(asked by Niall from somewhere)

I’ve noticed for a while now that the French seem to have adopted Ireland and the Irish as the one English-speaking culture they are not threatened by in some way. For example, I recently had a discussion with a French friend in LA about Halloween. He was horrified that American-style Halloween was becoming more popular in France, yet one more example of creeping US cultural imperialism, blah blah blah. Then I pointed out to him that most Halloween customs practiced in the US actually originated in Ireland. Once he realized I wasn’t pulling his leg, I noticed he suddenly became much less aggrieved by the creeping influence of Irish Halloween customs in France.

Since that discussion, I’ve tried that strategy out on a few business trips to France. It’s inevitable that at some point I will be treated to a lecture about something from America that is poisoning France from my French colleagues (SUV’s, iPods, vitamin water, in-vitro fertilization, etc.). At every such moment, I would simply reply, “Well, you know, that really comes from Ireland!”, and suddenly it was OK (I even convinced two friends that the iPod was designed at an Apple subsidiary in Dublin). Which I found highly amusing. This was a very consistent phenomenon. If I could convince my French colleagues that something they disliked from America actually came from Ireland, then it was OK.

So why is this? Is it just because both are (were) Catholic countries? Because both hate the British (sort of! in that totally loving way that the Irish and French hate people!). I don’t get it.

First of all, shame on you for lying to people in such a blatant way (but then again, shame on them for believing you).
Apart from that, yeah, the French seem to love Ireland and all things Irish.
Why is that?
I’m not 100% sure, but it has to come from the old saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the common enemy in question being England of course.

So yeah, there definitely are historical reasons there and even if France and England have been allied for about 150 years now, there’s a millennium of almost constant warring before this that is hard to cancel. Not talking about the very vivid rivalry that’s still around in many fields (rugby, colonialism, European Union matters, etc.)

But I suspect that it’s not the only reason why the French have such positive preconceptions about Ireland to the point they’ll accept something if it’s from Ireland, while they’ll criticize the same thing if it comes from another English speaking country.

One other reason could be (it’s just my guess here, no cold hard facts) that Ireland is the only remaining Celtic country and culture (there is Wales too, but Wales is not its own country and most French people have a hard time distinguishing between England, Great Britain and the UK) and France has always seen itself as a country of Celtic origins -even if it hasn’t been a Celtic country since the Roman invasion- so they’re fascinated by this country that has kept that “original” culture alive, especially nowadays when young French people too love everything that has to do with very old legends full of elves, pixies and other faeries; and for them, Ireland is the country that embodies those.

There may be another factor which is the fact that since European borders opened and French people started seeing travelling abroad for something else than vacation, Ireland became this place that’s far enough to be exotic (and not our direct neighbor) while being close enough to not be “a far away country” and having the advantage to be an English speaking country (as most French people learn English in school).

I remember back in the 90’s when I was in college, English majors (I was one of them) could be sort of divided as follow:
-the dull, boring, non-original and non-imaginative students were interested in England.
-the adventurous students were interested in the US, Australia or Canada (very adventurous and specialists in pop culture were aiming to the US, the very adventurous and original cared about Australia, the ones with strange ideas (or not too sure about their level of English) wanted to go to Canada).

But the students, that were somewhat interesting, but still not courageous enough to go on the other side of the planet were all about Ireland, and they were the “cool” students. They had the right mix of adventure in them (didn’t want to go just across the Channel), without the craziness (cause one had to be crazy to move on the other side of the planet) and the suspiciousness (because one is suspicious to be interested too much in England or the US to the eyes of people not in English studies)….

So, I guess it’s a little bit of all of those things that make Ireland today this strange paradise on Earth in the eyes of many French people…

But really the main reason has to be that the Irish are non-British, non-American English speakers…

And if I’m not wrong, the US loves Ireland too, don’t they? (with St Patrick’s Day being almost bigger in the US as it is in Ireland, most Americans priding themselves with their Irish origins, no matter how tenuous and unsure, etc.)

pixel Why are the French so enamored with the Irish and Ireland?

12 Responses to “Why are the French so enamored with the Irish and Ireland?”

  1. It is true that the US loves Ireland also. What is it about the Irish? In the US I think that it is partly that the Irish immigration happened long enough ago for most animosity to have been forgotten but recently enough that people can still trace their family back to Ireland (and, therefore, have some Irish pride).

    You mentioned St. Patrick's Day which is a big deal in the US but we also tend to usurp any holiday that gives an excuse to party and drink (cinco de mayo, oktoberfest)


  2. Ahhh ! So, it's not that my mother's family are Breton that my fiance (from Brest) loves me - It's beacause my father's family is Irish ! Kinda cancels out my being American. ;)

  3. I think your reasons for why French people often like Ireland are about right, maybe with a bit more stress on the sense of a shared Celtic culture which has managed to survive domination and still live - I had a lot of doings when I was younger with various Breton-Irish cultural exchanges and music festivals, and I know there are lots of academic things in folklore and literature going on. French people take literature seriously - I know quite a few French Joyce and Beckett obsessives.

    And yes, the half-jocular anti-English thing is also a factor.

    And on the student thing - yes, I still have good friends made on student exchanges. Who remain obsessed with Guinness and Tayto cheese and onion crisps…

    But I think another part of it is that French people do not pretend to be, or want to be Irish, and vice versa. Unlike the US, with its desperate desire to identify with ethnic roots from elsewhere and produce horrible, commercialised, tacky versions of other country's low-key traditions. (Halloween when I was a child in Ireland was a low-key, home-made affair, the night before a religious holiday, which might involve 'going on the pookey' and bobbing for apples, not buying plastic costumes and trick or treating… Likewise St Patrick's Day, another low-key religious holiday where you went to mass and wore shamrock. Now Americanised fake-Irish traditions are infecting Ireland with bastardised versions of its own traditions.)

    France has its own stuff going on, its own culture and traditions, and is interested enough in the authenticity and specificity of other places to respect that without wanting to borrow it and pretend to be Irish… Which is a bit of a relief, to have tourists who are not adults in shorts and sneakers who go wild about an over-sized mouse and complain that St Patrick's Day isn't like it is in NYC.

    I used to work with US students visitng Ireland on exchanges, and every year I would have to deal with the same thing, Americans who had always believed themselves to be 'Irish' (despite the fact that it was a great-grandfather who had emigrated and they'd never even visited) being very upset and puzzled when they discovered that to Irish people they were just another American tourist with delusions.

    I also think that Ireland seemed to offer a certain kind of French eccentric a good place to go to drop out - when I was little, the bit of south west Ireland where I lived had a good scattering of French (and German, actually) people who did up isolated farmhouses up mountains and made goat's cheese or candles or pottery. It's largely thanks to French exertise that Irish cheese is now so good.

  4. I am only half french but I do love Ireland as opposed to not being fond of England & USA, and my reason, beside Roan Cathoicsim is that Irish people and culture seem alive and not " stuffed" like a dead bird on a wall ( which is what I feel about protestantism and anglo-saxons )

  5. It is very, very offensive to suggest that WALES is not a country. I suggest you look at the history of WALES and england.
    Wales is an ancient celtic COUNTRY which shares the same values as scotland and Ireland.

  6. Cymruambyth, I see you get the tone of this blog very very well… Good.

  7. It would appear that the French are not good with Geography as a friend of mine who is from the Netherlands, the French regard his origins as Northern Europe, what on earth do the French call Norway then, North, North, VERY NORTH Europe?????? It is a a bit like calling Britain - england (which is in fact made up of 3.5 countries: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England) Perhaps it's time than Non english GB residents should get their own back and refer to FRANCE AS BELGIUM.

  8. So, you're a funny one, aren't you?

  9. Wow… well seen. It’s really true that French people have a special thing when it comes to anything Celtic. But I didn’t know where it was coming from. Many thanks.

    I won’t lie and say that it doesn’t apply to me too (though my Breton ancestors have nothing to do with it, I’m hardly interested in Brittany, I consider myself 200% French). But I just LOVE Ireland. Irish folk music is my favourite. I practice Irish dance. I play the Celtic harp. I’ve always wanted to marry an Irishman (well, at least someone with Irish origins). And I meet French people in love with Ireland, Scotland and Wales all the time.

    But as reluctant as you may be on that question Frenchman, I really think that Catholicism plays a certain role too (I know what you think about people saying that France is a Catholic country and it’s not my point). What is true is that French people tend to despise and strongly distrust capitalism that could only develop (to the level we know today) in Protestant countries (England and the US… pour ne pas les citer). We clearly see the influence of hundred years of catholicism in this “money-is-bad” French thing. I think we are more likely to trust a cultural-Catholic Irish than any other Anglo-saxon for that matter.

    We are also seeing Ireland as a symbol of resistance against the Anglo-saxon domination. Their pride and will to preserve their langague, their culture against the English… Hum, did I say Ireland ? Oh my pardon I wanted to say “France”…
    Then… How can we not be the best friends ever ? :)

    • You’re making interesting points here. Although I seriously doubt that nowadays Catholicism plays a part in French people fantasizing about Ireland, historically it may have.

      Also, see my answer to your other comment about the “Anglo-Saxon” term (i.e. an artificial construct created by French people, usually the ones that don’t like the UK and the US and bundle them up together because it’s so convenient even if totally inaccurate).

  10. Hello !
    Thank you for answering to my (very) long comments.

    I know about the “Anglo-Saxon” term. It’s just a term we invented for a reality that exist only for us French. And this term is often used by my teachers at university… It has no derogatory connotation. Nor in the researchers’ articles or books that I read. So I’d like to make it obvious that it is no way insulting in my comments. And that I am very aware of the differences between the US and the UK, and about the differences within the UK. It was just a term I used because it was convenient. No offense to anyone.

    Like you, I agree on the fact that Catholicism hardly should play a role nowadays.

    • Well, the problem with the term “Anglo-Saxon” despite being widely used, even by intellectuals, is that it has no reality; and usually researches using it (even the big famous ones - I remember Roland Barthes using it many times, luckily it usually is as side comments, not to make his point) only have a very partial understanding of Anglo cultures (note the plural).

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