Wolfe Tone to James Joyce: Ireland’s special relationship with Paris

Essay collection examines the cultural and political connections between the two countries

Irish republican John Mitchel was part of the wider revolutions of 1848 that affected most of Europe. Photograph: Getty Images

Irish republican John Mitchel was part of the wider revolutions of 1848 that affected most of Europe. Photograph: Getty Images

Sat, Jun 16, 2018, 06:00


Book Title:
Paris, Capital of Irish Culture: France, Ireland and the Republic, 1798-1916


Edited by Pierre Joannon and Kevin Whelan

Four Courts Press

Guideline Price:

This essay collection comprising 13 chapters, written in the main by historians, sets out to explore the impact exerted by Paris and France on Irish affairs from the end of the 18th to the beginning of the 20th centuries. In spite of the title’s designation of Paris as the capital of Irish culture, there is a good deal more concentration on politics than there is on culture, with essays covering the already well-documented French connections forged by the United Irishmen (Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone in particular), the Fenians, and Daniel O’Connell, whose campaign for Catholic emancipation made him famous throughout Europe. There are also chapters on the intriguing and largely neglected figure of Patrick Leonard and the political activism of Maud Gonne (whose relationship with the Boulangiste Lucien Millevoye led to her spending a long period in France). An insightful discussion of war damage in Paris and Dublin and an illuminating discussion of Sinn Féin’s diplomatic initiatives with the French government between 1919-1921 are also worthy of mention.

The collection closes with Barry McCrea’s unravelling of how two of the great modernist writers, Marcel Proust and James Joyce, “shared, exploited and struggled with Paris both as a physical place to live in and as the capital of the World Republic of Letters”. McCrea notes how Joyce’s very different social and national origins ensured that he and Proust were never destined to have a close relationship, in spite of a mutual admiration for each other’s work.

Irish expertise

The editors explain that the genesis of the book was the organisation of two conferences, one in Paris and the other in Dublin, whose purpose was “to explore Franco-Irish links and their long-term influence on the 1916 Rising”. This objective is not always addressed adequately in the essays, but that is often the case when compiling conference proceedings, which are notoriously difficult to mould into a coherent narrative. One introductory chapter by both editors would have been preferable to the two they produced, which contain a certain amount of repetition, especially when evoking the numerous Irish writers who gravitated towards Paris. A recurring feature of certain essays is that their authors know a lot more about Ireland than they do about France. But, in general, there is much to admire.

Seamus Deane’s contribution on Ireland in 19th century French discourse displays a wonderful grasp of the culture in both countries where Catholicism was claimed as a shared heritage, as was republicanism, although the latter was imagined very differently in France, where it retained what Deane refers to as “a settled animus towards Catholicism”. Focusing on how the Catholic thinkers Lamennais, Lacordaire and Montalembert, all huge admirers of Daniel O’Connell, were horrified by the sacking of the Parisian church of St Germain by a republican mob in 1831, Deane reveals how certain French intellectuals argued that if Europe was to survive, it needed to rediscover “a real belief in actual Christianity”. Unsurprisingly, this project did not succeed and a dejected Lamennais decided to leave the religious order to which he was attached. Like the imprisoned Irish republican John Mitchel, he ended up as an outsider without a uniform, because “there was no role or place for him in this world that would allow him to wear the clothes of a Christian”.

Driven by sentiment

Roger Chauviré’s arrival to take up the chair of French at UCD in February 1919 could not have been better timed for someone with his strong academic interest in theories of political power and how republics operate. The Ireland that would become his home for the next 30 years was an ideal case study, as the new state struggled to emerge from the ashes of the War of Independence and the Civil War. Chauviré published two novels that were set in Ireland, as well as a guide and a history of the country in French. Phyllis Gaffney underlines his even-handed treatment of the role played by the British in Irish history and his intuitive understanding that Irish nationalists were driven more by sentiment and poetry than by logic.

Pierre Joannon’s second chapter, on Ludovic Naudeau’s journalism about Ireland during the War of Independence, is another original contribution. Sympathetically disposed towards the natives’ desire for freedom, Naudeau noted that Dublin’s elegant facades, prominent statues and broad streets were “a little too English”. Painted murals extolling the benefits of Bovril, Lipton’s tea and Fry’s Cocoa gave him the impression of being in London. On the other hand, he saw the extent to which Belfast was a city completely integrated with London and the empire, “the exact antithesis of a nationalist and agricultural Ireland in thrall to the mirage of economic and intellectual self-sufficiency”.

In the wake of Britain’s proposed departure from the EU, the Belfast-Dublin divide highlighted by Naudeau is even more relevant with regard to the relationship the two parts of the island wish to maintain with our largest neighbour.

This attractively packaged tome from Four Courts Press reinforces the myriad connections that characterise the special relationship between France and Ireland. In a post-Brexit scenario, our centuries-old entente cordiale may well play an increasingly vital role in safeguarding the common interests of both countries.

Eamon Maher is director of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies in IT Tallaght