Franco-Irish bond forged on the battlefields of history

Fri, Mar 16, 2012, 00:00

YOU WON’T see the Seine turn green for St Patrick’s Day. Emigrant hordes won’t crowd the Champs-Élysées to bask in the glory of Ireland’s win against Spain in the European Championships in Poland in June.

French affection for Ireland manifests itself more discreetly: in the 400,000 visits by French people to Ireland every year; in the insatiable appetite for Irish food and drink; in the general sense of goodwill the mythic, albeit often vague idea of Ireland – if not its economic policy – typically evokes here.

Ireland’s credit column in France is centuries long, and reminders of it are everywhere. In street names such as Avenue MacMahon, a Parisian thoroughfare named after Patrice MacMahon, a descendant of the “Wild Geese” who became president of the French republic in 1873. In the cognac house set up by Richard Hennessy, who left Ireland in the middle of the 18th century to join the French army’s Irish Brigade. And, above all, in the thousands of Irish names inscribed on gravestones and war memorials across the country.

An exhibition at the Musée de l’Armée in Paris traces three centuries of military co-operation between France and Ireland, beginning with the Irish regiments that fought for France in the 17th century and concluding with recent co-operation between the French and Irish armies on the United Nations mission in Chad. At its opening last month, Yves Deniaud, a French assembly member, explicitly cast it as an antidote to recent political tensions, a reminder that there was a “superior dimension” to the relationship.

The exhibition dates Irish involvement in French wars to the flight of Britain’s last Catholic king, James II, in 1690, by which time France had long replaced Spain as the foreign power to which Irish Catholics looked.

Irishmen’s service in Louis XIV’s army led to the creation of the Irish Brigade, a military unit that kept alive the Jacobites’ hope that the fight for the Irish cause would continue.

Command of the brigade was given to Justin MacCarthy, an Irish colonel who later became a French lieutenant general, and it was to distinguish itself in important campaigns and battles during the reigns of Louis XV and XVI. It was at Philippsburg in 1734, Fontenoy in 1745, Culloden in 1746, and took part in the American war of independence between 1779 and 1783.

In one of the letters cited in the exhibition, dated October 18th, 1697, Marshal Sébastien Vauban of France stressed the commitment of Irish troops to the minister of war, Louis Le Tellier.

“They are brave soldiers, poor people who were chased away from their country on account of their religion and because of their loyalty to their king. They deserve our compassion,” he wrote.

The “Wild Geese” and their descendants integrated well, and benefited from a 1715 royal decree that granted naturalisation as French subjects to foreign soldiers who had served in the army for more than 10 years.

There was an important Irish contribution during the French revolution and in the 19th century. When France found itself at war with Prussia in 1870, support committees were set up in Ireland, and money and equipment were dispatched to France.

The story of Irish losses on French battlefields is told in memorials across the country – in the names inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe, for example, or in the Celtic cross that was erected in 1907 where the battle of Fontenoy was fought.

The first World War is also a major part of that story. In the battle of the Somme alone, some 2,000 of the 15,000 soldiers of the 36th Ulster Division lost their lives. A further 3,500 were wounded. “Never once did the Irish fail me in those terrible days,” Marshal Ferdinand Foch, commander of the allied forces on the Western Front, declared after the war. “On the Somme, in 1916, I saw the heroism of the Irishmen of the North and South . . . France will never forget her debt to the heroic Irish dead.”

The extent to which France remembered the contribution of Irish men and women to its wars is up for debate, however.

Pierre Joannon, Ireland’s honorary consul in Cannes and a historian of Ireland, believes French awareness of the long military links is relatively recent. In the republican political culture of the 19th and early 20th century, he argues, it was customary to denigrate the royalist cause by vilifying the ancien régime for its sectarianism and persecution of Protestant Huguenots.

The Franco-Irish relationship fell into a historical “blind spot”.

“Fortunately, times have changed. Royalism in this country is now an obsolete dream and the fear – real or perceived – of the royalist cause providing ammunition for the enemies of the republican ethos has vanished altogether,” says Joannon.

One of the lesser-known Franco-Irish stories is that of the Irish women and men who worked for the Resistance against the Nazi occupier during the second World War. Samuel Beckett was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance by the French government for his efforts in fighting the German occupation.

Thanks to recent research, a picture has emerged of a small number of Irish citizens who played an active role in these clandestine networks, as couriers and medical workers or in the communication of escape routes.

A striking characteristic of Irish involvement in the Resistance was that the number of women activists was well above average.

Katherine Anne (Kate) MacCarthy, for example, was a Franciscan nun who was active in an intelligence and escape network. She was arrested by the Gestapo in June 1941, sentenced to death and deported. MacCarthy was rescued from Ravensbrück camp in December 1944.

According to Joannon, two events in the late 1960s and early 1970s played a big part in raising French awareness of links with Ireland. The first was Charles de Gaulle’s visit to Ireland, the home of some of his ancestors, in 1969; the second was Ireland’s accession to the European Economic Community in 1973.

“Before 1973, Ireland was a remote island in the extreme west of the European continent,” he says. “The fact that Ireland joined the common market opened the eyes of the French to the various elements of the Franco-Irish connection, just as it opened Irish eyes to France and other countries.”

The Irish and France: Three Centuries of Military Relations continues at the Musée de l’Armée in Paris until April 29th