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The French Connections

Phyllis Gaffney

Franco-Irish Connections in Space and Time: Peregrinations and Ruminations, eds Eamon Maher and Catherine Maignant, Peter Lang, 294 pp, €50, ISBN: 978-3034308700
La France et l’Irlande: destins croisés 16e-21e siècles, éd Catherine Maignant, Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 241 pp, €26, ISBN: 978-2757404409
Les Mac Cartan de Kinelarty: Racines irlandaises de Charles de Gaulle / The McCartans of Kinelarty: Charles de Gaulle’s Irish Roots), by Thérèse Ghesquière-Diérickx and Seán Mac Cartan, La Voix du Nord, 176 pp, ISBN: 9782843931772

In the summer of 1969, when Charles de Gaulle’s extended stay in Kerry and Connemara was drawing to a close, President Eamon de Valera invited him to Áras an Uachtaráin for three days. Among the events lined up for his tight schedule, le général hosted a reception for his distant cousins, the McCartans from Co Down. As with President Obama’s Offaly antecedents, de Gaulle’s Irish roots illustrate the leitmotiv of emigration, over the centuries, from Ireland’s shores.

Needless to say, Irish-American relations are multifarious, and hugely influential, for well-known historical reasons. We are also aware, to different degrees, of the extensive Irish diaspora dwelling in other parts of the English-speaking world. England itself is a highly visible elephant in the room, affecting not only Ireland’s external relations but its various senses of Irishness. The complex, intimate interweaving of family, cultural and historical ties between the island of Ireland and the larger island to its east has recently been highlighted by the state visit of Uachtarán na hÉireann to the United Kingdom. In a real sense, the Irish have traditionally defined themselves by their degree of distance from that larger neighbour.

That traditional sense of Irish identity as “anything but British” is gradually evolving and, now that Irish cultural self-awareness is mature enough for the visit of President Higgins to be generally seen as an unmitigated success, it is perhaps timely to consider ways in which the Irish have interacted with countries further afield. Cross-cultural contacts between Ireland and the non-Anglophone world are less evident. How do we situate ourselves vis-à-vis France, an abroad that is not England? And how do the French see the Irish?

The answer may be: “not very much”. On the whole, except in times of political crisis, for linguistic and demographic reasons, Ireland has played a minor or non-existent part in French preconceptions about other countries. If Ireland comes into the French frame, Britain is often a close reference point. In French eyes, the Irish share perennial hostility to the English, they were liberated by the great Daniel O’Connell, they are traditionally quarrelsome and uncouth, and incurably romantic dreamers. Similarly, stereotypes have coloured Irish notions about the French: we think of the French troops landing at Killala, the Martello towers built as defences against Napoleon’s army, the Virgin’s apparition at Lourdes, and, more recently, of fine dining, monokinis, DSK or Christine Lagarde.

One way of moving beyond the headlines and stereotypes is through detailed case studies of contacts and encounters, whether short- or long-term, between our two peoples over the centuries. Three books concerning such Franco-Irish links were published in 2013: two volumes of essays and a monograph on the Irish ancestors of Charles de Gaulle. With twenty-seven essays in total, the two volumes present the proceedings of a conference on French and Irish links from the sixteenth century held at the University of Lille in 2011. One volume is in English, the other in French. As for the illustrated monograph, it was published in the wake of a seminar at de Gaulle’s birthplace, also in Lille, in 2010. The French text is followed by an English translation by Éamon Ó Ciosáin and Ginger Nally. A truly cross-cultural and cross-linguistic entreprise, containing an abundance of genealogical, topographical and biographical detail. Some of the detail is too much, some too little. But details, in the end, are important.

Symptomatic of a drive to set Irish culture and history in contexts beyond Anglo-Saxon shores, the burgeoning field of Franco-Irish studies is alive and well. This phenomenon is due in no small measure to the Association of Franco-Irish Studies, established in 2003 and based at the Institute of Technology, Tallaght. There is a growing number of researchers exploring intersecting areas of cultural experience between the French and the Irish. Meanwhile, Irish Studies constitute a growing field in French universities. The scholars are not only based in France and Ireland; some hail from elsewhere. Since 2006, the fruits of their enquiries have been brought together at annual conferences, the proceedings of which have been promptly and consistently published. The society’s tenth conference takes place in May 2014 at the National Concert Hall in Dublin.

A visitor from outer space might be astonished to find that comparative studies could be conducted on two areas in such close proximity as the island of Ireland and the French landmass the French call l’hexagone. To the external observer, the inhabitants of these two areas of planet Earth might look superficially identical. Yet it is when one moves from the macro to the micro level that differences are brought into sharper relief. The closer you zoom, the easier it is to spot cultural, historical and linguistic divergences, as well as appreciate the reciprocities.

Some volumes of comparative/contrastive essays use a narrow lens, resulting in clear thematic or chronological coherence ‑ Ireland and the French Enlightenment, 1700-1800 (eds Graham Gargett and Geraldine Sheridan, 1999) is a case in point. In these latest essay collections on the other hand, the reader is struck by the diversity of the material, which gives breadth and variety but can also create a sense of overload if one reads them straight through from cover to cover ‑ which of course is not how such collections should be read. (Only a reviewer would do such a thing.) Profusion can lead to diffusion and confusion. Some of the subjects treated seem more remotely connected to the ostensible theme than others. To what extent is our understanding of France, Ireland, or Franco-Irish contacts, deepened or enriched? The answer may lie precisely in the diversity just noted. Rather than extracting a single formula, we learn about multiplicity and complexity. The value is akin to the pleasure of a selection box, with the reader being offered an ample choice from a menu of historical, political, cultural, linguistic and literary topics. Not all will appeal to every palate. The appeal derives from the variety, not only of the topics selected, but also of treatment or approach. Just don’t eat them all at once, or you may get indigestion.

In spite of an attempt to impose order on the heterogeneity ‑ both Connections and Destins divide their material into sections, with greater or lesser success ‑ the overriding impression is a sort of serendipity that is, arguably, in tune with our internet age. The reader surfs from one essay to the next, absorbing little-known and fascinating details about minor players, or neglected encounters, recently unearthed, or alternatively, new assessments of what is common knowledge. All the essays are linked by the generic term “Franco-Irish relations” ‑ a phrase by no means confined to diplomatic or political ties since the essays cover virtually every sphere of cultural interaction between the French and the Irish over four centuries, from music, literature and wine to religion, journalism, and military history.

Some of the topics included in this broad brief are predictable. There is an account (Murphy, Connections) of the fortunes of the “wine geese”, those Irish émigrés such as the Lynches, Bartons or Kirwans who settled in Bordeaux and other parts of western France to produce wines that still bear their names. Other essays touch on curious, intriguing side roads of history that are illuminating in an anecdotal way: for example, Jules Verne’s novel P’Tit Bonhomme (1893) about an Irish foundling and what it tells us about Victorian consumer values (Clark, Connections); the Dublin-born musician Joseph Kelly, who settled in Boulogne and then Paris in the 1820s, and his six male descendants active in musical circles in nineteenth century Paris (Klein, Connections); or Simone Téry, a French chronicler of Irish politics and culture in the early 1920s, who interviewed major figures on both sides of the conflict and followed an Irish-language course taught by Douglas Hyde (O’Hanlon, Destins).

Not surprisingly, migration and travel constitute the dominant theme in both volumes. It seems to be the case that, for various reasons ‑ geographical, historical, political or economic ‑ there has been more long-term migration, over the centuries, from Ireland to France than in the other direction. One exception to this trend is the assimilation in Ireland of a handful of Bretons seeking political asylum during the period of reconstruction immediately after the Second World War, a phenomenon leading to some strain in diplomatic relations during the period 1944-73 (Gillissen, Destins). The families of these Breton refugees have been totally assimilated into Irish life. But migration in the other direction is far greater, and some of the Irish exiles who made France their adopted home were people with initiative or talent who left their mark on their host country and successfully integrated there. This may have been due to necessity (many of the Irish emigrants were effectively political or economic refugees) or to the different scale of the two countries: larger populations tend more easily to assimilate individuals from smaller countries. One thinks of the wine geese, who settled down so well (Murphy, Connections), or of billeting Irish soldiers who, in their relations with the inhabitants of Nîmes in 1655 or Saumur in 1676, were apparently no less of a nuisance to civilians than were regular indigenous troops (Coudray, Destins). Indeed, thousands of Irish migrants of the seventeenth century appear to have integrated seamlessly into their host communities, as Éamon Ó Ciosáin argues in a probing inquiry into the historiography of Irish migration to France ‑ where earlier (pre-1690) migrants have tended to be overshadowed by the “légende dorée des jacobites” (Ó Ciosáin, Destins). Likewise, in the arts, the aforementioned musical Kelly/O’Kelly family slotted into the musical world of the French capital. And, in 1889, Augusta Holmès, born in Paris of Irish extraction, was “the artistic initiator, composer, designer and producer of France’s spectacular celebration of the Revolution’s centenary with a cast of over 1,200 in her Ode triomphale in a specially built auditorium” (Pierse, Connections). If that does not count as assimilation, then what does? Turning to more recent artistic Irish migrants, Joyce is the focus of two fascinating essays: one on his use of Breton wordplay in the Wake (Jousni, Destins) and another on the presence of Paris in Ulysses (Lillis, Destins). A short-term Irish migrant to France of another kind was the Resistance activist Maureen Patricia O’Sullivan, whose heroism is related by Sylvie Pomiès-Maréchal (Destins).

The maternal Irish ancestors of Charles de Gaulle provide an exempary case of Hiberno-French migration and integration. The bilingual monograph Les Mac Cartan is interesting to read in conjunction with the volumes of shorter essays, as it provides an overarching historical framework for recounting enduring links between Ireland and France over the generations of a single family. Written for a French-speaking audience, the text begins with a résumé of Irish history from prehistory to the seventeenth century, tracing the family’s fortunes from its ancient royal roots in the legendary past down to the vicissitudes of the branch that settled in France after the exile in the 1690s of John Mac Cartan (1640–1736). Like other dispossessed Jacobite Irishmen of his generation, Mac Cartan fought for the French Crown and lived the remainder of his long life in France. The family was based in Valenciennes. While John’s son Anthony followed his father into a career in the French army, his grandson Antoine and great-grandsons, Andronic and Louis, were doctors. In the 1790s these two brothers fled the Terror and found refuge in Britain. Andronic, who practised for over a decade in London, was to be the maternal grandfather of de Gaulle’s maternal grandmother. This story of the général’s ancestors is sourced in a vast amount of archival spadework and enlivened by family portraits and papers. Given its connection with the most iconic Frenchman of the twentieth century, it is a pity that the book was not copy-edited with greater accuracy.

One constant in Franco-Irish relations is asymmetry born of contrasting scale. On the one hand, France’s larger size and central place on the stage of European history, on the other, the relatively minor size and marginal role of Ireland. This influences French travellers’ reports on Ireland, the focus of several essays in both volumes. These short-term migrants see Ireland as a curiosity, an exception, an oddity, on the limits of the known world. Since medieval times, Ireland has been characterised as a land of marvels and enchantment, where the people have a rich sense of tradition but are not quite civilised, and live in the mists of their legendary past. They are also seen as an oppressed people who eke out their lives in grinding poverty. Especially in the nineteenth century, French ethnographers, journalists and diplomats travelled to Ireland to test and by and large confirm these stereotypes about Irish culture, which they then mediated to their compatriotes. François Boullaye-le-Gouz’s disquieting chronicle of his two-month journey around wartorn Ireland in 1644 reads like a particularly vivid nightmare (Neville, Connections). The personal travel diaries of the career diplomat Charles-Étienne Coquebert de Montbret, posted to Dublin from 1789 to 1792, on the other hand, show a balanced observer, more sensitive than most to Ireland’s history, traditions and language, and provide “a rich source for non-évènementiel or micro-history, and for cultural history” (Conroy, Connections). Pierre Joannon’s intriguing account of the career of Paschal Grousset aka Philippe Daryl (Destins) is also noteworthy. This exiled communard visited Ireland twice in the 1880s and published graphic descriptions of the material destitution and political unrest he found there. In Joannon’s words, “la misère partout, la ruine des landlords, la famine et l’émigration de milliers d’Irlandais, la naissance du Fénianisme” (Joannon, Destins). Gladstone was thoroughly impressed by the French journalist’s diagnosis of the country’s woes.

The Irish sojourn of Marguerite Mespoulet is the subject matter of two essays by Catherine Maignant, one in each volume. In 1913, this sophisticated Parisian graduate came with her camera to record the dying customs and trades of the Irish people. Instead, as Maignant convincingly argues, the narrow scope of Mespoulet’s selected subjects shows her own pre-formed and derivative ideas about Ireland. Before ever visiting the country, she and her companion, Madeleine Mignon “had clearly formed a very romantic view of Ireland […] They took for granted historical continuity between Celtic times and the twentieth century and they were convinced that Celtic genius was an eternal trait of the race. They were also fascinated by the ruins which had appealed to all nineteenth-century French visitors to Ireland’ (Maignant, Connections). The Ireland they recorded is a land without priests or functioning churches. Cutting across women’s history, the history of tourism, of photography and of romanticism, as well as the diverging cultural histories of the two countries, Maignant comments on the impact made by these French women’s photographs in Ireland when they were exhibited here a century later. The success of the recent exhibitions reveals the power of nostalgia for an Ireland that no longer corresponds to today’s country. That lost Ireland remains a subjective “création photographique aux allures de vérité” (Maignant, Destins), revealing more about the photographer herself than what is ostensibly recorded by her camera. Although French commentators on Ireland tend to be viewed with more sympathy and in a more neutral light than commentators from England, and are therefore less compromised, this does not mean that they are always objective in their accounts.

Some role in the creation, in French minds, of that romantic image of Ireland must surely be attributed to Maud Gonne. The impact of this “druidesse Celtique”, “l’image même de l’Irlande si triste et si belle” and her nationalist propaganda in Paris in the 1890s, is explored by Anne Magny (Destins). Nearer to our own times, slightly skewed French perspectives on Irish separatism are explored by some essays in the Destins volume, revealing divergent political stances on the margins. Unlike most European states, Ireland has never been at war with France. However, conflicting perspectives are part of the overall picture. Thus, Pascal Pragnère looks at the reality of contacts, somewhat exaggerated by French media, between Basque nationalists and the IRA. Relating the brief and complicated history of the Irish left for French consumption, Fabrice Mourlon explains the very different presence of Sinn Féin and the Irish Communist Party at the French communists’ annual Fête de l’Humanité, where he was astonished to find, at the Sinn Féin stand, T-shirts depicting armed and hooded freedom-fighters as recently as 2010. Apparently signals so at variance with the current peace process are permissible à l’étranger. And Agnès Maillot analyses the different reactions of French and Irish critics to Hunger, Steve McQueen’s award-winning 2008 film about the Northern Irish hunger strikes and the death of Bobby Sands. The strongly contrasting reactions of critics in the two countries reflect different levels of political awareness and cultural sensitivity as much as different levels of appreciation of cinematography. While French reviewers by and large praised the film’s techniques and formal qualities, setting it in a broad aesthetic context, reviewers in Ireland expressed reserves about its gruesome subject matter, on grounds of taste or on the grounds that to film the hunger strikers was to enhance the mythology surrounding them.

One area where the Irish have distinguished themselves from their French counterparts is religious practice. One essay covers pilgrimage traffic to Lourdes, a particularly Irish phenomenon since 1858 (Vandewoude, Destins). This phenomenon finds no echo in the other direction, at least in these essay collections.

Examples of historical reciprocity can illuminate divergent strands in the two cultures. Considering the influence of the French Revolution on the United Irishmen, Eugene O’Brien (Connections) contrasts the appropriation and enshrinement of Tone and 1798 in mainstream Irish nationalism since 1916, with the more organic place held by the French Revolution in French cultural discourse. Whereas la Révolution de 1789 is a site of memory that gives rise to continuous reinterpretation, Tone’s “narrative was reshaped by Pearse and later republicans into that of a salvific and messianistic figure who had almost mythopoeic status” (Connections). This may partly explain, O’Brien contends, what makes Irish republicanism differ so fundamentally from French republicanism: “while Irish students have been taught the Pearsean version of Wolfe Tone, French students are taught in terms of the maxim inscribed over the front door of every public school: liberté, égalité, fraternité, as teachers attempt to understand the revolution […] [that] is not yet over” (Connections). Cross-cultural echoes and influences of a more nebulous kind, because harder to pin down precisely, suggest other contrasts or affinities: the influence of François Mauriac on some Irish writers (Maher, Connections) or of France on the poetry of Harry Clifton (Keatinge, Connections).

Interdisciplinarity is the discipline of our times, and is well reflected in these collections. It works at its best when the writer is anchored in a solid discipline and approaches a topic using tools of enquiry or observations from another field. It is less successful when the writer seems insufficiently steeped in a “home” discipline and sets out to build inappropriate bridges. The endeavour can end up falling between two shores. And yet, such experiments are important in mapping new possibilities for research. In the sciences, experiments are allowed to blow up sometimes. Why not in the humanities?

The reviewer, gorged though she may be on all the friandises, still inevitably hankers after other flavours. There are no essays, for example, on Eileen Gray, Françoise Henry, George Osborne, Roderic O’Connor or Samuel Beckett; nor on Garret FitzGerald or President Mac Mahon. No doubt they have already been presented in other collections, or will be included in future volumes.

What, finally, to conclude from a perusal of these three books? How helpful are they for giving us a sense of Irish cultural identity? Do the French see a certain side of Irishness that is perhaps less apparent in English-speaking countries? Do different countries construct different stereotypes of each other? Do these three contributions add to our understanding of each other? Many of the essays, it must be repeated, are genuinely enlightening. Would a French reader glean more about France than about Ireland when reading them? Or is the “Franco-Irish” sphere really a separate intercultural domain, belonging to neither country, but arising from encounters between the two peoples? The answers to the questions are no doubt as multiple and nuanced as the essays themselves, and their potential readership. There is first-rate scholarship to be found in both volumes, and individual readers will delve and find what interests them. It should be added, of course, that the language of expression may partly split the readership: one suspects that the French-published volume (Destins) will be read and assimilated largely by French speakers and scholars, while Connections will be absorbed mostly by Anglophones.

Finally, for the historian, how enriching is a set of heterogeneous essays? Are they mere snippets, of no consequence or significance when it comes to the wider picture? How tangential are these particular studies? Do they add significant dimensions to the core narrative of Irish history? If it is impossible to relate the history of Ireland without reference to her neighbours across the Irish Sea, and indeed if it is impossible to tell the history of England without mentioning the Irish Question, then what about France? Can Irish history be told without referring to our French connections?
19/05/2014

Phyllis Gaffney teaches French at UCD. Her research interests range from medieval French verse to Franco-Irish relations. Her books include Healing Amid the Ruins: the Irish Hospital at Saint-Lô, 1945-46 and Constructions of Childhood and Youth in Old French Narrative. She is currently translating a French novel set in the Irish civil war.

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