The French Connection: 12 mars 2014

The origins of this talk by Hélène GUILLET & Philip McGRORY date back to an idea of then French President, Nicolas Sarkozy to mark Ireland's tenure of chairing the European Union.  The President had the idea of an exhibition charting connections between the two countries.  The exhibition was set out in a series of panels with commentaries in English, French and Irish. We were therefore honoured that the person tasked with providing the French translation was none other than our speaker, Hélène.


The Norman castle at Carrickfergus, County Antrim
We were taken on a tour from virtually the dawn of recorded history, through the arrival of the Normans, onto 1690 and the Williamite and Jacobite wars and to the flight of the Wild Geese.

Our speakers explained the origins of the Collège des Irlandais in Paris on the rue des Irlandais near the Sorbonne.  Hélène showed us a picture of a wedding ceremony being performed in the famous cultural centre. It was her wedding from two and a half years ago in which she married Cairan who also worked on the President's commemorative project mentioned above.

Next, Philip brought us closer to home and into Lisburn. He shared a little known fact that Lisburn was the only town in Ulster to have a French church, in which the minister conducted and the congregation followed services in French.

Numerous names of notables reinforcing the Franco-Irish connection were mentioned.  We had Sir Francis Beaufort, of wind scale fame, connections of the Mac-Mahon lineage and Richard Hennessy, an Irish officer serving in the army of Louis XV who went on to establish the renowned cognac house. 

Did you know that there were relatively few prisoners in the Bastille when it was stormed in 1789? And that one of them was Irish? And that there were Bastille day celebrations in Belfast in 1791 and '92? We learnt that.


Check out names on pillar columns
Have you ever been under the Arc de Triomphe and looked up at the 600 names commemorated there? Some of them are of Irish connection so next time, check out Charles Edward Jennings de KILMAINE inscribed on column 5 of the Northern pillar and Henri Jacques Guillaume CLARKE on column 11 of the Eastern pillar.

Sir Richard Wallace was Conservative and Unionist MP for Lisburn in the period 1873 to 1885. He spent a lot of his time at his home, the Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne.  Clicking on the following link to the Bagatelle reveals an interesting connection with Marie Antoinette.

Detail on fountain at Wallace Park, Lisburn
Sir Richard was also a philanthropist donating 2.5 million francs for the relief of poverty and he also provided the legacy of Wallace Fountains, enduring symbols of Paris and of which there are two remaining from the original five in Lisburn.

Philip and Hélène's talk covered military connections especially in the 20th century - we heard about Redmond, Messines and Samuel Beckett's resistance role in World War 2 and they shared a recent photograph showing troops from both sides of the border working with their French peers to train soldiers in Mali.

There was still plenty to connect... we looked at the French background of local, familiar faces - former Taoiseach Sean Lemass, previous Unionist leader, James Molyneaux, Field Marshall Montgomery and to the Irish background of the familiar General Charles de Gaulle whose maternal connections include the McCartan's of County Down.  In fact there were so many connections that Philip tested our knowledge with a picture quiz of 20 people with Franco-Irish connections.  These included artist Sir John Lavery, engineer Peter Rice, and designer and architect, Eileen Grey.

Our speakers were bringing their fascinating talk to a close but there was still something to explain.  Notice for the talk had referred to a sea-going snail, what was that about?  At the foot of several of their slides we had noticed a picture of a snail. They hadn't referred to it but all was about to be revealed.

It turns out that one of the earliest Franco-Irish connections is embodied in a snail, the Irish cepaea nemoralis.  Apparently this genus is found only in Ireland and the Pyrenees area. How did it get from there to here? 

Hélène and Philip left that to their appreciative audience.

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