Happy St Patrick’s Day
Today is a good day to remind ourselves about the historic bond shared by Ireland and France. If I imagine a Frenchman, I see Charles de Gaulle, the first president of the Fifth Republic. De Gaulle’s grandmother’s name was Marie Angélique McCartan. She was the descendant of Patrick McCartan, who fled from Ireland to France in 1645, in self-imposed exile.
McCartan was one of many Irish rebels of the mid-17th century, who found their lands confiscated by the occupying English, so instinctively took refuge in the Jacobite enclave of France. In a second wave of exiles, after the victory of William of Orange in 1690, Patrick McCartan’s son John would join the famous Wild Geese of Ireland (Oies Sauvages), who came to France and formed the Irish Brigade of the French Army,
In 1578, before the Wild Geese, Father John Lee, a priest from Waterford, Ireland, settled in a tiny building on the rue Saint-Thomas in the Latin Quarter of Paris. And there he welcomed six young Irishmen as students in what he rather grandly declared was the “Collège de Montaigu” in the University of Paris (the earliest “official” Irish outpost I know of in Paris}.
These Irish priests and their students continued to come and soon seemed everywhere, deeply woven into Parisian life. When Louis XVI was given his last Communion by a cleric from the Irish College, Father Henry Edgeworth, who then accompanied the doomed king to the place de Grève and stood a few feet behind him on the platform, praying as the guillotine fell.
In politics, there is the famous Irish revolutionary Daniel O’Connell—“The Liberator”—who came to France as a schoolboy. Henri Balzac remarked, “I would like to have met three men only in this century: Napoleon, Cuvier, and O’Connell.”
More memorable still are the great modern Irish writers who each sought out Paris at an early age and made it their home.
Oscar Wilde came to Paris shortly after leaving Oxford. He was to live there, on and off, for the rest of his life. He lies buried in the cemetery Père Lachaise. “I am not English,” Wilde liked to say. “I am Irish, which is quite another thing.”
He once described himself with a complex irony that I also share: “Français de sympathie, je suis Irlandais de race, et les Anglais m’ont condamné à parler le langage de Shakespeare.” (“French by sympathy, I am Irish by race, and the English have condemned me to speak the language of Shakespeare.”)
The allure of Paris for Wilde—and for James Joyce and Samuel Beckett afterward—was not only its sensuality. To them, Paris was the most civilised possible place of exile, one that properly valued artists and writers. And gave them both freedom and tolerance. “He came to Paris to stay a week,” Ellmann writes of Joyce, “and remained for 20 years.”
The Irish are still in Paris: a perfect fit into the Parisian life. There may be between 10,000 and 15,000 permanent residents, according to the Irish Embassy. Here in the Charente, even in the remotest village, you may find an irishman or Irish woman living the good life. Why this should be remains a mystery to most people. For me, I simply feel an instinctive friendship with our French neighbours. Always willing to share and smile, bonded by our outlook on life: ‘Profitez de ce moment’.
Sláinte and happy St Patrick’s Day!
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