Sunday 23 November 2014

'Mysterious French lady' speaks of devotion to Collins's memory

Sarah Slater

Published 01/01/2012 | 05:00

A 10-year love affair between a French woman and one of Ireland's political heroes grows in intensity as the years slip away.

Known as the "mysterious French lady" who places flowers on the Glasnevin grave of Irish revolutionary Michael Collins, the 50-year-old Parisian cannot explain fully why she has an "overwhelming" desire to keep his memory alive.

Speaking for the first time about why she spends so much annually on flowers, on visits to his grave from France and commemorations of his life, Veronique Crombe, a lecturer and guide at the French National Museum, explains that it was a film about Collins that changed her life.

In 1996 Irish director Neil Jordan detailed the fallen hero's life, in Michael Collins, which stars Liam Neeson. It is a film that captured her imagination.

"The draw of seeing the Jordan film three years after it was released appeared to me that it was more than an excellent actor giving a great performance, Michael's life story was finally being told [to the world]," explains the intensely private woman.

Having no Irish connections that she knows of, she cannot explain why this "draw" to mark and carry on his name has taken such a hold. But her journeys to Ireland have created friendships that carry the history of the Cork man who died 89 years ago.

A candlelight ceremony at his grave on October 29, 2012, is when she plans to visit Glasnevin Cemetery again.

In August 2000, Veronique was attending an Indian classical dance workshop in the south of France, in Rodez, when she felt the inexplicable need to rush to a nearby cathedral and light a candle for Collins.

"On the 22nd, the date he was shot dead, was the decisive moment which helped me understand that definitely, sooner of later I would have to go to Ireland to know more and that going to his grave would show me the way. That Michael himself was drawing me to continue on his story.

"I'm not the only one who feels that way, my friend, author Chrissy Osborne, told me time and again, when she published her first book about Michael, Michael Collins Himself and also the second one, Michael Collins, A Life in Pictures, that she had always felt that it was Michael who wanted those two books to be written and published because both were a different approach to recounting his life.

"The amazing thing was indeed that Mercier Press immediately agreed and wanted to go ahead when Chrissy contacted them to talk about her project, even though she was not a historian, had never written a book and wasn't even a journalist.

Veronique also adds that: "Amazingly, that is also what I felt when I saw Michael Collins -- a Musical Drama, in 2009 . . . The musical was just fantastic, I know it was very special for Bryan Flynn who wrote it and Eoin Cannon who played the part on the three occasions I saw it, and gave a fabulous performance." All three are now good friends.

Finally, visiting Collins's grave was a powerful moment for Veronique.

"It is difficult to find words to describe how I felt. It was emotional and tears welled up in my eyes but I didn't cry and I wasn't afraid. It was the start of something that is still with me. When a person dies young an energy is left behind. An energy surrounding things left undone. Speaking to relatives of Michael, they say they feel the same."

So many strangers have now become firm friends due to the politician's and soldier's legacy. Bumping into men who -- without being asked or seeking recompense -- care for his grave, now becomes something of a reunion for Veronique.

"The selfless devotion of Denis Lenihan who has kept Michael's grave for years. Now two others, both former army men, James and Ronnie are helping Denis out with cleaning the grave and bringing fresh flowers every week.

"I suppose what I do appears more spectacular because it comes from a foreigner but their work shouldn't go unnoticed. Now other people are placing flowers on his grave."

Since her first trip to Dublin, she has become involved in a campaign to Save Moore Street and preserve it as a National Monument. These are the houses where the leaders of the 1916 Rising took shelter when they had to evacuate the GPO and where they made the decision to surrender. It is hoped to create an interpretive centre out of the houses.

"The Hewitt sisters at Rosary Florists do a great job for me on preparing the floral arrangements for Collins's grave. It happens sometimes that I ring them early in the morning saying: 'Sorry to ring you so early but I woke up this morning knowing that Michael needed something, can you have a few red roses delivered to the grave asap?' and there is never a problem.

"Usually I realise in an afterthought that the day is a date of some significance in his life."

Mary Hewitt said that visitors to the grave and callers to the florists are intrigued by the French woman's commitment to the memory of Collins and her devotion to his legacy. A legacy which has formed a part of modern-day Irish politics.

Sunday Independent

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