Académie francaise prize for Irish academic


FRANCE: Dr Jane Conroy, professor of French at NUI Galway, has just become the first woman and first native English speaker to win the prize, writes Lara Marlowe in Paris

For an academic, it was almost like winning the Euromillions lottery. Dr Jane Conroy, professor of French at NUI Galway, was working in her garden at the end of June when her husband John Waddell, a Bronze Age specialist in archaeology, shouted out the window: "There's a letter from the Académie Francaise."

Conroy kept watering her plants as Waddell's voice rose: "You've won something . . . something rather big."

Conroy had just become the first woman, and the first native English speaker, to win the Grand Prix de la francophonie de L'Acadermie francaise , which comes with a cash prize of €22,500. As Dr Conroy remarks, "In the humanities, that's enormous."

Back in March, Conroy thought nothing of it when the French academician Michel Déon, who lives in Co Galway, asked for her CV. Déon had read Conroy's pioneering work on 17th century French theatre and literature written by French travellers to Ireland between the 17th and 19th centuries, but she had no idea he was nominating her for one of the académie's most prestigious awards.

Conroy describes her research as intercultural studies. "The common thread is how cultures co-exist and understand each other," she says.

A convinced European, she is alarmed by the EU's present crisis and believes the mass movement of students is one of the best ways to build Europe.

"My British colleagues complain their students have to be talked into doing a year abroad. Ours come back utterly transformed, as adults. The Irish adapt very well in a multicultural world."

The 17th Century was France's grand siècle. Yet the craze for plays set in England and Scotland was largely ignored until Conroy pulled them together in Tragic Lands; England and Scotland in 17th Century French Tragedy, a book she wrote and published in French.

Elizabeth I and the French-born Mary, Queen of Scots, were favourite topics in the 17th century, as well as the relationship between Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex. Spain was receding as a global power, and France and Britain were engaged in intense rivalry. Against this background, French playwrights lionised the Catholic Queen Mary and often demonised the Protestant Elizabeth, who ordered Mary's execution in 1587.

"Mary's story rocked Europe. The Catholic countries called each other to arms," Conroy explains. "Never before had French playwrights addressed an almost contemporary subject. The first play about Mary and Elizabeth, by Antoine Montchrestien, was performed in 1601. Mary's execution was very much in living memory. It was extraordinary for those times.

"Mary was portrayed as the martyr queen who prayed through the night," Conroy continues. "But she was not successful dramatically because she was too good. The powerful, passionate Elizabeth became the more interesting character."

Montchrestien visited England after writing his play and was so impressed that he is believed to have converted to Protestantism.

On his return, he wrote a treatise on the British economy - believed to be the first time the word "economy" was used - praising Britain's tax policies and spirit of enterprise.

Though the French plays were ostensibly about Britain, "there was a sort of shadow play going on, about French identity and French history," Conroy says.

France too endured the succession battles of totalitarian monarchs. "Imagine a world without media or political fora. Theatre was where it was worked out. It was the beginning of a European context, of modern consciousness of other political entities in Europe."

Conroy is spending her summer holidays in the Bibliothèque Nationale, deciphering an 18th century manuscript by Charles-Étienne Coquebert de Montbret, who was sent by Louis XVI, then the post-revolution Directoire, as consul to Ireland. The Irish Manuscript Commission will publish the document in French, but Conroy will also make an English translation available to university libraries. No one is paying her; it's a labour of love.

How does one become a Francophile?

Conroy grew up in a Gaeltacht area of south Connemara. Her mother taught her to conjugate être and avoir. "The crucial moment came when I was about seven. The local publican's wife gave me a French grammar book. I fell in love with corail and vitrail - the irregular plurals. I just fell in love with the words."

As humanities secretary for the Royal Irish Academy, a neutral consultative body for the Government, Conroy has a brief to defend the humanities.

"We can all see the usefulness and utility of science and technology," she says.

"But in discussions of research, there is often a humanities blindness. It's always more difficult to get research recognised in the humanities, which is why this award is great.

"It allows us to say, 'The French recognise what Ireland is doing in French studies'."