Year of the French: Ballina’s French Connections
February 3, 2023.
By Jordan Harel
Ballina this week welcomed very special guests The French Ambassador to Ireland, HE Vincent Guérend, Mariam Diallo (Cultural Counsellor at the French Embassy) and Catherine Gagneux (French Honorary Consul Connacht & Donegal) to Ballina, to commence a year-long international partnership programme between Ireland and France, our closest EU neighbours. The Year of the French or Bliain na bhFrancach, celebrating the long-lasting friendship between the two countries.
Ballina 2023 is also partnering with the French Embassy, In Humbert’s Footsteps and the Ballina Municipal District of Mayo County Council for the town’s own ‘Year of the French’ festival this August 19-22. The festival will be complimented with a series of other events over the course of Ballina 2023 that will celebrate Ballina and Mayo’s own connections with France.
So how did these links come about?
Situated at the mouth of the surging River Moy, nestled within the Moy Valley between the Ox Mountains in the east and the Nephin Beg mountain range to the west, Ballina is the largest town of the county Mayo and a place of heritage, beautiful surrounding landscapes and great historic importance within the west of Ireland. But what may not be so apparent to those unfamiliar to the area is its connection to a town in the southern suburbs of Paris, France, some 1,327.2 km away – Athis-Mons, the twin town of Ballina – and its significance as a town in the special relationship between two countries of different cultures and languages, yet many a story to share.
The Year of the French and In Humbert’s Footsteps
In 1798 – what would later be known as ‘The Year of the French’ – General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert arrived from France with a small army upon the shores of Kilcummin, near Killala, County Mayo, to assist the Irish people in their rebellion against the ruling British forces. Together with the United Irishmen and Irishwomen, Humbert’s army marched from Kilcummin through Killala along the Old French Road into Ballina, and onto Enniscoe House near Crossmolina. While they were eventually defeated in Co. Longford, they emerged victorious in multiple victories against the British—perhaps the most famous being the ‘Races of Castlebar’, which resulted in the fleeing of the British soldiers from the town despite the much smaller numbers of the Franco-Irish army. It was these successes that would bring about the founding of Ireland’s very first Republic of Connacht.
In recent years, the events of 1798 have been remembered locally in a series of large-scale, vibrant, immersive and award-winning historical re-enactments led by In Humbert’s Footsteps with participants from across the British Isles and France. In Humbert’s Footsteps was founded and inspired by the late historian Steve Dunford, named for a book he wrote about the French ‘expedition’ to Ireland in 1798.The group aims to continue the spirit of reconnecting with our past, while forging links for the future.
This year marks 200 years since General Humbert’s death in New Orleans, USA, and while he and his remaining French army were ultimately forced to surrender to the British during the Battle of Ballinamuck before their eventual return to France, his instilment of French revolutionary values of liberty and courage among the Irish people and the aid he and his soldiers provided on the battlefield fuelled the forging of a friendship between the two countries that would continue to this day, and provided a glimpse of triumph over oppression that would never be forgotten.
The story of the Franco-Irish army was also brought to life in a 1982 television serial called ‘The Year of the French’— based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Flanagan—and included local people of Ballina among its extra cast members. We are delighted to confirm that this series will be screened in Ballina in August 2023 as part of the Bliain na bhFrancach/Year of the French Festival.
Ballina and Athis-Mons
Another heroic figure from Co. Mayo was the very first Irish soldier to die in World War I, Private Stephen Kennedy, who was born in Ballina and passed at the young age of 23 after sustaining injuries while fighting in Belgium. He was buried in Athis-Mons, France, and is commemorated along with the names of 181 fellow Ballina men who also lost their lives during the war upon the Great War Remembrance Monument in Ballina.
This year, Ballina celebrates thirty years of its official twinning with Athis-Mons—a milestone in the friendship between the two towns, which will be honoured further during the events of Ballina 2023. Ballina is not the only town in Co. Mayo to have French connections, however; Killala has partnered with the town of Chauvé in the west of France, while the village of Belderrig has links with Les Ventes in Normandy, France.
In recent years, friendships have deepened as associations and citizens from Ballina and Athis-Mons have worked together on initiatives of film and memory, against the backdrop of the formal twin town relationship. In the first of these initiatives, in October 2018, Ballina welcomed a film crew from Athis-Mons to the North Mayo capital to collect information for a short film ‘Stephen Kennedy – an Irish Soldier in the Great War’.
Watch: Stephen Kennedy – an Irish Soldier in the Great War
Subsequently, in January 2019, two local filmmakers – Topher Neville and Behy N.S. Film Club, led by Principal Pat Cunnane – participated in the 11th International DiViPassion Short Film Festival in Athis-Mons, and were delighted to win the Festival Favourite and Jury Prizes.
On a national level, the very first tricolour flag of the country of Ireland itself was made by French women in France, made from French silk, and the design of which was inspired by the blue, white and red flag of the then newly formed republic of France, which is still used to this day.
Indeed, there is no denying the impact that the relationship between France and Ireland has had upon Irish heritage, and for these two countries so rich in culture and history to be bonded in this way is surely a great privilege worthy of celebration, for 2023 and for many more years to come.