The Saint-Lô Irish Culture – Born From the Ashes of WWII

Irish-Staff-with-Samuel-Beckett-cover.jpg

Tootlafrance talks to Lucie Périer of the Saint-Lô association “Shanaghy” about an Irish cultural association inspired not by Irish residents or even Riverdance, but by an Irish hospital

Shanaghy is an association that was officially formed in 1995 in the Norman town of Saint-Lô, but its roots go back to the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. The vicious town-to-town fighting that ensued after the Anglo-American landings of June 1944 resulted in many villages and communes in Normandy being badly damaged. St-Lô suffered more than most and it was merely a pile of ruins after the war; its cathedral and mediaeval centre reduced to rubble.

Capital of Ruins: Two young residents of St-Lô watch American troops depart for the front in 1944

Capital of Ruins: Two young residents of St-Lô watch American troops depart for the front in 1944

In the difficult rebuilding process that followed, one of the most important re-establishments was a hospital. First on the scene was the recently-formed Irish Red Cross (founded in 1939). They set up a hospital in St-Lô from old buildings that had survived the bombardment. Amongst the many volunteers from Ireland who worked there was a young writer from Dublin whose prime motivation had been to to get to France but who didn’t have the means to do so. The writer was Samuel Beckett (far right, main picture). He was moved by what he saw and wrote a piece of reportage for RTE radio about St-Lô, describing it as “the capital of ruins”.

The impact that the Irish Hospital had on the rebirth of St-Lô was immense and it was one that was not forgotten by the thousands of people who benefited from the care that they received – many of them as orphans. One woman who was eternally grateful was a Mrs Théot.

“The whole thing was the result of a meeting between Jacquline Fontanelle – who’s an English teacher – and Madame Theo,” says leading Shanaghy member Lucie Périer. “Madame Théot had a café in the town and this café was a meeting point for the Irish Hospital. When Mme Fontanelle had arrived in Saint-Lô in the 1990s, she was already interested in Irish culture but she didn’t know about this story of the town and the Irish Hospital and it was Mme Théot who told her about it.”

Mrs Théot was the driving force behind ensuring that those who survived those dark days in the history of Saint-Lô would not forget the part that Ireland played in its regeneration.

Hospital Revisited, 1995: (l-r) former Irish Red Cross Hospital nurse Dilly Fahey, Dilly Fahey's sister, Mrs Théot.

Hospital Revisited, 1995: (l-r) former Irish Red Cross Hospital nurse Dilly Fahey, Dilly Fahey’s sister, Mrs Théot.

“She allowed the Association to meet lots of those who had been looked after by the Irish hospital. We gathered over 500 witness accounts for the Association from patients, doctors and nurses alike. This was the basis of a Golden Book which was then presented to the Irish Red Cross in Dublin in 1998.”

The Irish Hospital continued to function as a hospital until 1956, after which date it became a school. A larger more permanent structure had been built elsewhere in the meantime to accommodate the town’s main hospital. The secondary school Collège Pasteur today stands on the site of the Irish Hospital and just one of the original timber shacks remains intact.

Although Shanaghy continues to attract those who have warm fuzzy feelings towards Irish culture, the Association’s activities died down for many years and it is only in the last year or so that it has experienced a renaissance of sorts, as Lucie explains:

The Irish Red Cross Hospital as it was in 1946

The Irish Red Cross Hospital as it was in 1946

“From about 1998 onwards, the activities of Shanaghy quietened down somewhat,” says Lucie. “It’s presence became much more of a symbolic one and it was really only in 2013 that we got things starting up again. We now have thirty or so members. We’ve organised workshops on Irish music, workshops in English-language training and traditional Irish ‘sessions’. On the 15th of March this year, we had a concert of Irish music with readings from eye-witness accounts that we had gathered in 1995.”

Were members of Lucie’s family amongst those who benefited from the presence of the Irish Hospital or is she just a fan of Irish stuff?

“I think it’s the second option! I love Irish culture and I’m a musician myself so I like playing Irish music. It was really to carry on the flame of Shanaghy, so to speak.”

Is Irish traditional music popular in France?

“Well it’s very popular in Brittany, what with all the Celtic connections going on there. In Normandy, it’s less so, but despite that, there are a lot of musicians here locally who come to the trad sessions – often people who are very keen on Irish music and who have been to Ireland to learn more about it and play there. So it really seems to translate very well in Normandy and all the musicians I’ve met through Shanaghy certainly have a strong appetite for it.”

Session in Normandy: Shanghy's sessions are tapping into a hunger for Irish traditional music in the area

Session in Normandy: Shanghy’s sessions are tapping into a hunger for Irish traditional music in the area

Shanaghy doesn’t have any twinning arrangements in place and many of its members have never been to Ireland, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be any in the future.

“Since the presentation of the Livre d’Or to the head office of the Irish Red Cross in 1998, there haven’t been any such initiatives, but we’ve talked about doing exchanges, be that with nurses or doctors or other hospital staff, so we hope to put such exchanges in place in the near future.”

Shanaghy posts details of its monthly Irish music and culture sessions (that continue into June) on its website www.shanaghy.jimdo.com, where you’ll find all contact details, complete with an English-language version.

scroll to top