containing about 40,000 students. Being suddenly a non-native speaker of the main language in daily use, and the difficulties of suddenly being ‘stupid’ and ill-informed on basically everything, was a frustrating but very humbling experience. I live now in Leipzig again, but work in nearby Jena.
There are definite advantages to living in Germany. Certainly, state services are much better here than in Ireland. There is an excellent tram system in both Leipzig and Jena, and a very good network of bicycle lanes. We don’t own a car and don’t need one in our daily life. Childcare provision is also very reasonable. It’s state-funded, extensive and of good quality. There is an undoubted social democratic ethos in society; the state intervenes in a positive way in people’s lives, and a certain degree of fairness reigns. In East Germany there is also, however, a nasty national-conservative strain in some places, which I think does not really exist in Ireland, or not to the same extent anyway. Things are often a lot more exact, complex administratively, and less easy-going in Germany (to generalise horribly!). Germans tend to be very direct and honest with their opinion, which has advantages and disadvantages, but are often very nice when you get to know them.
At the moment I am a fixed-term lecturer at the Friedrich-Schiller-University of Jena, where I have taught cultural theory and cultural history (in German and English) since 2010. Permanent jobs are very hard to find now in academia. I am married and have two daughters; Clara and Rosa. My daughters are growing up bilingually and can speak both German and Hiberno-English (with distinct touches of Peppa Pig!). I am also trying to make sure that they grow up bi-culturally. I try to cook some Irish meals (such as Shepard’s Pie, although I’m not a very good cook to be honest), and read them Irish legends, such as the story of Tír na n-Óg. They are also developing a good relationship with their grandparents in Ballinasloe, and cousins, aunties and uncles in Loughrea, Dublin and Australia. It’s a distinct advantage to have a dual identity and to grew-up knowing implicitly that the world is complex, that there are different ways of seeing things and thinking about things. Clara, until fairly recently, thought ‘Ireland’ was my parents’ house in Ballinasloe. She now calls it ‘Ballinasnow’!