Paris photo show recalls de Gaulle's Irish visit

 

WHEN NEWS of Gen Charles de Gaulle’s visit to Co Kerry reached Government Buildings in Dublin, it caused what The Irish Times called “one of the greatest ‘flaps’ ever known there”. Newspapers cleared their pages and rumours took flight.

The world media’s spotlight turned to Sneem, where one of the giants of the 20th century sought sanctuary in a modest guesthouse by the sea. “Salut au Général”, ran the headline of a front-page story – entirely in French – from the Kerryman.

More than 40 years on, a new exhibition opening tomorrow at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris revisits one of the poignant final acts in the life of the man who created the current French republic. Viewed through the lenses of Pádraig and Joan Kennelly – Tralee-based photographers who chronicled those six weeks in the early summer of 1969 – the exhibition covers de Gaulle’s Irish ancestry, his tour of Ireland – and the daily game of hide-and-seek between his minders and a public desperate for a glimpse of the man.

De Gaulle had touched down in Ireland just two weeks after he resigned from the presidency after French voters rejected a referendum he championed on government reforms, marking his final exit from public life.

“Around Sneem it was fairly electric,” recalls Pádraig Kennelly, then a freelance photographer and TV cameraman. The Sneem parish priest came to celebrate Mass for de Gaulle in Latin and a local tailor arrived every morning to iron his clothes, but the general himself remained so elusive that frustrated French and British TV crews goaded a garda on duty into making angry gestures so they would have something to film.

Patience paid off, however, and the Kennellys were behind some of the most memorable images of the visit. One shows de Gaulle and his wife Yvonne strolling along the beach at Derrynane; another – Kennelly’s favourite – captures him walking silently on a mountainside not far from the hotel.

“If you were lucky, you had a good chance, and I was very lucky because I got quite a number of images of him. I knew the countryside very well,” Kennelly says.

It was Joan Kennelly who took a famous shot that would appear in Paris Match: an image of de Gaulle’s 6ft 4in frame towering over the kneeling congregation at Mass in Sneem.

De Gaulle used his holiday to rest, to begin writing his memoirs and to trace his ancestors, on his mother’s side, the MacCartans from Co Down. The young de Gaulle had read a biography of Daniel O’Connell by Josephine Maillot, his grandmother, and during a visit to O’Connell’s home at Derrynane, the hero of France’s libération took the time to write “In honour of the Liberator” in the visitors’ book.

According to Adm François Flohic, de Gaulle’s trusted aide- de-camp, the general – although sad to have been repudiated by French voters – was lifted by his warm reception in Ireland.

“He was pleased to be in Ireland, because he felt quite a strong connection to the country,” Admiral Flohic, now 90 years old, recalls. “He was deeply touched. It was a warm welcome but also discreet. The people of Sneem welcomed him a little like a returning Irishman.”

In his only public comment in Ireland during his stay, de Gaulle described his visit as a return and a moment of personal fulfilment.

“There are important highlights in one’s life and I feel – perhaps because of the Irish blood running in my veins – that it was instinct that attracted me to Ireland at this time. One returns to the place of one’s origins, I’m told.”

On November 9th, 1970, almost 18 months after he had arrived in Ireland, he died at his home in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises. He was buried a few days later in a simple grave in the village cemetery.

Adm Flohic and Pádraig Kennelly, along with Minister of State for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton, are due to attend the opening of the Paris exhibition tomorrow. The historian Pierre Joannan will give a lecture on the visit at the same venue on May 17th.

“I’m delighted about it,” says Kennelly, now 82. “It’s a grand hurrah for my photographic career. I’ve downed tools and I’m not too well in health, so it’s a nice highlight.”