Ireland: barely visible from corporate France?

Years ago (1980 to be precise) a Czech student I met fleetingly on a waterbus in Venice asked me where I was from. The single word answer “Belfast” only seemed to puzzle him. After trying Northern Ireland and then Ireland I asked him if he knew where Britain was. He said yes. So I explained that Ireland was the next piece of land to it’s west. “Ah” he said, “America!” The whole island, north and south, had no substance in his (admittedly Cold War) world view. It seems that Seamus Martin in today’s Irishman’s diary has encountered similar problems in corporate France where the train bringing the news of partition in 1922 is overdue (subs needed):

…if you want to book a hotel through SNCF over the web. Everything goes well until they ask you the address to which your credit card bills are sent. You insert your house number, your street name and the name of your city and then you are are asked to choose from a list of countries. This list includes Antarctica, the Faeroe Islands, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Fiji, Kiribati and Papua-New Guinea. As far as I could make out from my not unlimited knowledge of geography, the only countries missing from the list were the mythical “Bongo-Bongoland” that Tory MP Alan Clarke made infamous – and, of course, Ireland.

The response he got when he complained was less than sympathetic:

I rang SNCF, who informed me that Ireland was part of Grande Bretagne. I informed them that this arguably had been the case until 1922 and perhaps the train bringing this news to SNCF had been delayed by 83 years. At this stage and for some unexplained reason, I was cut off.

In defence of his criticism of French cook Ginette Mathiot, who having termed soda bread “pain d’Irlande” listed it under “Royaume Uni” (UK), I would have to say that the top ten soda breads I have ever tasted, have all been baked in Northern Ireland (which is in the UK, whether we like the idea or not)!

But Martin is making a serious point. In my own experience, the general view of Ireland in France is marked firstly by language and only secondly by the island’s distinctive cultural and political features. In fairness, we either don’t/won’t speak French or we speak it badly with an English speaker’s difficulty over the French nasals.

Whatever our feelings on the matter, in France we get dragged into the middle of an historical antipathy between the old enemies of England and France. And generally we are assumed to be on the side of the English.

Nevertheless, it must be about time for SNCF to cop on to partition 83 years after the fact! Maybe it’s time to tip them the wink? If you do get a reply, let us know how you get on!!

  • Occasional Commentator
  • Jo

    Mick
    As regards French antipathy to the English, it appears fawning compared to French attitudes to US citizens – and this is where citizens of this island – north and south – are always well advised to make their homeland clear.

    Service improves, scowls become smiles and even a request to have one’s steak “bien cuit” becomes something to smile at and joke about as an Irish preference rather than incur a glaring response to the often loudly and ignorantly expressed call for “‘Amburger ‘n’ fries.” Perhaps its because people from here are more inclined to speak gently and try at least to use a few words of French? We, unlike a typical US or English visitor, do have something of a cultural life dissociated from demanding our own native food and language wherever we happen to be.

    I doubt the historic links (such as the abortive invasion of Ireland in December 1796) carries too much resonance with the typical French citizen in 2005….

  • barney

    When the Bastille was stormed it housed just a handfull of prisoners, one of whom was an Irishman. It’s reasonable to assume he was fairly supportive and very much on the inside.

  • Gerry O’Sullivan

    I’ve come across this on a number of occasions. I work in the wine business, and a week does not pass without a letter, fax or e-mail arriving in our office from a French exporter seeking representation in “le marché britannique.” We usually reply that we already have enough Belgian wine in our portfolio. It’s only the French that do this, never the Italians, Spanish, Portuguese or anyone else.

    We had a French student doing some work experience here a while ago. She was on the phone one day to her bank in France, trying to transfer funds into her Irish bank account. The person in the French bank insisted that Dublin was in the UK and would only transfer in sterling, and not in Euros. I overheard a little of the conversation as Amélie had to explain some Irish history to her.

    I also find that when I’m travelling in France, I’m sometimes taken to be Dutch. When you visit a museum, monument or other place of interest, you may be asked where you come from, and they make note of it. I speak reasonably good French, but sometimes my accent isn’t what it should be. Unless you clearly pronounce “Irlandais”, there’s a good chance they will pick it up as “Hollandais” and tick the “Pays Bas” box. If you can’t speak French, they just assume you’re British.

    Much as I love France and the French, this drives me up the wall!!

  • objectivist

    Old French saying:
    ‘L’Irlande est une ile derriere une ile.’

  • slackjaw

    Sure many of them also think Beckett and Picasso were French.

  • Keith M

    If we completly disappeared off the French radar screen, it would be a cause for celebration. I don’t like to generalise but personally anything that upsets the French is good with me. If being American is their current bete noir then it’s time I dusted off my Dubya baseball cap.

  • Jo

    “I don’t like to generalise but…” now where have I heard that before?

  • Doug

    “I don’t like to generalise but…” now where have I heard that before?

    Here, perhaps:

    unlike a typical US or English visitor, do have something

  • Young Fogey

    this is where citizens of this island – north and south – are always well advised to make their homeland clear.

    Service improves, scowls become smiles and even a request to have one’s steak “bien cuit” becomes something to smile at and joke about as an Irish preference

    This is also true in North Eastern Turkey, where pale skinned, dark haired foreigners are assumed to be part of the burgeoning local community of illegal immigrants from the former USSR, and ipso facto a drug dealer or smuggler. Making it clear that you’re Irish works wonders.

    They do sometimes mistake İrlanda for Olanda, and they also sometimes think Ireland is the country where ETA are active. Football usually works as a referent though.

    My wierdest French experience was having an in depth discussion of Drumcree in French with a taxi driver who had come to Paris as a refugee from South Vietnam…

  • Jo

    Doug:
    The French have exough experience of tourism to recognise a typical experience of the English and American visitor and act accordingly, which those who are neither would do well to note.
    They tend to live in their country twelve months of the year (most of us aren’t that lucky)and I daresay they are entitled to make judgements as to the quality of their vistors. Manners go a long way, I’ve found.

  • Doug

    The French

    All of them?

    have exough experience of tourism to recognise a typical experience of the English and American visitor

    And that would be? Without generalising, mind you..

    Manners go a long way, I’ve found.

    Indeed. Even on blogs.

  • Kevin

    I think the problem Seamus Martin encountered arises on all Expedia sites, not just the SNCF version.

  • Jo

    Doug,

    I can assure you that manners are notably absent from many blogs. My experience has been that the French respond to good manners with good manners, and poor behaviour (raising your voice and enunciating your English rather than making an effort to speak their language etc) incurs a negative response.
    There is a level of formality in their society which is notably absent from ours and we are worse off for that being the case.

  • TAFKABO

    Living in Paris has made me realise that the French know little about Ireland, or Northern Ireland.Not because they don’t care, but because it’s not that important.
    People from Northern Ireland have this curious notion that the world gives a shit about their little family row.

    It aint so.

  • slug9987

    TAFKABO very true. It is not an interesting problem. I think most NI people are starting to realise this.

  • bupkis

    Just went to the SNCF site to order tickets and “Irlande” was listed along with every other country.

    Don’t know what Martin’s on about…

  • NRK

    Of course, the confusion may arise from that old chestnut of distinguishing between the British Isles and Great Britain…
    Obviously the British Isles hang off the French region of Brittany, so being British means???

  • Mick

    Martin says this about booking the train:

    “Try booking a train on the internet site of SNCF, the highly efficient French state railways system. If you nominate Ireland as your country of residence you are, first of all, prompted to pay in cash in pounds sterling at an address in London. Fortunately, as a second choice you will be allowed to pay over the internet by credit card in euro”.

    I really hope the IT open up their website for free public access again. I really don’t like quoting sources people may not be able to check out for themselves.

  • Valencia

    The SNCF site does have an Irlande option. But does any of this difer from ignorance on “the mainland” of Ireland/N.Ireland? When I first went to London from Belfast in 1999 and was registering for a job agency they asked me for my passport. I told them I didn’t have one, whereupon they said “but didn’t you need one to come over here from Ireland?”

    The bank situation re the French girl in Dublin… hands up all those who have had difficulty spending pound sterling (albeit from a N.Irish bank) in Britain? Where the currency is errrrm…. pound sterling!!

    A novel twist is that some London bars are apparently refusing Ulster Bank notes because of the Northern Bank robbery. Er, ok.

    Bottom line, if English people can’t get it right then it seems mean to expect the French to do any better.

    Also it seems churlish to criticise them when it’s a two way street. Most in N.ireland don’t know the regional subtleties of continental countries. An otherwise intelligent poster on here once asked me, on the basis of my handle, if I was an Italian cousin of someone else (no idea why, when Valencia is the third largest city in Spain.)

    Youngfogey, the subtle Olandes/Irlandes difference exists, I think, in all Romance languages. Certainly in Spanish, Catalan and Romanian the same mistake happens.

  • IJP

    Jo

    Perhaps its because people from here are more inclined to speak gently and try at least to use a few words of French? We, unlike a typical US or English visitor, do have something of a cultural life dissociated from demanding our own native food and language wherever we happen to be.

    Sorry, if ‘we’ refers to people from NI, this is a COMPLETE MYTH.

    NI is the most parochial, inward-looking region in Europe. Many cannot even grasp the concept of a different culture (where ‘well done’, ‘medium’ and so on mean something different), and people from here are even less likely to try a few words, for the simple reason they’re even less likely to know any – in my experience few can even manage ‘merci’ or ‘gracias’.

    This is admittedly at odds of my experience of travelling with people from the Republic, who in my generation at least are indeed much more willing to try, and much more likely to look out for (and even assume) basic cultural differences.

  • IJP

    People from Northern Ireland have this curious notion that the world gives a shit about their little family row.

    Excellent point.

  • IJP

    Valencia

    A novel twist is that some London bars are apparently refusing Ulster Bank notes because of the Northern Bank robbery.

    And rightly not – they’re not legal tender!

    Northern/Ulster/BoI/First Trust bank notes are not legal tender. Not even in NI, in fact.

    They are produced as legal currency by agreement with the Bank of England and as such (like the euro, or any other currency) may be accepted.

    But the only legal tender in the UK (and therefore the only cash you are obliged to accept) is Bank of England.

    Bottom line, if English people can’t get it right…

    Sorry, but the English people did get it right – and you didn’t.

    Moral: Anti-Englishness is not only churlish, but also has this alarming habit to rebound! 🙂

  • Eddo

    IJP

    Absolutely, after all a great many people from and living in Northern Ireland don’t give a shit any more !

  • IJP

    Valencia

    A novel twist is that some London bars are apparently refusing Ulster Bank notes because of the Northern Bank robbery.

    And rightly not.

    Northern/Ulster/BoI/First Trust bank notes are not legal tender. Not even in NI, in fact.

    They are produced as legal currency by agreement with the Bank of England and as such (like the euro, or any other currency) may be accepted.

    But the only legal tender in the UK (and therefore the only cash you are obliged to accept) is Bank of England.

    Bottom line, if English people can’t get it right…

    Sorry, but the English people did get it right – and you didn’t.

    Moral: Anti-Englishness is not only churlish, but also has this alarming habit to rebound…! 🙂

  • IJP

    Valencia

    A novel twist is that some London bars are apparently refusing Ulster Bank notes because of the Northern Bank robbery.

    And rightly not.

    Northern/Ulster/BoI/First Trust bank notes are not legal tender. Not even in NI, in fact.

    They are produced as legal currency by agreement with the Bank of England and as such (like the euro, or any other currency) may be accepted.

    But the only legal tender in the UK (and therefore the only cash you are obliged to accept) is Bank of England.

    Bottom line, if English people can’t get it right…

    Sorry, but the English people did get it right – and you didn’t.

    Moral: Anti-Englishness is not only churlish, but also has this alarming habit to rebound…! 🙂

  • IJP

    Valencia

    A novel twist is that some London bars are apparently refusing Ulster Bank notes because of the Northern Bank robbery.

    And rightly not.

    Northern/Ulster/BoI/First Trust bank notes are not legal tender. Not even in NI, in fact.

    They are produced as legal currency by agreement with the Bank of England and as such (like the euro, or any other currency) may be accepted.

    But the only legal tender in the UK (and therefore the only cash you are obliged to accept) is Bank of England.

    Bottom line, if English people can’t get it right…

    Sorry, but the English people did get it right – and you didn’t.

    Moral: Anti-Englishness is not only churlish, but also has this alarming habit to rebound…! 🙂

  • Eddo

    My understanding is that British retailers are not legally obliged to accept NI sterling notes. They’re better advised than they used to be but not much. Incidentally is the car parking vending machine at Aldergrove which only accepted Bank of England (and not NI notes) notes still there or was it replaced ?!

  • IJP

    Apologies for the multi-post – I had the same server problem Basil had on another thread, which I’ve duly reported.

    (Basil and Parsley sticking together again… better not let this become a habit…)

  • Jo

    IJP:
    Sorry, I was perhaps guilty of generalising from my own expeirence as someone who speaks gently and genteely and haven’t had a lot of problems with French people. There are of course honourable exceptions, as to all rules.

  • Valenciano

    ‘Fraid they didn’t get it right IJP, as many of them explained their reason not to take them on the grounds that they didn’t accept Dublin money! Nothing to do with the legalities, just plain ignorance! Same as the passport business I mentioned (why would I need a passport to travel from one part of the UK to the other?!)
    Anti-Englishness : nope, just what I experienced and as I said not really much different from ignorance in NI.

    And did my “anti-Englishness” really enrage you so much that you had to reply FOUR times? 😉

  • IJP

    Valenciano

    I explained the multi-post.

    Fact is, they were legally correct.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am astounded by the number of people who do not even know where the boundaries of their own country are.

    My point stands, however, that we in NI are in no position to lecture others about ignorance!!

  • Kwekubo

    Old French saying:
    ‘L’Irlande est une ile derriere une ile.’

    Actually, it was Napoleon who said that.