When Charles de Gaulle came to Ireland for six weeks
After his resignation as French president 50 years ago the general visited Sneem
Charles de Gaulle and Eamon de Valera at Áras an Uachtaráin. Photograph: Jimmy McCormack
Fifty years before Donald Trump’s trip, another globally recognised politician came to Ireland on a private visit that turned out to be far from private.
Gen Charles de Gaulle did not stay for two nights as Trump did in Doonbeg, but six weeks between May 10th and June 19th, 1969.
In recent decades we have become used to American presidents, members of the British royal family and Hollywood celebrities staying in Ireland for a time and generally being effusive about the place.
Ireland held no such cachet in the late 1960s, which made de Gaulle’s decision to holiday in Ireland a source of wonder at the time.
The 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.”
Less than two weeks prior to his arrival in Ireland, de Gaulle shocked France by resigning as president immediately after losing a referendum on constitutional reform which many people, not least the general himself, saw as a referendum on his 10 years as French leader.
Press interest in de Gaulle was intense as he arrived at the Heron Cove Hotel in Sneem, Co Kerry. Gardaí surrounded the hotel and staged stand-offs with journalists and photographers trying to access the hotel via boat or through the dense undergrowth that surrounded the less than salubrious location.
Though ostensibly a private citizen after his resignation as president, de Gaulle was too important a figure to be left to his own devices. The French ambassador Emmanuel d’Harcourt, an old friend of de Gaulle’s from the French Resistance, requested help to cope with the visit and Jean Guéguinou, a 27-year-old diplomat in the French foreign service, was dispatched to Ireland.
After arriving in Sneem, he returned on the train to Dublin a day later with a diplomatic bag containing de Gaulle’s proxy vote to elect his successor.
De Gaulle was less a political figure and more a “legend” in French life, he recalled. He was literally and figuratively a towering figure. Was he intimidated?
“If I was modest, I would say yes,” said Guéguinou, who is back in Ireland 50 years after the visit. “He didn’t try to be intimidating. He wanted to give the impression he was a private citizen. Can you give the impression you are a normal citizen when you are de Gaulle?
“I was much more intimidated when I left. My God, can you imagine? I’m 27 and I had dinner with M De Gaulle and Madame De Gaulle at this historical moment when he left power.”
Guéguinou remembered the Heron Cove Hotel as less a hotel and more a big house with just 12 rooms, four taken by de Gaulle.
His memories of the visit remain vivid. De Gaulle was “tired and certainly sad” when he first arrived at the hotel. He had a little office and was reading the memoirs of one of his favourite writers, François-René de Chateaubriand, while listening to French radio on long wave.
De Gaulle finally gave the press some of what they were looking for with a memorable photo opportunity on Derrynane beach, in which his extreme height and melancholy bearing gave an added poignancy as a contemporary King Lear-like figure.
The reason for de Gaulle’s decision to visit Ireland remains a mystery, despite his one public pronouncement on the matter. “It was a sort of instinct that led me towards Ireland, perhaps because of the Irish blood that courses in my veins. One always goes back to one’s source.”
Guéguinou speculates that the reasons may be more practical than that. De Gaulle needed to be seen to depart public life and did not want to be in France for the presidential election or for June 18th, the anniversary of his historic address to the French nation from exile in London after the Nazi invasion.
He had a complicated relationship with all the countries around him, which left Ireland, Guéguinou believes.
“Ireland was a neutral country. It was a place without political significance for him at the time.”