It was the summer of 1990 when Carlow native Deirdre Heckler arrived for a summer job in the German town of Breuberg, an hour southeast of Frankfurt.
Flash forward three decades and now she is the town mayor, elected for a six-year term in what she says may be a first for an Irish citizen in Germany.
As she settles into her new position, the Irishwoman sees her appointment as more than an honour; it is a success story for the European integration push that began when she left Ireland. Rarely discussed, that push continues to bear fruit.
“In 1992 when I finished my degree it was all about free travel, the right to work in Europe and I decided to go for it,” she said. “We can’t forget where we come from, nor should we forget the chance we have with the EU – we are all European.”
Deirdre Heckler (née Dooley) was born in Highfield in Carlow town. A chance encounter in 1990 changed her life when she was studying international marketing and languages at NIHE, forerunner to DCU.
A girl she spoke to in the library mentioned she secured a summer job working with Odenwald Konserven in Germany – but that she would prefer to go to the US.
Deirdre, who studied French and German in secondary school and was continuing her language studies at university, asked to go in her place.
She was accepted and became one of the hundreds of Irish people the Odenwald factory took on, from the 1970s to the 1990s, to help process their fruit harvest.
Heckler liked it so much she returned in 1992, married a local man and had two daughters. After 16 years in local politics for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), she was chosen as their mayoral candidate and elected directly in September.
In her campaign Heckler told people about growing up in Carlow and its similarities to the rural town of Breuberg, population 7,500. That locals elected an Irishwoman as their mayor is a huge honour, she says, but also indicative of their outward nature in a town where, thanks to a local tyre factory employer, one in five residents is non-German.
In school I learned French and German, and this was in Carlow, not the metropolis of Dublin. If I hadn’t had that opportunity, things would have been a lot different
“We have over 30 different nationalities and we are open for everyone here, so why shouldn’t we be the first town in the region to have a European mayor,” she asked.
As Deirdre looks in on Ireland from outside she thinks learning languages has never been more important for Irish people in a post-Brexit Europe.
“In school I learned French and German, and this was in Carlow, not the metropolis of Dublin,” she said. “If I hadn’t had that opportunity, things would have been a lot different.”
Heckler’s two daughters are also involved in local politics while her mother, Annette Dooley, worked for a time in Carlow County Council. She came over for her daughter’s September election victory.