Forty years ago, the world was a simpler place. What we did as fun was different. The world seemed a bigger and more wondrous place, beyond the reach of many of us.
In Galway, on December 14, 1973, Gay Byrne was the special guest as he released 2,000 gas field balloons into the skies above the city. Each balloon was sponsored and had the name of an entrant. Whichever entrant had his/her balloon returned from the furthest away would be deemed the winner. Hundreds gathered in the Square for the Great Galway Balloon Race, organised by the Galway Lions Club.
They switched as the balloons in colours of red and yellow and green soared to the sky, above the trees, above the Great Southern Hotel and into the clouds. The crowd huddled around their illustrious guest, got autographs and made smalltalk as they watched the dots become smaller and smaller and smaller, until eventually, they were all out of sight. Then they all exchanged pleasantries, and went their separate ways. It was two weeks before Christmas, and there was loads to be done. The Atlantic winds blew the balloons on their way, across Ireland and eventually out over the Irish sea. In this, the year after Ireland had joined the EEC, the balloons were heading for the European mainland.
Meanwhile, somewhere in East Germany
Two days later — It was a cold foggy day when 15-year-old Uwe Tieg was playing in the fields near his home village in the former East Germany. Uwe loved watching the birds that flew in from Scandinavia. And still does.
“It was a cold day. and it was an absolute coincidence that I was in this area because of these rare birds (Twites ). The field was only a few kilometres away from my house, because my home village is not so big, maybe 600 inhabitants,” he told me this week. “ And during my walk through the fog I discovered a small yellow object which moved in the wind near the ground. A balloon! It already had lost gas and its size was only some centimetres. It was easy to catch it and I read the card which was pinned on the balloon:
“It read ‘Balloon Race’— It was in English language and immediately I knew that this is something special. If the balloon really comes from Britain or Ireland, it’s a small sensation. In the GDR, balloon races were unknown and I think also forbidden. Even as I brought the balloon home and showed it my parents, I had already decided to send the balloon back via the post.
“My parents were sceptical to send the balloon back because they were afraid. In the GDR it was usual that the state security service supervised the post and opened and took away letters which were addressed to the so called “non-socialist foreign countries”. And as a result it was possible to run into difficulties. Maybe the state security service would come to my parents and survey them and me and supervise us later.
“But I was persistent to my parents and created a handwritten letter. I put the whole balloon including the small card in it and took the letter to the post office. I believe my mother came with me. And I had luck: The letter wasn’t opened by anybody and the state security service didn’t receive any information at this stage.
The teenager’s letter arrived in Galway and some detail published in an article on the front page of the Galway Advertiser on January 16, just four weeks after the balloon had left Eyre Square. In the article, his name and address were included, as well as a request for any penpals to write to him from Galway — and several local children did.
“As I remember I received four or five letters from teenagers, but only from girls. The teens were probably uncertain if I was a boy or girl. My first name Uwe was not well known in Ireland and some of them thought I was a girl. The girls who wrote to me were fans of the boy group Bay City Rollers which was very popular in this time in the 70s. They put posters in the letters and described which musician they liked most and so on.
Only one girl sent me a photograph and I showed this photo to my parents and teacher. I still have the photo (it is printed here ) and I recall of only one name of a girl, I think it was the girl on the photograph: Mary O’Grady. The name of the other girls I have forgotten. Sorry. I will bring along the original with me when I come to Galway. It would be funny if we can find her and if I get to meet her while I am staying in Galway.
Reported by the school principal
“I took the letters of the Irish teens to my English teacher to help me in translation. But she showed the letters to the principal of the school and he informed the state security service of the GDR. The result was that I had to give in all letters to the security service and I had to declare that I would not reply to any further letters. I was prevented from writing back to them.
“However, because of the strict regime in the GDR at the time, I was forced by my teacher and the principal of the school to hand up all letters and posters.
“Certainly, I was sad that the letters were took away. But in this time it was only an “adventure” for me to find the foreign balloon and to receive letters from Irish girls. But also I knew the risk to start a secret “penfriendship” with teens in the “westerly world”.
“The existence of the state security service was well known and it was clear for me: sometimes the security service would find out my contacts and I would have to cut it. It already was an absolutely coincidence that the letters from the Irish girls passed the filter of the state security service and got to me.
“On the other side, when I was 14/15 years old it was the phase to apply for the extended secondary school and later for college study. If the school-authority got knowledge about my contacts in the “non-socialist-countries” and perhaps about difficulties with the state security service, my educational career would have been affected negatively and I would have been denied the chance to study.
“So sadly I had to follow the recommendations of teachers and parents and stop the conversation with the Irish teens.
“At that time it was clear that I’d never be able to meet any penfriend from the western countries so long as the border existed. The political changes that came about in 1989 were not predictable in 1974.
“The life in the GDR wasn’t difficult as long as you followed the rules. You had to be careful with your political expressions and activities. It was dangerous if you would criticise the policy of the GDR or the conditions in the country.
It was also a problem if you had contacts to the western countries, especially to Western Germany. That is why my letters were stopped and why I could not reply to my Galway penfriends.
Afraid to write back to Galway
“If you didn’t follow the rules.it was possible for you to have difficulties, such as you could lose your job on a high level and have to work in other sectors with a lower level of wages; you or your children couldn’t go to extended secondary school, to university or you couldn’t occupy your favourite field of study, you didn’t get a flat and so on.
“But we had to accept the economic shortcomings too: some products like cars, TV, electronic devices, computer were very rare and expensive.
“For example you had to wait some years before you are allowed to by a car. The same situation was in regard of getting a flat for rent. If you wanted to build a house, you needed a network of craftsmen and friends in certain companies to get the materials and to carry out the works. “Temporarily some normal products like coffee or southern fruits were absent in the supermarket. But each inhabitant created their own network, to get these rare products and to solve the daily problems of the shortage,” he said.
Uwe is sad that he was not able to keep in touch with his Galway penfriends because of the restrictions imposed by the strict totalitarian regime. Himself and his wife arrived in Galway yesterday morning (Wednesday ) for a two day-stay. He will be based in Ross House B&B at 14 Whitestrand Avenue, Lower Salthill if any of his penpals want to renew contact. His email address is [email protected]
In the week that Galway wishes to form an unbreakable link with Europe through the awarding of the Capital of Culture status, Uwe’s tale is of a simpler time when children wondered at balloon races and having penpals in other countries. One hopes that such wonderment will still exist in modern communications for the children of today.