They say it’s bad for the soul to become obsessed with one small, narrow place or one small, narrow subject. For 45 years much of my life has been taken up with the interminable problems of Northern Ireland. So this month I am going to take a break from the wearisome North and write a little about relations between my home country of Ireland and the other country I love, France.
I first became seriously involved with Northern Ireland (having left it as a small child) when I was working in France. In July 1969 I cut short my first summer job after university, working as a waiter in Paris, to come back to Belfast and Derry to volunteer with the civil rights movement.
I am still a very regular visitor, for work and play. In my final years at the Centre for Cross Border Studies I was a frequent speaker at French academic and policy conferences (in Paris, Lille, Strasbourg, Marseilles and Perpignan) on cross-border cooperation as part of the Northern Irish peace process. I loved the French intellectual curiosity about the concept of cross-border cooperation as a way out of conflict and a means for moving towards European integration. It may occasionally err on the side of excessive theorising, but we in Ireland could do with a little more of that passionate interest in ideas in place of the personality and money-driven ‘chat’ that too often passes for debate here.
There is an element of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ in the long and friendly relationship between the Irish and the French. Politically, militarily and culturally, France was one of a series of European countries that offered Ireland a model of culture and government that could stand as an alternative to what many in Ireland perceived as an oppressive British presence.
As the County Antrim-born University of Paris academic, Wesley Hutchinson (who has spent most of his adult life in France), puts it: “Scale was a central factor in this attraction. France, like Spain or Germany in other periods, had the power and the resources to stand up to Britain and to help Ireland towards some form of independence.”
This hasn’t always meant that the French have automatically lined up with the Irish against the British. For example, for many years the 1916 Rising was seen in Paris as a betrayal of France’s most important ally in the First World War, and the French joined the British in commemorating the Battle of the Somme rather than lauding the Easter Rising. This may have changed in recent decades – however I have a vivid memory of watching Frank McGuinness’s play ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme’ in a Paris theatre with a French leftist and committed IRA supporter, and listening to his amazed reaction at discovering for the first time how the ancestors of the Ulster Protestants he so detested had stood shoulder to shoulder with his grandfather, fighting and dying to defend France.
In general the Irish nationalist agenda receives a good press in France. Even that country’s deep-rooted anti-clericalism seems to have a blind spot when it comes to looking at the cultural and religious underpinnings of our nationalism. Many on the French left, in particular, who would eschew any manifestation of nationalism in France, have not hesitated to support the violent Irish republicanism of the Provisional IRA. However one thing is crystal clear, says Hutchinson: “Unionism as a political culture finds little or no echo in French public opinion. Trying to explain what motivates ‘British Ireland’ is an uphill task”.
But the French-Irish relationship isn’t mainly about politics. As the distinguished Irish Times Paris correspondent Lara Marlowe puts it: “Ireland and France see reflected in each other the power of history and the primacy of the written word. Ireland needs France for its elegance, sophistication, perfectionism, wine and cuisine. The Bretons need Ireland as their Celtic mother country, and the rest of France needs Ireland to teach it simplicity, fraternity and the ability to smile through adversity.”
We all know about the fabulous cuisine. This is very often prepared with Irish lamb or seafood, since France imports more of these Irish products than any other country in the world. Indeed the overall trade balance is hugely in Ireland’s favour because of all the food and drink the French buy from us.
We recognise the elegance and sophistication that we (European) country cousins can only marvel at. And we understand why 420,000 French people visited Ireland last year, partly attracted by our ability to ignore austerity, keep smiling and enjoy ourselves – as well by the wild beauty of Kerry and ‘Le Conemara’ (probably France’s most famous sentimental wedding song, sung by the crooner Michel Sardou, is ‘Les Lacs du Conemara’).
Another jewel in Ireland’s French crown is the Irish Cultural Centre, housed in the magnificent 17th century Irish College in the Rue des Irlandais behind the Pantheon, which is the only full-fledged Irish cultural centre in any foreign capital. I urge every Irish person to visit this wonderful building and every Irish writer and artist to seek a residency there – and that includes persons and artists from Northern Ireland. You might even run into Paul Durcan or Nell McCafferty or Rita Duffy or Conall Morrison in the ultra-modern library or the splendid courtyard.
In 1996, after a brief spell of journalism in Paris, I wrote an article for the Irish Times entitled ‘French Lessons’. I suggested seven innovations that Ireland could borrow from France – ranging from a portable mini-credit card receiver to ‘pooper scooper’ scooters for vacuuming dogshit from the streets – many of which have since been adopted. I proposed, only half in jest, one thing in return: an Irish ‘charm school’ to train Parisians who serve the public to be friendlier (not yet acted upon!). I still believe that there is a huge amount we can learn from our more sophisticated, if occasionally introverted and melancholy, Gallic cousins on the other (nicer) side of the English channel.