When de Gaulle created a flap returning to his place of origin.
Two weeks after the general stepped down as president, he made a surprise visit to Co Kerry. Such was the secrecy surrounding preparations for their guest’s arrival that some staff at the Heron Cove Hotel in Sneem presumed the mysterious visitor would turn out to be none other than the pope.
The news took them by surprise in Government Buildings in Dublin as well, where the sudden arrival of the near-mythical Gen Charles de Gaulle in Co Kerry created what The Irish Times called “one of the greatest ‘flaps’ ever known there”.
On the morning of Saturday, May 10th, 1969 – two weeks after he stepped down as president of France – de Gaulle and his wife Yvonne touched down in a French military jet for a private six-week stay in Ireland. The world’s attention came with them.
In the Irish newspapers, the topics of the day – among them the pope’s widely discussed decision to demote a number of saints – were pushed aside to accommodate reports from the scene in Sneem.
The general’s presence there, this paper suggested, was “almost as bizarre” as it would be to hear that Chairman Mao had turned up at a seaside resort in Co Down.
De Gaulle had resigned from the presidency the previous month after French voters rejected a referendum he championed on government reforms, bringing to an end a difficult period since the events of May 1968 and marking the final exit from public life of the giant of France’s 20th century.
“Can his new companions, the lofty majesty of Macgillycuddy’s Reeks and the ageless peace of Kenmare Bay, ease the pain and bitterness into which defeat has plunged the old soldier?” the Irish Press wondered compassionately.
Scores of journalists from around the world installed themselves at the hotel gates, desperate for material to feed the public’s gluttonous appetite for news from inside. And yet only the trivial and the tantalising seeped out.
One of de Gaulle’s first acts was to block incoming communications, and for weeks – apart from the occasional excursion and trips to Dublin and Galway – he remained holed up in the hotel grounds, spending his time reading and listening to the radio, “but not with any great passion”, his aide-de-camp, Admiral François Flohic, explained.
The Sneem parish priest came to celebrate Mass for him in Latin and a local tailor arrived every morning to iron his clothes, but the general himself remained so elusive that frustrated journalists were reduced to speculating on what he might have eaten.
“Some French and British TV crews goaded the garda into making angry gestures to keep off so they could film him in action,” The Irish Times reported.
The contemporary press coverage of the elderly statesman’s visit is recounted by Grace Neville in a new collection of essays, memoirs and poems.
Edited by Jane Conroy and published in honour of Pierre Joannon – philanthropist, historian of Ireland and the State’s honorary consul general in Cannes – the contributions range widely across times and themes, but de Gaulle’s imposing frame casts a fittingly long shadow over the collection.
Former senator Maurice Hayes traces de Gaulle’s ancestors to Co Down, setting out how his great-grandmother was a great-granddaughter of Anthony McCartan, who came to France as a boy of nine after the Williamite wars. (“As they would say in Co Down, he came from decent people,” Hayes writes).
Interest in Ireland had remained a family tradition; the young de Gaulle read a biography of Daniel O’Connell by Josephine Maillot, his grandmother, and during a visit to O’Connell’s home at Derrynane during his visit, the Irish Press noted, the hero of France’s libération took the time to write “In honour of the Liberator” in the visitors’ book.
Elsewhere, historian Joe Lee brings the oft-drawn comparison between de Gaulle and that other towering national symbol, Éamon de Valera, a step further with a fascinating counterfactual reflection on how each leader would have performed in the circumstances of the other. What if de Gaulle had grown up a de-facto orphan in an agricultural labourer’s cottage, and de Valera was the son of a philosopher, surrounded by books?
And what if we knew a little more of the thoughts that filled the general’s mind as he walked the deserted beaches of Kerry in that early summer of 1969?
In his only public pronouncement in Ireland during his stay, de Gaulle described his visit as a return, and as a moment of personal fulfilment.
“There are important highlights in one’s life and I feel – perhaps because of the Irish blood running in my veins – that it was instinct that attracted me to Ireland at this time. One returns to the place of one’s origins, I’m told.”
It was to be last visit. On November 9th, 1970, almost 18 months after arriving in Ireland, he died at his home in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises and was buried a few days later in a simple grave in the village cemetery.
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