The 50th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s unannounced visit to Ireland will be remembered in Co Kerry today. Within days of resigning as president of France in 1969, de Gaulle and his wife Yvonne decided to take time out in Ireland.
The Irish Government at the time had been unaware of the visit until he arrived in the village of Sneem on May 10. Staff at the Heron Cove Hotel in the village, in May 1969, initially thought that, with all the secrecy, the unknown visitor was to have been the Pope.
De Gaulle also spent time in Connemara and Co Down during a visit that was to last six weeks in total. The then-78-year-old, the most powerful head of state in France since Napoleon III, had decided to step down from politics in late April 1969 after losing a referendum on reform of the senate.
Today in Kerry, a series of day-long events in Sneem will be attended by some of the former senators attached to his government, as well as by the French ambassador to Ireland, Stéphane Crouzat.
One of the organisers of today’s event, Dr Patrick Malone, said the commemoration will include a wreath-laying by the president of the French senate Gérard Larcher at the de Gaulle monument in the village’s North Square. Some 60 retired French Gaullist senators will be in attendance, he said.
There will also be a visit to Sneem’s Parknasilla Hotel, which has the impressive Kennelly-de Gaulle photographic archive of the visit on permanent display.
The celebrations will also include a gala dinner in the Sacre Coeur restaurant in Sneem. The surprise visit had attracted worldwide attention and yielded enormous benefits for the Sneem area in terms of tourism.
Sneem, Connemara, and Co Down later became favoured destinations for many French tourists. The ex-president had crossed the border in search of the McCartan family, from which he was originally descended.
Curious locals in Kerry and others too, at the time, became increasingly desperate for a glimpse of the ex-president and his wife. When a tall columnist named Patrick Campbell, who resembled de Gaulle, dropped in for a quiet pint to a pub in Sneem with Michael Duffy, a local hotel manager, the pair were surrounded and implored for autographs.
The moment was recalled by Frank Corr, the historian of the Great Southern Hotels, in his book in 1995. The entire trip in 1969 had been documented by Padraig and Joan Kennelly, founders of a photographic studio in Tralee.
Meanwhile, a French TV crew visited Ireland recently to film a new documentary to mark the 50th anniversary of de Gaulle’s visit. Filming also took place at the launch of the Kenneally-inspired photographic exhibition, entitled De Gaulle: A Quiet Holiday at Sneem Hotel, with 24 original photographs on display.