Capturing a general

An Irishman’s Diary: How a Kerry photo agency outmanoeuvred President de Gaulle’s minders

On the beach of Derrynane, Co Kerry: Gen Charles de Gaulle with his wife, Yvonne, his aide de camp, François Flohic and chauffeur Mr Fontenil. Photograph: © Padraig Kennelly, Kennelly Archive

On the beach of Derrynane, Co Kerry: Gen Charles de Gaulle with his wife, Yvonne, his aide de camp, François Flohic and chauffeur Mr Fontenil. Photograph: © Padraig Kennelly, Kennelly Archive

Wed, May 29, 2013, 00:01

On the morning Charles de Gaulle flew into Ireland, 44 years ago this month, a couple named Padraig and Joan Kennelly were supposed to fly out. In their case, it was for a holiday in Spain. But as it did many people on either side of the Celtic Sea, the general’s arrival in Kerry forced the Kennellys into a dramatic change of plan.

De Gaulle’s Irish trip was more than mere tourism. It was his formal retreat from public life, after defeat in a referendum and resignation as president. The six-week, self-imposed exile caused consternation in France too, not least among his would-be successors who, having happily ousted him, now coveted his support.

For the Kennellys, however, there were simpler calculations involved. They were both photo-journalists, and Tralee-based photo-journalists at that. On the day they were due to depart from Shannon Airport, the biggest story of their lives had just landed in Kerry (via Cork), without warning. There was no contest: the trip to Spain would have to wait.

The postponement was to be handsomely rewarded. As the world’s media descended on the Heron Cove Hotel in Sneem, where the de Gaulles began their Irish sojourn, the Kennellys had a competitive edge. They had the same long lenses the other snappers had, through which most of the subsequent pictures would be taken. But, crucially, they were also armed with local knowledge.

In the first days of the trip, photographers hired small fishing boats and took to Kenmare Bay in hope of getting a good shot, only to be thwarted by the Garda Síochána, who had boats too. Padraig Kennelly, meanwhile, took a gamble.

The general was known to have a big interest in Daniel O’Connell: he would surely visit Derrynane House – the Liberator’s birthplace — a few miles away. And indeed he did, by which time the canny photographer was ensconced at an upstairs window, with a perfect (and exclusive) view. When the peloton of photographers arrived 10 minutes later, they were thwarted again.

De Gaulle also went for drives and walks in the mountains where, once more, local knowledge was crucial. There was a famous photograph on Derrynane Beach too. But the Kennellys’ greatest scoop, the one that more than any other justified the postponement of their holiday, was a picture taken by the female half of the couple, at Sunday Mass in Sneem.

Technically, it wasn’t even good. It probably required more nerve than cunning. And luck played a part too. In any case, at one point during the service, the indigenous worshippers all knelt in prayer, while de Gaulle – in the French Catholic style – remained standing, his famous six-foot-four frame suddenly soaring above the congregation.

Joan Kennelly whipped a small camera from her handbag and captured the moment, unfazed by the sideward looks of two of her kneeling neighbours. As her husband recalled a few years ago, the picture was “a little soft, but the news content carried it”. It nearly carried Joan too. In Padraig’s words, she was promptly “lifted by the Special Branch”. Luckily, they didn’t confiscate the film.

Instead, the photograph made the cover of Paris Match and a two-page spread inside, under the headline: “The General’s Prayer”. It also went all over Europe. As to how much they earned from it, exactly, the photographer’s version of the confessional seal applies. But it was enough that, for many years afterwards, the Kennellys raised a toast to the de Gaulles’ visit: “Up Kerry and vive la France!”

Irish photojournalists were not the only ones to benefit. Tourism promoters were beside themselves with excitement, a spokesman saying it had given the area “more publicity in three days than in the past 10 years”. And after the initial drama, the effect spread well beyond Kerry. In Connemara’s Cashel Lodge Hotel, where the de Gaulles spent a fortnight, the fame lingers. As recently as last week, they were happily obliging French visitors who specified that they wanted to stay in the room the general occupied.

Now both dead, the Kennellys took some half a million photographs of Kerry life in their time, today archived at The de Gaulle pictures are only a small part of the collection, although easily the most famous. Because of rights and other complications, the Sneem Mass photograph is not among those featured in an exhibition entitled “A Quiet Holiday”, just opened at European Union House in Dublin. Other highlights of the de Gaulle visit are, and the show runs until June 21st.