My saviour is Irish : 300 years of military relationship with the French.


Garinish Gardens, Glengariff

Garinish Gardens, Glengariff

I once – in 1989, I updated a tourist guide, « Visa », about Ireland.The publisher, the well known Hachette company, told me that my trip was almost organised : my copyrights and expenses were minimal, but the company would be  paying for my plane, car rental, petrol, and of course my lodging. But just one week before departing, the editor told me the company could only cope with my hotel room costs. I was to ask B&B to host me for free : the deal was I would like their place and I would quote them in the tourist guide…

First impressions…

I hated that very French method of freebies but given the short notice, I had no choice but to be a beggar. So I decided that on this occasion beggars would be choosers and I called on the best hotels in Ireland, I was sure I would mention. Of course, I recommended the small B&B I liked, without abusing their hospitability. Thus I stayed charming places such as the Kenmare Park hotel, Adare Manor Hotel, and other wonderful places you find in Leading Hotel of the World. To get the Irish spirit, I visited pubs where I met a lot of nice people.    Among them was  a lively girl whose brother, a doctor, worked with AIDS patients. He told me about the fatalistic attitude of the Irish regarding death, referring to the still vivid memory of great famine of 1845. In spite of the potato disease, the British Corn Laws had compelled the Irish to export their crops over the Atlantic in exchange of hardly digestible corn. Between those who died and those who left the country, Ireland lost some 2,5 millions people, that is to say one third of its population. « Past is prologue », as Shakespeare wrote.

Remembrance of the past.

From this first trip, I remember tension in Northern Ireland, car searches, a war atmosphere in Europe that one should not forget when one wants to get rid off the « European forteress ». In Ulster, I have also the sweet memory of Rowallane garden with folies, where « Game of Thrones » was filmed recently. From the Western coast, I still have the smell of the bogs in my nostrils, the colours of Connemara, the fun of flyfishing at Delphi Lodge meeting with French formula 1 driver,  Henri Pescarolo. The dramatic cliffs of Moher and swirling images of pink rhododendrons in the tropical gardens benefiting from the Gulf Stream in the ring of Kerry, and Beara Peninsula. I fell in love with the « monkey despair », this sort of pine tree I found so moving with

Slea Head, the end of the Western (old) world

Slea Head, the end of the Western (old) world

his nostalgic branches.

Here comes the rain again !

Well no wonder Ireland is green. That summer, I drove alone – how stupid I was to have dumped my boyfriend, for some 4000 km during August without one single day without rain. I learnt to say «  What a lovely day, today », when there is a glimpse of sunshine. Why am I telling you about this first trip ? Not only because I’m narcissistic and nostalgic, as my teenage daughter would say, but one really catches a lot petty details on a first visit. I believe in first impressions. The older I grow, the more I trust them. Then just like when you meet somebody, reality gets blurred, it becomes more complicated to have a sensible feeling.

What a lovely day today !

For the first time, this year, some 25 years later, I got back to Ireland with my kids and fiancé for the Easter holiday, to Kerry :  not a single day of rain !  The sunshine with this subtle light never failed us except when we reached the Dingle peninsula at the extreme West of Europe. Irish people kept telling us, you are lucky ! But being in Ireland, I did not only feel lucky – I am of course but I felt blessed by nature, landscape and a people so generous.

Killarney national park

Killarney national park

I exchanged my charming turn of a century flat in Paris, for a gorgeous 19th century mansion near Killarney with the Kelly family in Fossa. A few kilometers from Killarney, overlooking the mountains, close to the loughs, idyllic. All neighbours came to us with cakes, proposals for the kids to join theirs, a pharmacist even drove me at 8 in the evening to his drugstore to get the antibiotics I needed for my daughter.

A Faery Song

Irish people, who have left their countries so many times for economic reasons mainly, know what it is to be foreign, whereas in Paris, you are lucky if you know your neighbours at all. While driving, we got lost many times and people would change their direction, give up their family, just to help us. Incredible ! I wondered if I was getting biased because it was so sunny ?  It did not look like it. Irish people seem not to have forgotten about solidarity between themselves, whereas the French, spoilt by the Welfare State, tend be less attentive to each other, I feel.  It may be cliché, but it happened to us. People were just fantastic

Garinish Island, Italian garden


Garinish Island, Italian garden

Garinish Island, Italian garden

Riders on the Sea

Or maybe the French, who have a terrible reputation abroad, still have still a good reputation in Ireland, I wondered ? About 400.000 Irish travel to France every year and the reverse is true too. You will find quite a number in French in the area of Killarney.

The French love the picturesque and romantic Ireland, the wild at heart Connemara of the « Taxi Mauve », and « the Quiet Man » . It is difficult not to be  ecstatic in front of Slea head cliffs and Inch beach, in the Peninsula of Dingle, where the «  Ryan’s daughter », a loose adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel, « Madame Bovary » was shot. I also have in my personal camera obscura, the beautiful black and white pictures of my friend, the Czech photographer Josef Koudelka, where time seems to have stopped.

Josef Koudella, 1972

Josef Koudella, 1972

Familiy spirit

Why do the French have such a sentimental relationship with their gallic cousins ? Not only because Dublin is a temple of literature and poetry. To name a few talents, Johnathan Swift, James Joyce, John Milliton Synge, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, Georges Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, all « statutes of the Comendatore ».  The « scandalous children », as French writer Julien Green called them, have been a constant source of inspiration for French writers. Charles Baudelaire, Honoré de Balzac and surrealist André Breton borrowed a lot from Irish gothic novelist, Charles Robert Maturin. Ireland specific history also inspired philosophers as structuralist Roland Barthes, who analysed the campaign advocating the consumption of Irish foods, as a very ideological option. May be the French share that kind of protectionism if one refers to our Minister of Industrial renewal, Arnaud Montebourg who wants us to buy French products…  Jacques Derrida explored the island colonial past, refering to the« Irish Kitsch ». More recently the Holy Land where authors don’t pay taxes attracted French wealthy writers from Michel Déon to Michel Houellebecq.  It is of course less vulgar to get a tax saving from Dublin rather than from Brussels.

Wild Geese

If French and Irish feel so close, it is mainly because they have shared a past of military cooperation of some… 300 years. It officially started with the revocation of the Edict de Nantes, in 1685, when Louis the XIV put an end to the freedom of worship forcing protestants to convert to catholicism. In order to avoid persecution, the French protestants, called Huguenots, massively emigrated to protestant countries, England, Holland and some of them chose Ireland. You can still see their headstones and memorials in the graveyard off St Stephen’s Green in Dublin; in Waterford, I read French was still spoken by the Huguenots as a daily language and used in religious services until the 19th century.

Common ennemies

But there is of course another reason, much less respectable, why we feel so close to the Irish, a bit like grand parents often have a very good relationship with their grandchildren : we have or had common enemies ; the British !

Lets get back to the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. In spite of the 6000 French soldiers sent by the French catholic king to support the catholic James II, the protestant William of Orange defeated the Jacobites, insuring protestant ascendency in Ireland.

With the Treaty of Limerick (1691) catholic troops were allowed to follow the fallen king in his retreat in France, from where he hoped to regain the crown. Quite a nice exile in the castle at Saint-Germain-en-Laye’s, close to Paris.

We are in the army now

25000 Irish among them 10000 of the best soldiers, fled to France, among which a lot of noblemen. In France they formed the « Irish Brigades », called the « Wild Geese ». Once the penal laws were voted in Ireland preventing the catholic to get a job and equal right, most of them settled down in France where Louis the XIV, by a royal decree 1715 granted them the French nationality if they fought for France for ten years. This naturalization possibility was renewed by Louis the XV.

Bienvenue en France

But as historian, Catherine Maignant writes, this common history goes back to the late XVIth century. The Irish, fleeing from famine, served French kings from 1590 and their migration suddenly increased with Cromwell’s Republic (1649). With the non gratae clergymen, the Irish catholic citizens escaped in great number after  landlords saw their best land expropriated by English and Scottish protestant settlers, and merchants forbidden to do business.  Going to catholic Spain and France, they established Irish colleges in Paris, Lille,  Douai, Nantes, La Rochelle, Bordeaux and Toulouse and joined the ranks of the French and Spanish army in need of catholic fighters against reform in Europe.

Muckross Abbey

Muckross Abbey

Fields of War

For some 300 hundred years, the Irish troops continued to write French history. They courageously took part in the  battle of Fontenoy in 1745, in the battle of Culloden in 1746. Later the Wild Geese supported the French during the American wars of Independence from 1778 till 1783. Though the Irish brigade was disbanded in 1791, the exiles also played a major role in the French Revolution, which was to remain later a model for the Irish independence movement, Sinn Fein.

Replacing the Irish brigades, the Irish legion was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in order to invade Ireland, which after Trafalgar remained a piece of wishful thinking ! The Irish though were prominent in the Walcheren expedition and the Peninsula war. The Irish also helped the French during the Prussian war in 1870, setting up support committees and sending money.

Wild at heart

No wonder, one descendant of these noble Wild Geese, Patrice de Mac Mahon, became Minister of war and then President of the French Republic in 1873. Another well known Irish name in France is that of Hennessy, the famous brand of cognac, created by an Irish man from Cork who joined the Irish brigade.

Our common history doesn’t stop here for many Irish soldiers died fighting during World War I. 2000 of the 15000 troops of the 36th Ulster regiment lost their lives in the single battle of la Somme, in North of France – I bet you do not care but it is where my grand parents come from !

Sister Act 2

As far as WWII  everybody remembers that the notorious Irish Prime Minister,  De Valera, called on the German minister in Dublin, Dr. Hempel, on 2 May 1945 to express… his condolences on the death of Hitler!

Few people know that the  Irish involvement in the French resistance was significant.  Samuel Beckett took an active part in the Gloria network. Among the freedom fighters, half of them were women,  like Katherine Anne Mac Carthy, a franciscan sister, specialised in exfiltration, or Maureen Patricia O’Sullivan, 25 year old, who joined the Special operation executive.

Irish coffee

Fair return of history, in 1969, when Charles de Gaulle resigned after the result of the referendum about French Senate, he decided to come back to his Irish roots. From his mother side, the French general came indeed from the Mac Cartan in Kilenarty in Northern Ireland ! He and his wife Yvonne, enjoyed the peaceful sceeneries in Kerry, Connemara and Down counties. Irish coffee, what else ?

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