Saturday 3 December 2016

Flashback 1988: Exclusive audience with Francois Mitterrand

This weekend 25 years ago an 'Irish Independent' reporter got a world exclusive with the then French president as he holidayed in rural Ireland

Ger Siggins

Published 09/08/2015 | 02:30

Irish Independent reporter Eddie Cunningham interviews the former French President Francois Mitterand as he relaxes with friend, Bennitte Groult, during a short break at their summer home in Bunavalla, Caherdaniel, Co. Kerry. PIC Tom Bourke 12th August 1988 (Part of the NPA and Independent Newspapers)
Irish Independent reporter Eddie Cunningham interviews the former French President Francois Mitterand as he relaxes with friend, Bennitte Groult, during a short break at their summer home in Bunavalla, Caherdaniel, Co. Kerry. PIC Tom Bourke 12th August 1988 (Part of the NPA and Independent Newspapers)

Having been re-elected as President of France in a bruising battle with Jacques Chirac in May 1988, Francois Mitterrand was entitled to a relaxing holiday. And where better than a wild, remote part of Co Kerry?

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As the first left-wing head of state under the Fifth Republic and president of 58 million people, he could not expect to be allowed to completely disappear, and there was plenty of speculation in the days running up to his holiday in early August that he was on his way to Ireland.

One newspaper told its readers he would be staying at the home of the Primas, a wealthy French family, at Reenafurra House near Sneem, and would also visit the Great Southern Hotel in Parknasilla.

But the Irish Independent newsdesk got wind that he had a different destination, and reporter Eddie Cunningham and photographer Tom Burke were despatched to south Kerry. Tom takes up the story as the pair arrived in Bunavalla, beyond Caherdaniel, on Thursday, August 11.

"The cottage was down a winding road, very remote. The gate was blocked by French security forces but we drove up around 9pm and asked could we speak to the president. One of them went inside and came back with the message that he was tired, but to come back tomorrow."

Burke and Cunningham checked into a local hotel and next morning their breakfast was interrupted by a member of the Garda Síochána. "You've to come now," they were told. "You're wanted down the house."

Down at Bunavalla, President Mitterrand apologised, saying he had just arrived the night before and had to meet some people and was too tired to talk to Eddie.

The Irish Independent team was invited in and spent a convivial couple of hours with the president and his friends Paul Guimard and Benoîte Groult, who had kept a summer home in Bunavalla for almost a decade. He was a journalist and former adviser to Mitterrand, she a novelist and feminist activist.

Tom has happy memories of the president, who was very courteous and co-operative while he snapped away - "a lovely man, he couldn't have been nicer", he recalls - and the French police too were very friendly.

The pair raced back to Dublin - a journey of more than six hours in those days - and their world exclusive appeared the next day, with Mitterrand speaking about how he loved Ireland and the Irish.

The rest of his visit was taken up with a trip to Daniel O'Connell's former home at nearby Derrynane, a shopping trip to Sneem, and a helicopter jaunt out to Inishvickillane to meet its owner, Charles Haughey, and his wife Maureen and son Seán.

Mitterrand impressed the Taoiseach with his knowledge of the Blasket Islands and was taken to see Skellig Michael. What was originally intended to be a 36-hour break was extended to five days as the president enjoyed the hospitality.

Monsieur Mitterrand died in 1996, aged 79, but his friend Benoîte Groult, now 95, still lives in Paris.

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