Charles de Gaulle’s time in Ireland recalled on 50th anniversary of his death

Documentary recalls the six weeks the French general spent here in 1969

Fifty years ago this week General Charles de Gaulle died suddenly at home in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises in northern France.

Throughout his extraordinary life, which spanned two world wars and his 10 years as French president, he had enjoyed robust good health. The end, though, came quickly, and he died suddenly from a burst blood vessel just weeks short of his 80th birthday.

To mark the 50th anniversary of his death, TG4 is broadcasting a documentary based on the six weeks de Gaulle spent in Ireland in the year before his death.

De Gaulle in Éirinn (De Gaulle in Ireland) covers the time from May 10th to June 19th, 1969, when one of the most famous figures of the 20th century, who in his own mind and those of many of his contemporaries was the very embodiment of France, could be found driving down the backroads of Kerry or Galway in search of solitude.


Surprising destination

In 1969 Ireland was nobody's idea of a destination for the rich or famous. An Irish Times editorial expressed it best: "The presence of General de Gaulle in Sneem, Co Kerry, is almost as bizarre, in its first impact, as would be the announcement that Chairman Mao had arrived in Bangor, Co Down, to enjoy the amenities of Pickie Pool."

It was Ireland’s very inaccessibility at the time that made it attractive to de Gaulle; that and his family’s long interest in Ireland. His maternal grandmother Marie-Angélique McCartan was descended from the McCartans of Co Down.

While in Kerry, de Gaulle insisted on visiting Derrynane House, the home of Daniel O’Connell, as his aide-de-camp François Flohic recalled in the documentary.

“On the beach at Derrynane, he asked me: ‘Is it not true that you can visit the house of O’Connell in Derrynane?’” Mr Flohic says in the documentary.

“General, how do you know the history of Ireland?” he had asked de Gaulle.

“‘Oh,’ he said with a little laugh, a little chuckle, ‘my grandmother wrote a book about O’Connell.’”

Joséphine de Gaulle (née Maillot), his paternal grandmother, wrote Daniel O’Connell, Le Libérateur de l’Irlande, in 1887. De Gaulle’s father Henri was also a historian with an interest in O’Connell.

Prof Grace Neville, UCC emeritus professor of French, says de Gaulle’s succinct entry in the Derrynane House guestbook, “Honneur a O’Connell, liberateur, C de Gaulle”, was intended to convey that de Gaulle saw himself as a liberator of his people in the same way as O’Connell did.

Moments of levity

The visit and the documentary are not without moments of levity too. While the general was staying at Heron Cove Hotel in Sneem, hairdresser Peter Hanley (now 78) was summoned to give him a haircut. To this day he is still known in the town as "de Gaulle's barber".

He remembers him as a huge man, and one of few words. “We knew he was a mighty man in France. I wasn’t going to be asking him how Kerry was going to get on in the championship that year. Mind you, we did win the All-Ireland.”

The Cashel House Hotel in Connemara was only given a week's notice that he was coming. They did not have a bed big enough for the 6' 6" general and knew that if they went to buy one they would confirm the related rumours circulating in the local community.

They tied a single bed to the bottom of their biggest double, stitched two mattresses together and sewed new sheets.

They were also ordered to cut overhanging branches to a height of at least 7ft.

"Putting two and two [together] we were convinced that the general was coming to Cashel," said Joe Kelly, a trainee waiter at the hotel at the time.

De Gaulle in Éirinn is on TG4 at 9.30pm on Wednesday, November 11th, and available afterwards on the TG4 Player.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times