CFB explores French connections

The origins of this talk by Hélène GUILLET and Philip McGRORY date back to an idea of then French President, Nicolas Sarkozy to mark Ireland's chairmanship of the European Union. He 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.




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.

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.


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
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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