If there was an accolade going for the most astute tourism marketing ploy of the past 12 months, it would have to go to the Connemara think-tank which came up with the idea of presenting a symbolic key to the freedom of Connemara to the famed French songwriter, Michel Sardou. The ceremony, held some few months ago at the Irish Embassy in Paris, marked thirty years since Sardou penned “Les Lacs du Connemara” (The Lakes of Connemara), which shot to the best selling charts in France and still remains there, and is for most French people the enduring, evocative symbol of the region.
Thirty years may seem a tad late to have left the idea of paying tribute to such a permanent running commercial for the area, but better late than never. Or perhaps it was that the impact of the song on millions of French people had gone underestimated here in Ireland. Either way, over the years, “The Lakes of Connemara” has been adopted by the French as the official anthem of the Ireland many of them have yet to visit. I can well recall the eighties and nineties when no social night or no student gathering at Kitty O’Shea’s or the James Joyce Pub in Paris was complete without a rousing rendition, or two, of “Les Lacs”. Since then, it has become an obligatory favourite at weddings in France (and even across the Belgian border in Flanders). And as a sometime guide to French people visiting Ireland, I can concur with Brian Hughes of Clifden Chamber of Commerce that the Holy Grail of the Gallic visitor is to finally arrive at that mystic landscape which he felt he already knew thanks to the power of that one song.
Michel Sardou’s ballad created an image of Connemara which touched the heart of his French audience. Its rhythm is deep and primal and resonant, its slow start - not unlike the music of Riverdance - builds to a repetitive crescendo. His themes are truly evocative - blue mountains, dark valleys, green hills, deep mysterious lakes, romantic love, proud independence, and a firm dash of defiance to foreign rule, all balm to the Gallic heart. Even more intriguingly, Sardou admitted that he wrote the piece without ever visiting Ireland. He had found the placename on a tourist map, and found the images from watching the film, The Quiet Man. Such is the richness of the songwriter’s imagination. (my gruff old Latin teacher, in days gone by, in his Taurean way, was prone to scoff that Galway Bay, according to him, was composed by “a little Jewman in New York who was never outside Tin Pan Alley in his life”!)
The influence of a French song in promoting Irish tourism is perhaps a pointer as to how we have failed to capitalise on our advantages to the fullest extent. “The Quiet Man” itself remains a cinematic jewel the better to promote the region, as would Killala’s connection to the French, the Heinrich Boll link with Germany, and the undoubted potential offered by the Mayo Peace Park. The historian, Stephen Dunford, tells me that the only French battle not to be commemorated on the columns of the Arc de Triomphe is Humbert’s defeat of and subsequent rout of the British out of Castlebar. Surely a clever publicist could turn that lapse on the part of the French into a major media triumph? Enda Kenny making a play of persuading Sarkozy (or his successor) to add the name of Castlebar to the roll of honour; a suitable unveiling ceremony in the heart of Paris to mark the occasion? ( Brian Hughes and company, are you available for another PR mission?)
For now, however, Connemara can bask in a fresh wave of Michel Sardou-inspired French affection. That key presentation ceremony was given extensive media coverage in French press and TV. The Connemara dream has been awakened in the hearts of a million potential French visitors; and best of all, every time, the reality more than matches the expectation.