Book review: Horseman, pass by! (Irish pages)

Michel Déon, novelist and member of the Académie francaise lived in Co Galway for the last 50 years of his life, and died last December, aged 97. 

Michel Déon

Translated by Clíona Ni Ríordáin

The Lilliput Press, €12

This is the English translation of his memoir, published in France in 2005.

He published more than 50 novels in French, only two of which were translated into English. He was a great ambassador for rural Ireland. 

The 1977 film of his novel The Purple Taxi, starring Fred Astaire, Charlotte Rampling and Peter Ustinov, with its romantic view of Connemara, introduced many French people to the west of Ireland, including the journalist Lara Marlowe, who has written an introduction to the memoir.

Michel and his wife, Chantal, had been living on a Greek island, but their daughters needed to go to secondary school. France was in disarray after the upheavals of 1968, and Déon’s novels were out of fashion, eclipsed by the nouveau roman. 

Chantal liked to hunt, and he liked to shoot snipe and pheasant. They moved to Ireland almost on a whim, having enjoyed the outdoor life on weekend visits.

He writes: “We immediately understood that our new life would be spent in a precious haven where we would find peace, and independence of spirit, all the while remaining French, and from France.”

While the wind of change blew strongly in mainland Europe in 1968, it did not seem to reach the west of Ireland. 

The meeting of the Galway Blazers in Clarenbridge blocked the traffic on the main road between Galway and Limerick, without a word of complaint from the motorists, and Paddy Burke’s was not yet a restaurant, but a pub whose owner was known in the west of Ireland for his “volatile temper and fiery outbursts”.

Déon’s memoir consists of 11 loosely themed essays on places and people, ranging from Ulick O’Connor, John McGahern, to the homes of Yeats and Lady Gregory, and various less famous, mildly eccentric neighbours, ending with a well-told story about St Brendan.

Déon writes with total frankness about Irish society as he finds it. O’Connor, behaving boorishly at the Shelbourne, is described as being ‘of average height, wearing a navy blue blazer with several layers of dandruff on his shoulders … ’. After a bad start, he becomes a close friend.

Déon discusses paedophile priests and the Bishop Casey scandal with John McGahern over a dozen oysters at Morans of the Weir. 

Like Déon, McGahern has also observed the changes in rural Ireland over the past 30 years, but from the inside, making his comments more interesting.

Michel Déon walked his dog daily in Portumna Woods, and is scathing about the changes to the Irish countryside that have taken place. He observes that since EU regulations forced people to build barns, the landscape looks abandoned in winter. 

Like many visitors, he abhors the new buildings that now dot the countryside ‘like poisonous mushrooms’, and the replacement of wild hedgerows with barbed wire and concrete posts. ‘Prosperity has come crashing down on Ireland like paedophilia on base clergymen.’

He writes perceptively about his neighbours — the postman Tim, who cycled a 20-mile round in all weathers, and preferred muddy Ballindereen to life at his daughter’s pretty house near San Francisco with its swimming pool. 

Or Pat-Jo, a jack-of-all trades who left school at 12, but spends his leisure hours filling out tax returns or preparing building plans.

Michel Déon knew rural Ireland well, and has paid a generous tribute to its people in this uneven but heartfelt memoir. It is ably translated by Clíona Ní Ríordáin.


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