Nazi sa Gheltacht review: The intriguing story of a detective at large in Donegal

BBC Northern Ireland’s output can often be frankly, very narrow and of little interest to someone outside the local audience. To be fair, this may be true on even the laziest and least ambitious of RTEs.

o When something comes along with truly universal appeal, it’s easy to miss. Then, credit to TG4 for showing the excellent documentary nazi gheltachato (Tonight, 9.30 PM), which to my embarrassment slipped below my radar when it aired on BBC2 NI two years ago.

Ken Folate has a slight whisper needle’s eye About this extraordinary story – minus, of course, murder, mayhem, melodrama and a naked Kate Nelligan.

The aim is not to trivialize the story, but only to underscore its stranger-fictional qualities. With some fanciful embellishments, it would fit comfortably between the covers of a wartime spy novel.

Presenter Kevin Magee, a seasoned investigative journalist, went to the small village of Tilleen in South Donegal to learn Irish 40 years ago. He was fascinated by a rumor that a Nazi spy lived in the community for a spell in the immediate pre-war years.

With the help of contributions from historians, archivists, military experts, documents written by the man at the center of the story, and descendants of key witnesses to what happened, Maggie uncovers a story as horrifying as it is bizarre.

Ludwig Mühlhausen, a linguist and professor of Celtic studies at Humboldt University in Berlin, arrived in Teilan in 1937. The direct purpose of his visit was to polish his already skilled Irish and learn about Irish folklore.

It’s not as strange as it seems today. Apparently, there was an increase in Celtic studies in Germany in the late 19th century, so after a German academic turned to Telian, it made perfect sense.

Mühlhausen was inadvertently greeted by the famous local folklorist Sein a Heochaid, who took him under his wing, not knowing who and what the German really was.

Mühlhausen absolutely did not hide the fact that he was an ardent Nazi. The first thing they did after moving to a house owned by a local fisherman, where they stayed for six weeks, speaking only Irish for this period, was to put a picture of Adolf Hitler on the wall.

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In the morning, he could be heard singing along to Nazi songs from his gramophone. Then, it was 1937, when Germany invaded Poland.

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Nazi Detective Ludwig Mühlhausen

Mühlhausen’s appearance may have been little more than a short-lived curiosity, when he was not recording – on paper and on the wax cylinder of an ediphon – folk tales such as folk tales by famous local storytellers. Seamus Casside, whom he befriended.

He took pictures of everything he saw. He was particularly impressed by the landscape and how the pier opened up to the sea.

A strong swimmer, he used plumb lines to measure the depth of the water in and around Telian Bay. Locals later speculated that he was trying to find out whether it would accommodate German submarines.

In the evenings, he used to visit the celli houses where current affairs and farming were generally discussed. Mühlhausen openly criticized local farming methods, which he saw as shockingly inefficient and useless. It would be much better, he suggested, if Irish farming was kept under German control.

He also had clear views on the Irish as a race. They were, he told his superiors, divided into two types: those who blindly believe everything the Catholic Church says, and those who form their own opinions.

Mühlhausen sent back all the information he had collected – photographs, documents, recordings – back to Germany. The spy was helping lay the foundation for a planned German invasion of Ireland, which Hitler saw as a backdoor into Britain.

All of this is fascinating in itself, but the story really begins when we learn what happened two years later, when Mühlhausen, a convicted SS member, was back in Berlin and Germany was raging across Europe.

This is an interesting, first-class piece of historical investigative journalism by Kevin Magee.