Priest and Resistance hero who inspired cocktail – An Irishman’s Diary on Félix Kir
Félix Kir: “one of the most colourful characters in French public life”
Félix Kir has been described as “one of the most colourful characters in French public life”. But who was Canon Kir and what did he do to merit such a description? He was something of a walking paradox, someone who embodied religion and politics in the avowedly secular state of France.
Born in 1876, Kir entered the seminary in his teens and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1901. He was then posted to the commune of Auxonne, near his hometown in Dijon. When the first World War broke out, he was one of an estimated 25,000 priests and seminarians who were conscripted into the French army. He was very popular with his comrades in arms who liked his positive attitude. After the war, he returned to his presbytery in the town of Bèze with a Croix de guerre medal.
His bishop promoted him and Kir took an increasing interest in politics. He started to write in a Catholic newspaper, with agriculture being one of his favourite topics. At the 1936 general election, he wanted to throw his hat in the ring, but his bishop was not in favour.
In June 1940, when the mayor of Dijon fled ahead of the approaching German army, Kir stood in to reassure the local population. Together with several others, he was temporarily appointed to head up the municipal council. He helped a large number of prisoners of war escape rather than fall into the hands of the Germans. For this, he was later tried and sentenced to death, twice, by two German military courts.
Luck was on his side, however, and he was released after a subsequent inquiry. He worked closely with communist members of the Resistance and was arrested again in October 1943. This time, he was charged with helping people flee to England. He somehow managed to get off this charge, but his patriotic allegiance to France made him a thorn in the side of the occupying force.
In January 1944, two masked men from a pro-Vichy militia forced their way into his house in the centre of Dijon. They opened fire and he was wounded in the arm and leg. One bullet hit his wallet, probably saving his life. He recuperated in a secret location outside the city, avoiding detection by the Gestapo.
On the morning of September 11th, 1944, he returned triumphant to Dijon just as French tanks were arriving to liberate the city.
Elected by a large majority as mayor of Dijon in April 1945, his simple manifesto promised to “feed, clothe, house”. He was re-elected at subsequent elections and also ran for national office.
At age 70, he gained a seat in the national parliament in October 1945 by winning almost half of the votes in his constituency. He held these dual mandates until his death in April 1968 at age 92.
In his role as mayor, Kir looked outside of France to make connections. During his time in office, Dijon was twinned with, among others, Dallas in the US and Volgograd (which was called Leningrad at the time) in the Soviet Union. The Catholic Church was no friend to the USSR, so when the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, toured Dijon in 1960, Kir was forbidden by his religious superiors to welcome the visiting dignitary.
Kir’s speech was read out by one of his assistants, but he did have his way and subsequently met Khrushchev in Paris and in the Moscow.
In parliament, Kir sat on various committees over the years, including education, youth affairs, social security, pensions and food supplies, a key problem after the war.
He spoke in debates on a range of issues. For instance, he was in favour of atomic energy, European integration and the construction of a tunnel under Mont Blanc. However, he thought that Algeria should remain part of France.
He was a colourful and popular, if at times, truculent, member of parliament. It is highly ironic that a priest who disagreed with the new French law to formally separate church and state in 1905 and even got into trouble for trying to stop state agents from making an inventory in his church, ended up sitting in the parliament and enacting laws.
It is also ironic that this churchman has given his name to an alcoholic cocktail, known as Kir.
When entertaining guests as mayor of Dijon, he used to serve a blanc-cassis, as it was known at the time. The drink has since been rechristened Kir in honour of this colourful personality, who did so much to popularise it.
Today, it is usually served as an aperitif. Strictly speaking, the wine should be a Bourgogne Aligoté.
Made with one-part crème de cassis (blackcurrant-flavoured liqueur), it is topped off with four parts wine. Santé, as they say in France.