Seventy years after they fought, spied, sabotaged and – in some cases – died for France, 50 Irish men and women who worked for the French Resistance were officially recognised for the first time yesterday, at a subdued but moving ceremony in the Irish College in Paris.
Some 750 Irish people lived in France when the second World War started. "Irish people became involved in the full range of Resistance activities," said David Murphy, professor of military history at NUI Maynooth. "In intelligence-gathering, the best known was Samuel Beckett. In sabotage, Sam Murphy from Belfast excelled at disabling German vehicles."
The plaque in the courtyard of the Irish College is dedicated to "Irish men and women who served the cause of the liberation of France".
It was unveiled by Fiona McCarthy – whose great aunt, Katherine Anne McCarthy, also known as Sr Marie-Laurence, helped 120 allied servicemen escape from German-occupied France – and Joe Linehan, whose third cousin Maureen Patricia O'Sullivan parachuted into occupied Limoges for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to work as a radio operator.
“These people made a moral choice,” Prof Murphy said. “They could have waved their Free State passports, mirrored the Irish government’s stance and said, ‘I’m not involved. I’m neutral.’ ”
The prevailing sentiment, expressed by Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland's new Ambassador to Paris, was one of "very great humility" in the face of such courage. At least one man in the open-air audience cried as the names of the 50 resisters, three of whom were killed by the Nazis, were read out.
Jo Jewson (74) remembers Katherine McCarthy or "Auntie Katie" as reverend mother at Honan Convent in Cork after the war. Retired history teacher Ms Jewson regrets not having recognised earlier the magnitude of her aunt's achievement and suffering. "When I was a history student at the University of London, I told her I had visited Berlin, and she recalled walking barefoot through Berlin when she was shifted from one camp to another."
Her nieces say it’s a miracle Ms McCarthy survived. The Nazis had condemned her to death. She was eventually sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she nearly starved, contracted typhus and was four times designated for the crematorium by the “huntsman” who selected women unfit for hard labour.
Maureen Patricia O'Sullivan was "a bit of a rebel" when she was recruited by the SOE, said Joe Linehan. She used the noms de guerre Micheline and Josette, and narrowly escaped arrest, torture and death by flirting with soldiers at a German checkpoint so they forgot to open the suitcase in which she carried a radio transmitter.
“I often ask myself, ‘what would I have done in her situation’?” Linehan said. “The answer is, you don’t know.”
More than half of the 50 Irish people honoured yesterday were women, compared to fewer than 10 per cent in the Resistance as a whole.
“As an Irish woman, I am particularly struck by the proportion of women among the Irish members of the Resistance,” Ms Byrne Nason said.
“There can be no surprise at the bravery of those women following in the greatest traditions of Mná na hÉireann. I revere them today as outstanding examples of independent-minded, intelligent women who went into action and risked everything for what was right.”
Irish women resisters were "well ahead of their time and of what their society expected of them; of what Ireland allowed of them," Ms Byrne Nason continued. "To borrow a phrase from former president Mary Robinson, they didn't just rock the cradle, they rocked the system."
John Morgan, a lawyer from Dublin and a trustee of the Escape Lines Memorial Society, campaigned with David Murphy for recognition of Irish resisters. Five years ago, on a hike through the 1940s Pyrenees escape route, he met Nadine Dumont, a French woman who wept when she told Morgan about her Irish friend Catherine Crean, who died at Ravensbrück. Ms Crean's name was among those read out yesterday.
“These stories of courage, resourcefulness, selflessness and self-sacrifice remind one of qualities we lack today,” said Mr Morgan. “Each story is more inspiring than the last. It’s quite addictive.”
French officials present included Emmanuelle d’Achon, who was ambassador to Dublin, Senator Hélène Conway-Mouret, who spent decades in Ireland, and Jean-Pierre Azéma, a historian of the second World War and president of the French commemorations committee.
Prof Azéma, who has attended numerous similar events, praised the solemnity of the Irish ceremony. “Politically, it’s understandable that the French and foreigners among them joined the fight against Nazism. What impresses me most is the personal and emotional resonance the period still has for people 70 years later.”