Remembrance ceremony at the France-Ireland Memorial [fr]
On the occasion of France’s National Day, the Embassy of France in Ireland and Glasnevin Cemetery together with the Ireland Chapter of the Légion d’Honneur and the Association of the French Foreign Legion paid tribute to the men and women of Ireland who gave their lives during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 as well as the First and Second World War.
This ceremony took place at the France-Ireland Memorial at Glasnevin Cemetery on Saturday 14 July. All are welcome to join.
The France-Ireland Memorial, which was inaugurated in 2016 in the presence of Minister of State for Remembrance and Veterans Affairs Jean-Marc Todeschini and Minister for Arts, Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys honours the memory of the countless Irish men and women who answered France’s call for help in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 as well as the First and Second World War.
This ceremony was also the occasion to remember Michael MacWhite. A Cork native who served militarily in France during World War I, Michael MacWhite was distinguished with the title of Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre. After the war he joined the Irish diplomatic service and became Ireland’s First Representative at the League of Nations.
Speaking on the day, UCC Professor Grace Neville summed up Mr MacWhite’s achievements and the reasons why he was rewarded by France:
So extraordinary is the life of Michael MacWhite whom we are honouring here today that it would take a novel or a film or a television series to do it full justice. His work as soldier, journalist and leading diplomat would fill several lives several times over.
Hailed as ‘the Irish Free State’s first great career diplomat’, Michael MacWhite was born in 1882 into a family of nine children, in Reenogreena, a melodious-sounding townland near Glandore in West Cork. He left school at the age of seventeen when his father died. This may partly explain why he then moved to London, working there as a bank clerk and, like many other Irish exiles in London at the time, moving in nationalist circles. West Cork’s most famous son, Michael Collins (1890-1922), seven years his junior, also worked in London, in the post office, shortly afterwards. From this early period, we already see the emergence of MacWhite as a young man in a hurry, rising to the very top in a short period of time for, at the age of just twenty, he became President of the London branch of the recently founded nationalist party, Cumann na nGaedheal, which was to go on to play such a key role in subsequent Irish politics. Shortly afterwards, in 1905, he left London for health reasons and spent four years travelling all over Europe: Scandinavia, Finland, Western Russia and Germany. In Denmark, where he lived for a number of years, he took the opportunity to study at first hand the Danish co-operative agricultural movement and high-school teaching methods as models for consideration back in Ireland. Incidentally, his wife, whom he met on his travels in Paris – Paula Asta Gruttner Hillerod – was a Danish artist.
With his love of travel and adventure, along with his linguistic skills (fluency in seven languages), it is not unexpected to see that his next move was into journalism, becoming by 1911 the continental correspondent of several European newspapers. He reported on the second Balkan war of 1912-13, travelled throughout Turkey and Armenia, enlisted in the Bulgarian army and was wounded in action near Adrianople. Irish writer and historian, Denis Gwynn, a personal friend, described him as ‘a born adventurer, and a soldier at heart’. It is hardly surprising, therefore, to see MacWhite shortly afterwards, in 1913, on the eve of the Grande Guerre / the Great War, joining the French Foreign Legion / La Légion Etrangère. In fact, May 1913 sees him stationed with the Légion in Sidi-bel-Abbès in Algeria. As a Legionnaire he fought in Arras, Gallipoli, Macedonia, Serbia and Morocco, receiving three citations for gallantry.
A report from his regiment (dated 28 December 1915) praises his ‘brio remarquable’, his ‘initiative’ and his ‘sangfroid’. Elsewhere we read: ‘MacWhite, Michel, […] officier dévoué et courageux [a donné] à ses hommes le meilleur exemple de courage et d’énergie’ (report dated 17 October 1916).
On 11 October 1916, MacWhite himself describes his life as a Legionnaire in the trenches: ‘the hand of dawn is in the Eastern sky and now the shells fall thick and fast. Pandemonium is let loose and in anticipation of the day we enter our dugouts where we anchor in a metre of mud […] Artillery thunders until we can no longer hear our own voices. Death claims another hostage and another’.
For his work as a Legionnaire he was awarded the Croix de Guerre not once but three times. Such details may evoke a sense of adventure and of daring, but one should not forget the dangers involved: MacWhite risked his young life repeatedly for a cause in which he believed, being wounded twice (at Macedonia and Gallipoli – place names that still resonate but not for good reasons) and, in 1916, almost dying from typhoid and malaria.
In fact, it was while he was serving with the Légion, late in 1916, that he first stumbled across news about the about the Easter Rising which had taken place in Dublin several months earlier: the old newspaper used to wrap his food rations happened to contain an article on this key event.
After the war, in 1918, he was chosen by France to be part of a French military mission that toured New York State to raise a Liberty Loan. Denis Gwynn conjures up a picture of MacWhite, ‘wearing the uniform of the Foreign Legion and speaking English with an endearing West Cork intonation’. One can imagine the electric effect he must have had on the huge Irish diaspora in New York. In fact, MacWhite is reported leading a detachment of Legionnaires along 5th Avenue to great public acclaim. His Irish origins and his first hand reports of life on the battlefields of Europe were highly appreciated and, one imagines, effective. The French had chosen well.
Following the Sinn Féin general election landslide in 1918, he was appointed as representative of the Irish government in Paris from 1919 to 1921, becoming Secretary of the Irish Republican delegation in Paris in 1919, and Paris correspondent for the United Irishman newspaper from 1918 to 1921. This was to be the start of an illustrious thirty-year career in the Irish diplomatic service. In Paris, he was part of the team of future President of Ireland, Sean T. O’Kelly, who headed up an immensely impressive lobbying and propaganda campaign, with its headquarters in the Grand Hotel (opposite the Opéra Garnier), designed to swing international public opinion behind the cause of Irish independence during the Paris Peace Treaty negotiations taking place in Versailles.
A study of the French press of the period reveals the extraordinary success of O’Kelly’s team: they had the French press in the palm of their hands in matters relating to Ireland. Sympathy and support for Ireland flowed freely. MacWhite did not just write articles and attend meetings, however: he describes giving a lecture on the aims and objectives of Sinn Fein to an audience of about two hundred Free Masons on the Place de Clichy, Paris. To quote historian Michael Kennedy: ‘wearing the uniform of a Legionnaire, sporting his military decorations and married to a Danish model and painter, he cut a dashing figure in post-war Paris’.
After Paris, he served with the Irish diplomatic service in Geneva from 1921 to 1929. There, he was instrumental in preparing the entry in 1923 of the Irish Free State into the League of Nations, and in reporting back to Ireland on continental European perceptions of key events in Ireland, including the Treaty and the Civil War.
The next decade, until 1938, he spent as Envoy Extraordinaire and Minister Plenipotentiary to the United States. His final posting was to Rome (1938-50), again as Envoy Extraordinaire, Minister Plenipotentiary and later Ambassador. From wartime Rome he reports back to Dublin on many distressing sights he had witnessed, including deportations, firing squads, mass killings, orphaned children and intense poverty, as well as – in the post-war period - looting and pillaging of towns and cities across Italy by starving crowds. He also recalls many people claiming Irish ancestry approaching him to obtain papers from neutral Ireland that would allow them to flee Italy.
Back in Dublin in the 1950s and nominally retired, his interest in politics and diplomatic matters was as deep as ever. By then, though officially retired from the Légion Etrangère, it is clear that he carried the Légion in his heart to the end of his days, if all books and articles on the Legion that he kept so carefully are anything to do by. More widely, his love of all things French burned as brightly as ever: he was president of the Dublin French Society (1950-53), increasing its membership from around 40 to 400. The Dublin French Society later, of course, became the Alliance Française de Dublin, now the largest Alliance Française in Europe after Paris and Brussels.
MacWhite received an impressive number of awards: France bestowed on him the Croix de Guerre and made him Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur (1952). He was also honoured by Ireland, the United States and Italy. His Italian award was presented to him by King Umberto, an honour normally reserved for prime ministers.
In August 1955, just three years before he died, in correspondence with the Principal of his former school in Reenogreena, he includes a brief description of his career and achievements, before concluding: ‘I send you this information as, when I have passed away, you will be able to tell the main achievements of a one-time pupil of Reenogreena School who was born in a thatched farmhouse and who rose to one of the highest positions at the disposal of his Government, and whose advice was sought by Presidents, Kings and Statesmen in the countries to which he was accredited’. This he does, he explains, ‘as an incentive to the youth and the rising generation’. To the journalist, Kees van Hoek, in 1949, he declared: ‘I have fulfilled my destiny and I am happy and contented as a result. There is little I would have changed were I to live my life all over again’.
Michael MacWhite, the man from the little townland of Reenogreena, died in Dublin on 13 November 1958, at the age of 75, and is buried here in this ‘lieu de mémoire’, this place soaked in memory that is Glasnevin Cemetery.
This remembrance ceremony comes as part of the Embassy’s Remembrance Programme which aims to recognise the role of Irish men and women in the defence of France.