Subscriber OnlyEuropeIreland’s 50 years in the EU

Is Ireland closer to Paris or Berlin?

Our correspondents on the links between Dublin and the capitals of France and Germany

Ireland joined the EEC, as it then was, in January 1973. This is one of a series of articles exploring our evolving relationship with the European Union – and its past, present and future

Shortly before Irish accession to the European Economic Community 50 years ago, then president Éamon de Valera invited Paddy Hillery to lunch at Áras an Uachtaráin, writes Paris Correspondent Lara Marlowe.

Hillery, then minister for external affairs, was about to become Ireland’s first commissioner in the EEC. “Remember this,” Dev told Hillery. “Stay close to the French. They were always our friends over the years, and if you follow them you won’t go too far wrong.”

Pierre Joannon, Ireland’s Consul General on the Côte d’Azur and the author of numerous books on Irish history, told the anecdote in a lecture to the Association of Franco-Irish Studies.


Charles de Gaulle had twice vetoed Irish accession in the 1960s, because, he said, Ireland’s economy was dangerously intertwined with Britain’s. De Gaulle thought the British were too close to the United States to be good Europeans.

Privately, de Gaulle told aides he hoped Ireland would join Europe as soon as it could “liberate” itself from British economic domination. De Gaulle was descended from the McCartans of Co Down on his mother’s side.

When he left office in 1969, de Gaulle sought refuge for six weeks in Ireland. “Perhaps it was because of the Irish blood which flows in my veins, for we always come back to our origins,” he said in a speech at Dublin Castle, “but also because it was Ireland”.

Half a million French tourists visit Ireland annually, seeking to replicate de Gaulle’s solitary walks in wild and windy landscapes, and in the hope of basking in the legendary human warmth of the Irish.

De Gaulle’s successor, Georges Pompidou, lifted France’s veto.

“It was France that turned the key that unlocked the door for Ireland in Europe,” says Niall Burgess, Ireland’s ambassador to France.

Garret FitzGerald, taoiseach at the time of accession, spoke French and holidayed in France every year. “We had a series of Francophone and Francophile leaders who made the connection in those early days,” Burgess continues. “We have been getting to know each other better ever since.”

France and Ireland teamed up on subsidies for farmers and regional development. A longstanding row over corporate tax was resolved last year. Brexit and the necessity of preserving the Northern Ireland protocol have brought them closer than ever.

France and Ireland have traditionally united when both were at odds with Britain. Ireland’s involvement in “the great historical struggle for the domination of Europe between reformed England and Catholic France, and later on between the British Empire and revolutionary Napoleonic France”, is a bond as strong as shared Celtic and Catholic heritage, Joannon writes.

Germany simply cannot compete with the depth of cultural, geographical, historical and emotional ties between France and Ireland. The original Irish College in Paris, now the Centre Culturel Irlandais, was founded 445 years ago. It produced at least 50 Irish bishops. A seminary was established in Maynooth in 1795 to prevent returning priests spreading revolutionary notions in Ireland.

Because we live in an English-speaking world, Burgess says, “I don’t think we fully appreciate how much of our political DNA has been drawn from France: the idea of a republic; the Enlightenment thinking which underpinned the idea behind a republic; the Tricolour taken from Paris by Thomas Francis Meagher in 1848.”

Irish emigration in the 17th and 18th centuries was primarily to France, before it shifted to the US. And tens of thousands of French Huguenots emigrated to Ireland.

At the first meeting of the First Dáil, the declaration of independence was read in French, considered an idiom of liberty, as well as in English and Irish.

In 2023, the Irish Embassy in Paris will celebrate the 225th anniversary of Gen Humbert’s expedition to the west of Ireland, the 175th anniversary of the transfer of the Tricolour, and the 50th anniversary of accession to Europe.

A mutual reverence for language and literature is another powerful tie between France and Ireland.

“In Britain, writing is an exotic activity. Here [in Ireland] it is central,” the novelist Joseph O’Connor said, quoted by Grace Neville, professor emeritus in French at University College Cork, in an essay she published in 2019.

As recounted in Adrian Frazier’s biography, George Moore travelled from Mayo to Paris in 1873 in the hope of becoming a painter. He befriended Mallarmé, Manet and Zola, and became a writer instead.

Oscar Wilde frequented the same crowd, wrote his play Salomé in French and died in Paris. Yeats called on the ageing Verlaine and also died in France. Joyce’s Ulysses was censored in the English-speaking world, whereas France published it in both French and English, and hailed it as a masterpiece.

Samuel Beckett wrote much of his oeuvre in French, and is claimed by both countries as their own. He was also a hero, awarded the Croix de Guerre for his role in the French resistance.

Such ties continue. “I don’t think I could have made a decent living without the French,” the novelist Colum McCann said, quoted by Neville. The late Nuala O’Faolain expressed similar gratitude to France.

John Montague and Derek Mahon, great Irish poets who died in 2016 and 2020 respectively, translated French poets into English.


In 2007, an Irish critic contacted Ireland’s Rough Magic Theatre Company ahead of its premiere of Maria Stuart, a play by Friedrich Schiller, writes Berlin Correspondent Derek Scally.

Was this Friedrich Schiller a big name in Germany, the critic asked, and would he be available for an interview?

Herr Schiller, Germany’s answer to Shakespeare, was sadly unavailable, having been dead for 202 years at that point, but the story speaks volumes about Ireland’s relationship with Germany.

While Ireland is hugely popular in Germany – the Embassy in Berlin has just launched an “Irish affinity diaspora award” – a widespread lack of curiosity about German culture and language in Ireland puts natural limits on the bilateral relationship. So too an imbalance in traffic: 1 per cent of Germany’s 82 million population decamp to Ireland annually, yet Germany never looms large in Irish holiday plans.

As well as geography is lingering historical antipathy among Irish religious – in the pulpit and classroom – to the land of Martin Luther and Protestantism. Nuns and religious brothers taught French, not German.

An ironic twist given it was Cavan-born St Cillian who helped bring Christianity back to the central European German lands in the seventh century.

Perhaps this is what West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, a fervent Catholic, was referring to when he told a visiting Seán Lemass in 1962 of his country’s “ancient, special feelings” for the people of Ireland.

Even before Ireland joined the European Union 50 years ago, respectful German-Irish bilateral ties have at times seemed more a relationship of convenience and mutual benefit rather than a close love affair.

Few in Ireland remember how much its Celtic revival and nationalist movement is indebted to Germany’s Kuno Meyer who, in the late 19th century, championed the Irish language, literature and Celtic studies.

Indeed when Irish freedom fighters turned to Imperial Germany in 1916 it was for guns and – in one apocryphal GPO conversation – for Kaiser Wilhelm’s spare son, Joachim, to become Irish monarch.

It’s worth remembering how Charles de Gaulle’s warmth for Ireland didn’t stop Paris thwarting Dublin’s hopes of joining the European Economic Community (EEC), precursor to the EU, by blocking UK entry – twice. Throughout it all it was West Germany that kept Ireland’s European ambitions alive.

In his essential read, Ireland, West Germany and the New Europe, UCC historian Mervyn Driscoll says Lemass saw Bonn as “entirely with us” after his 1962 visit. That was echoed by this newspaper, which described West Germany as Dublin’s “best friend and ally” in securing EEC membership.

Even as EEC hopes stalled, it was business as usual: from 1959 to 1973, West Germany was both Ireland’s largest single trading partner from the EEC and biggest investor; the rising tide of its postwar “economic miracle” lifted many Irish boats, too. Even today, Germany remains Ireland’s biggest EU trading partner and third largest worldwide.

In the EEC accession home strait in the early 1970s, O’Driscoll notes how Bonn officials were much warmer to Dublin than London. Irish negotiators only fought “on matters of real importance” and (unlike the UK), “had not created difficulties about unimportant side questions”.

In 1990, Ireland returned the favour during its European presidency: clever backroom diplomacy by the Haughey administration cleared obstacles, particularly in London and Paris, for European backing of German unification in Dublin Castle. Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s response: “I will never forget this.”

The new millennium saw for the German-Irish ties drift into what one former Irish diplomat calls “benign apathy”. Keeping connections alive were companies like Liebherr in Killarney and a dedicated army of German-Irish academics.

For the last 25 years the Centre for German-Irish Studies at the University of Limerick has examined ties with German-speaking Europe and encouraged new research co-operations and exchange.

For centre director Prof Gisela Holfter, the centre is “all about the connection expressed by the hyphen, between the Irish and German”.

Of course these connections – and related financial dependencies – can cause friction.

In the 2000s, Mary Harney’s memorable claim that Ireland felt closer to “Boston than Berlin”, combined with Ireland’s failed EU referenda, revived questions in Germany over whether Ireland’s interest in the EU was merely economic.

Tensions towards Germany built in crash-era Ireland. Though the US treasury was key in blocking Irish efforts to allow so-called “haircuts” for its international bondholders, the villains in the Irish narrative were the European Central Bank and Berlin.

Similarly, the popular pub and talk radio refrain – “German banks shouldn’t have given us so much money” – rested on an unproven assumption that German capital was over-represented in Ireland’s pre-crash economy.

Amid these tensions, humour came to the rescue: a former aide to Angela Merkel remembers the ex-chancellor’s reaction when Irish fans at the 2012 Euro soccer tournament unveiled their “Angela Merkel thinks We’re at Work” banner: “She thought it was hilarious.”

German-Irish relations will receive a major boost after recent news of a major Irish cultural push into Germany. The multi-million “season” will be the biggest engagement since 1996, when Ireland was partner country at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

As relevant now as then, former president Mary Robinson said in Frankfurt that such major cultural events “make us reflect for a moment, as I think we need to do, on just where we rest our attention and make our priorities”.