Il Était une Fois Dublin, by Pierre Joannon
A French-language view of rare auld times in Dublin deserves the city’s gratitude
Il était une fois Dublin
Librairie Académique Perrin
Pierre Joannon is well known to anyone with an interest in Irish history and culture. The honorary consul general of Ireland in the south of France since 1973, he is the author of Histoire de l’Irlande et des Irlandais, from 2006, essential reading for any French speaker anxious to develop a greater understanding of the complex history of this island nation. He has also written biographies of Michael Collins and John Hume. Made a knight of the Légion d’Honneur in 2002, Joannon was last year conferred with the first annual Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad, in recognition of his scholarship and promotion of Irish literature and culture.
Il Était une Fois Dublin, loosely translated as “Dublin in the rare auld times”, is a personal chronicle, in French, of the city Joannon first discovered more than 50 years ago. In the introduction he admits the strong kinship he feels with Dublin: “I can no longer differentiate memories from things I have read, the present from the past, the joy from the sadness I have experienced there.”
He also acknowledges how daunting it is to write about Dublin in the wake of James Joyce, Flann O’Brien, Brendan Behan, Roddy Doyle and Dermot Bolger. (Strangely, there is no mention of James Plunkett. )
Skipping the Viking and Norman contributions to the establishment of Dublin, Joannon begins his narrative in the 17th century, at a time when James Butler, the duke of Ormonde, viceroy of Dublin, initiated the construction of bridges across the Liffey, the refurbishment of St Patrick’s Cathedral and Trinity College Dublin and the purchase of Phoenix Park, all key landmarks of the city.
Mention of St Patrick’s immediately calls to mind its most renowned dean, Jonathan Swift, author of the notorious Drapier’s Letters, which exhorted Irish people to burn everything English but its coal. Swift’s caustic satire caused his erstwhile English allies much discomfort and gained for him the undying adulation of the inhabitants of his adopted city.
The Protestant ascendancy – which, in addition to Swift, included Edmund Burke, Henry Grattan, Robert Emmet and Charles Stewart Parnell, among others – is credited with being responsible for the Georgian facades that adorn Dublin, as well as the enhancement of Dublin Castle and Parliament Buildings with a view to their rivalling Westminster. Joannon cites some of the witticisms of the men who frequented these plush surrounds, such as Sir Boyle Roche, who famously declared on one occasion: “Why should we put ourselves out for posterity? After all, what has posterity ever done for us?”
The historical impact of France on Irish history is considerable. Irish nationalists looked to the French as natural allies in their struggle against England. Theobald Wolfe Tone spent a lot of time there, as did Daniel O’Connell, who spoke excellent French. Apart from the obvious examples of Joyce and Beckett, many other Irish writers and artists felt drawn to Paris. Behan made his presence felt there – as he did everywhere he went – but Denis Devlin and George Moore were committed Francophiles. Moore, a close friend of Villiers de l’Isle Adam and Manet, stated on one occasion: “No one owes more to France than I do.”
Two chapters in particular stand out. One describes how GK Chesterton’s fascination with Dublin resulted in numerous perceptive comments about, for example, how the 1916 rebels, although aware that they could not win out against England, still wanted to bear witness to the worthy cause of Irish freedom. As a Catholic, Chesterton was so impressed by the fervour of Irish people during the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 that he was prompted to write: “I myself feel as though I have been reborn.” This comment is used as the springboard for a discussion of the heightened secularisation of Irish society in more recent times and the stark contrast between the much lower-key 2012 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin and its predecessor. In Joannon’s view, Chesterton would never have forecast the high level of spiritual apathy and the spectacular drop in religious practice that characterise the Dublin of today.
“A Pint of Plain or a Ball of Malt’’ explores the influence of the Guinness and Jameson families on the history of Dublin. Both Guinness and Irish Distillers, although now part of the Diageo and Pernod-Ricard dynasties, still have a strong presence in the city, and the huge investment in the St James’s Gate brewery augurs well for the future of that most iconic symbol of Irishness.
Joannon is struck by how pub culture is being slowly replaced by a more continental cafe culture. It now seems that the future of the Irish pub is more secure outside Ireland, where it is enjoying unprecedented success, than it is in this country. That said, Dublin has an enviable array of unique watering holes, and Joannon mentions his own favourites, including Doheny & Nesbitt’s, Kehoe’s, the Palace Bar, Bowe’s and the Brazen Head. The lure of the pub has taken its toll on numerous Irish writers, whose inability to decline the drink for the road often led to a serious decline in their literary output, followed by premature death. Joannon admits that the adage Je suis Irlandais, donc je bois contains more than a grain of truth, as is borne out by an OECD report that shows Ireland topping the charts, after Luxembourg, for alcohol consumption per capita.
In his conclusion, the author marvels at the resilience and good humour of Dubliners in the wake of the recent financial meltdown and the austerity that has come with the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. His style is refreshingly clear, and, as is obvious from the absence of footnotes and academic jargon, he is targeting a general readership. In this, the year of the Gathering, the Government and Bord Fáilte owe Joannon un grand merci for supplying such priceless promotion of the attractions of Dublin in France.
Eamon Maher is director of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies in IT Tallaght. His latest book, From Prosperity to Austerity: A Socio-Cultural Critique of the Celtic Tiger and its Aftermath, co-edited with Eugene O’Brien, will be published later this year by Manchester University Press.