Saturday 10 December 2016

Insightful offerings reveal skewed history

Contributions include the lengthy and learned, but it's the cameos that expose Joannon's heart, explains Emer O'Kelly
Franco-Irish Connections: Essays, Memoirs and Poems in honour of Pierre Joannon
Edited by Jane ConroyFour Courts Press, €55

Published 29/08/2010 | 05:00

Frederic Grasset writes that the French Republic never appointed Pierre Joannon as Ambassador to Ireland only because he did not need and never thought of asking for this "regrettable omission".

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Grasset should know: he's a former French ambassador to Ireland, and one of the contributors to the Festschrift, published to mark Joannon's retirement as chair of the Ireland Fund of France, and to celebrate him as scholar, historian and Hibernophile.

The contributions range through poetry, reflection, politics, history and philosophical speculation, from the learned to the humorous, and while some of the political offerings seem ponderous, the themes offer an insight into modern Irish history at a time of great significance; while the tracings of earlier history throw up recurring themes of the profound contradictions between nationalism and republicanism, and on how frequently we have deliberately skewed our representation of our history.

Thomas Bartlett begins with an overview of the self-serving nationalism of representations of the Wild Geese, and a very distasteful scenario emerges. For instance, Dr Richard Francis Hayes, who published widely on the topic, was by profession a medical doctor. He took part in the 1916 rising, and shortly afterwards, calling on his medical qualification as authority, he published a pamphlet on Irish soldiers returning from the trenches of the First World War: rather than being given a victory celebration in their homeland, he recommended, all these "Irishmen in British uniforms" should be quarantined for syphilis.

In 1940, this charmer was appointed film censor, a post he held until 1954, employing "principles on which family life and civilisation are based. Any ignoring of these, and any deviance from them in a picture, bans it straightaway as far as I am concerned." (Casablanca, incidentally, was banned as it was deemed hostile to those old sweeties, the Nazis.) Not surprisingly, Bartlett finds that Hayes was engaged in nothing less than the creation of a new, alternative narrative history of Ireland.

We have continued in this right to the present day, as many of the contributors show. Dr Garret FitzGerald, writing on Irish-French relations from 1919 to 2009, mentions the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs as championing co-operation with the Vichy regime in France during the Second World War, and looking forward enthusiastically to a post-war European Catholic alliance following the defeat of the Allies, in a Nazi-controlled Europe. Joseph Walshe, Fitzgerald comments laconically, was a right-wing Catholic (he was also a former Jesuit priest), but the point is self-evident that while "true" Irishness remained identified with Catholicism, as it does still to a large extent, we have consistently air-brushed our pro-fascist sympathies out of our own wartime official history.

And John Hume, in a piece called "Reminiscences and Reflections on the Long Road to Peace" -- which might be seen by some as an account of his own unequalled qualities of leadership -- writes that respect for difference is the basis of the European Union, and also of the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement. But he does not mention the uniquely polarised Northern Ireland education system with the Catholic Church rigidly demanding segregation, something more akin to armed stand-off than the cultural melting pot of mainland Europe.

This is eloquently testified to by Professor Dermot Keogh's contribution on Ireland and France in the 20th century, which details the scholarly elegance of a good middle-class Irish education, heavily influenced by French language and literature, and steeped in an awareness of historic ties of religious identification. But while France preserved that elegance and respect for learning in the broadest sense, its political institutions, unlike those in Ireland, did not and does not look to religion for their tenets. In Ireland, the Vatican was always the international point of reference.

Indeed, this fundamental difference is wonderfully and ironically detailed in the history of the Centre Culturel Irlandais, the former Irish College, traced by Patrick O'Connor. Its restoration was begun by the Irish government in 1989 as Ireland's contribution to the bi-centenary of the French Revolution, blandly ignoring the fact that restoring a religious seminary in memory of a cataclysmic event that sought, and indeed succeeded in bringing about, the removal of Catholic Church from all power in the public life of France, was, at best, ironic.

Professor Joe Lee writes fascinatingly about comparisons and contrasts between De Gaulle and De Valera, and muses on Dev's famous speech about looking into his heart, pointing out that it was a riposte to having been seen as "contaminated" by association with intellectuals. In France, such a "contamination" would have been welcomed by De Gaulle, the former Professor of History at St Cyr, and indeed by the people he led. Intellectualism is admired in France; in public life in Ireland, it is a handicap.

It is in the short, personalised contributions, however, that the sense of affection and admiration for Joannon and his love for Ireland emerges: David Norris writing mischievously and hilariously about a Joyce seminar in Monte Carlo as guest of the Joannons; Sheamus Smith on the Cannes Film Festival, where the elegant Joannon home was always available for the Irish delegation to do its entertaining; a facsimile letter from Anne Madden and Louis le Brocquy on the "profound significance of culture as identity" and Joannon's contribution to it; a poem Vendange from John Montague: "But we were wild and young,/ Keats and Rimbaud in my rucksack,/ On n'est pas serieux, quand on a dix-sept ans ... /On est trop serieux quand on a dix-huit ans!" (One isn't serious, when one is 17 ... One is too serious when one is 18!); and the extraordinary and perhaps cynical wisdom of Brendan Kennelly in Bridge-builder: "Quiet bridge-builders are few and rare,/ Breathe the privilege as you cross the river."

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