Going for a song – An Irishwoman’s Diary on how the French fell for Connemara

Michel Sardou. Photograph: Tony Barson

Michel Sardou. Photograph: Tony Barson

 

It was early July last year, and we were basking in the warm evening sun at a campsite in the southeast of France. The mandatory mini-disco had ended, and children were running across the stage, fuelled by sirop, the French version of our diluted orange. Beside them, the entertainers were firing up the karaoke machine. Not for the first time, we looked at the European families around us and wondered how they always looked so effortlessly elegant while we grew increasingly red-faced and sweaty in the sun.

This campsite was very popular with French families and spirits were high because the Euros were in full swing. The French soccer team was dispatching challengers at a ferocious rate, including our own Republic of Ireland team. Germany would soon be the next casualty.

Up on stage, the karaoke machine sprung into life. A woman took the microphone and started singing in French. I thought I heard the word Connemara and looked up at the screen to see pictures of what looked suspiciously like Ireland.

My poor Leaving Cert French struggled to translate but someone called Maureen was definitely plunging naked into a Connemara lake, and Seán was declaring himself to be a Catholic. There were Connors and Flahertys and the Ring of Kerry. There was enough drink to last three days and two nights, and the Irish sky was at peace.

Around us, the audience was becoming very animated, singing and clapping along as the song built up to a crescendo.

Suddenly the French were all on their feet, singing their hearts out. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves.

Here they were, celebrating Ireland with a rousing ballad that we’d never heard of. It was like a teacher praising your child for some award you didn’t know he’d won. We tried to mask our confusion by nodding our heads in a knowing way and joining in with the standing ovation.

At the end of the night we repaired to the mobile home for a quick internet search and discovered that we had been listening to Les Lac du Connemara (The Lakes of Connemara) by Michel Sardou.

It went straight to number one after its release in France in 1981 and was clearly still hugely popular. A big wedding favourite, it also seemed to appeal to many younger people. More than one commenter on YouTube observed that no student night out would be complete without a drunken rendition of the song.

Sardou was awarded the freedom of Connemara in 2011, to mark the 30th anniversary of the song.

Since then, he has been free to graze his sheep on Clifden commonage and anchor his boat on Buttermilk Lake, should the need arise.

Reporting on the ceremony, this newspaper’s foreign affairs correspondent Ruadhán Mac Cormaic noted that Sardou had admitted to writing the song without ever visiting Ireland. He had found the place names on a tourist brochure and conjured up the images after watching The Quiet Man film.

Days after we returned from that holiday, we watched on television the horrific scenes unfolding on Nice promenade, about 250 miles from the campsite. At least 84 people died in the terrorist attack on July 14th, many of them holidaymakers like the people we had sat beside every night, a week earlier. As other attacks on France followed, we thought about those exuberant French families who didn’t seem to have a care in the world when they stamped their feet and sang about Connemara.

One year on, we are preparing to return to France. We hope to see the people still defiant and still keen to belt out Les Lac du Connemara when the occasion arises.

If they do, they will have a few Irish voices backing them up. Out of tune perhaps, and a bit wobbly on the pronunciation, but we’ll be there. And we might even call for an encore.