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!!
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty