Heligoland - From Where Roger Casement Set Out On His Ill-fated Mission

The Irish Press, May 4 1966


The reaction to the atmosphere is so strong and the resulting tiredness of the first few days after arrival so unbearable, that the visitor to Heligoland is advised to take a long sleep. The island is also advertised as 'dust-free', which is rather strange at first hearing, but is catching because much of Germany suffers from dust during the hay-season, with resulting hay-fever.

Heligoland, rising up strong and defiant in the North Sea about 40 miles from the German coast, looks from the distance like an uneven mound with houses perched at various levels. On coming closer it gives the impression of a huddle of buildings cuddling together before a backdrop of red rock rising out of the harbour and glowing like a sunset in the rising sun.

The harbour is busy with small fishing boats, touring boats, and even some respectable cargo boats unloading all that is needed to serve the requirements 2,000 inhabitants.

A crowd of people waits on the pier to greet the new arrivals: natives returning after business on the mainland, officials from customs and excise, but the majority visitors. Standing on the pier you are approached by accommodating porters with their push carts to carry your luggage. It is a relief to be able to look around and take in the scene unheeded. The sky is perfectly blue and a hard morning sun lights up the island.

Built or repaired

Everything is in a state of being built or repaired. A crane raises up mouthfuls of gravel from the bottom of a boat and deposits them in the belly of a lorry, as the driver of the lorry watches the new arrivals with vacant stare. The porter has finally collected enough baggage to make the journey worthwhile (boats do not come often enough and each porter can get only one load) and we proceed.

On the left a large collection of huts offering everything from accommodation for the workers in the building site behind, to weather-forecasting for the fishermen on the area, stand drowsily in the sun. The rattle of a jack-hammer beats against the ear. On the right the fishermen mend their boats, rev their engines or dry their nets.

The porter chugs along with his load and refuses a cigarette, Guesthouses and hotels come nearer, all bright and airy, exposing their tablecloths and bed linen. People promenade at breakfast time and the wind rustles the flags. A man offers trips around the island in h his boat, but money is not mentioned. We arrive at our guest house where the luggage is deposited and the porter paid and the landlady, smiling, exhibits an antiseptic room and hopes that her guest is contented.

The best way to become acquainted with Heligoland is to walk around it. The island is small and the walk can be completed in less that an hour. Also, there are no cars and that makes the island a perfect children's playground. To wander along the shore takes you away from the houses and opens up beautiful vistas of water and rock. The rocks, gigantic red masses like the 'Long Anna' give the impression of being about to topple.

Place of worship

In early history the red rocks of Heligoland – then known as Forsites Land – were a Frisian place of worship, centuries later a refuge for Claus Stoertebaker and his corsairs. These rocks are also said to have made a home for the daughter of an English king, named Ursula, who came here to live with 11,000 thousand virgins. History does say whether she encountered the corsairs! Gulls and guillemots dot the sides of the cliffs, diving towards the water only to halt at the surface or keep up a continuous cry that echoes in the canyons.

Further on boys practise mountain climbing on the less precipitous reaches, and workers build a wall as a defence against the ravages of the sea. To get to the upper part of the island the easiest way to is take a lift which serves a a general carrier for people and goods. The ascent of 1000 feet opens up a new panorama. The wind topples your balance with a direct blast or swirls around you in a drunken daze.

A small flat sand dune looms across the rough shore waves, the Heligoland beach-isle which was connected with the Heligoland rocks up to the 18th century. The division was caused by the swamping of a passage between by the sea as a result of a terrible storm. The passage had been sunk during the previous centuries after the sale of the rock to the burghers of Hamburg.

Rising up among the houses is the spire of the church culminating in its point, a work of beauty. (An interesting feature of this church is the existence of a public footpath through its porch. It insinuates itself into the life of the people and encourages a sense of involvement.) Behind it bomb scarred and the sole surviving building of pre-1947 Heligoland, the light tower sends out its beams of direction at night. Exposed earth and half-built houses suggest hope for the future while the blurred forms of bunkers with tangled steel and broken concrete suggest other days.

Chequered history

Heligoland has had a chequered history, whose fate lay at different times in the hands of Denmark, England and Germany, and in the fortunes of the political game. In 1890 Germany got it from England in exchange for rights in East Africa. In spite of these changes in ownership the people, of Frisian origin, developed along their own lines with their own culture, their own customs and their own language, a Frisian dialect. During the first world war the island served as a harbour from which attacks were launched against England.

After the defeat of Germany all military installations on the island were destroyed. The development of the submarine gave importance to the island in 1939. First class workshops were built underground for the servicing of the submarines and, until it was bombed in 1944, it served as an important base in the execution of the war.

It lay in the English zone of control after the partition of Germany. In 1947 the English made an all-out effort to wipe it from the map. The inhabitants were evacuated to the mainland and the workshops, bunkers and everything else were blown up. The result was a mass of rubble.

The natives were forbidden to return and, until 1952, the English used it as a bombing target. However, in that year, students from Heidelberg university sailed to the island and defied the English to bomb them. Their action received much publicity in the press, resulting in a new approach to the island's fate. The inhabitants were allowed back on condition that the island would never have anything to do with war. The condition has no longer any relevance in the context of modern warfare.

Costly business

Since that year the people have returned to rebuild their homes. In the meantime hundreds have been rebuilt and the building program continues apace. It is a costly business when one realises that all materials have to be brought from the mainland. A small five-roomed house costs £25 to £30 a month to rent. The greater number are guesthouses and are built to make the most of the space. Electricity and central heating are laid on to each and the telephone is almost universal.

The inhabitants enjoy some privileges over their brothers on the mainland because they are outside the three-mile limit. Some groceries, alcohol, cigarettes and woollens are duty-free. Personal earnings are free of tax. Many of the islanders spend the holiday season on the island after having worked on the mainland during the winter.

Heligoland is famous for its lobster fishing from which many of the men make their living. The lobster is chiefly for export and the season begins usually in the middle of April. Lobster exports, with the exception of tourism, are the life-blood of the people.

The tourist season begins in May and lasts until September. During this period many Germans take their holidays there and an even greater number visit it as day tourists. At the height of the season about 8,000 people visit the island daily from Hamburg and Bremenhaven. In fact Bremhaven subsidises a ship which sails daily to Heligoland and, although it costs the city about DM1,000,000 a year the money is considered well spent..

The chief reason for the popularity of Heligoland lies in its distance from the German coast. It gives the suggestion of a voyage while still remaining on the doorstep. It offers freedom and endless expanses of water for many inland people. The sand dune provides first class conditions for sun-bathing and if the water is too cold there are heated swimming pools on the island.

It has also gained fame for something that has very little to do with the political game, exploding bombs or bathing. For many who know of Heligoland in no other respect, it is a byword in the world of ornithology. The island was the site of the first
station set up specially for the study of birds. In the last century a painter from Mark Brandenburg, Gaetke, went there to carry on his work. He was a great nature lover and had a detailed knowledge of birds and he began to observe the treasures at his disposal, for the island lies in the route of the two yearly migrations of birds in Europe: in spring from south-west and south to north-east, and in autumn from north-east to south-west.

The island serves as a resting place in the course of the flight between Denmark and Germany, and at night the birds are attracted to the island by the strong beam of the light-tower, visible for 30 miles. Gaetke studied the birds and after his death in 1891 his collection of birds was bought by the German government and his work carried on by the Biological Institute, which carries on research in marine life.

In 1910 the ornithological work became a separate section under an independent director and finally in 1923 a proper building was erected to accommodate the new work. This continued to expand until 1944 when the station was destroyed in an air-attack. In 1953 a new station was built but the administrative work, which had been transferred to Wilhelmshaven during the war, remained there.

The work of the station consists of catching, examining and ringing as many as possible of the birds that land on the island. They are ringed with an aluminium ring bearing the name Heligoland and a number. When the bird is set free it is hoped that someone, somewhere, will catch or find the bird and send back the information to the station. When the information is received, the flight of the bird is plotted and the length of time since the ringing is studied.

Time of ringing

This new information is entered with the earlier information concerning the kind, sex, weight, length of wing and age recorded at time of ringing. The information concerning a particular kind of bird is slowly added to and in the course of time its migratory habits known. The work is of interest to the layman as well as to the ornithologist. The bird he sees in his garden may be more interesting if something is known of where it came from and how it got there.

Many of the birds ringed in Heligoland make their way to Ireland but as yet no official contact has been established between the two places. Apart from the men who work in Heligoland there are also 3,000 amateur ornithologists scattered throughout Germany studying the birds in their areas and sending the information to Heligoland. For them the island is the focal point of their work and many of them visit it every year.

Heligoland is small, exceptionally small, and after a few hours seems to offer only such intangible things as beauty and health. One wants to move on quickly like the birds. However, it evokes an atmosphere of contentment that is experienced but cannot be explained. The people are friendly, give their service and you pay. In the houses one can experience monotony and the recreational opportunities are few, but somehow one is satisfied and each day brings its little changes to embroider the routine. On one of the piers is written the words 'Kumm Weer' dialect for 'Come again'. One has a vague feeling that perhaps one will.