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The boys from the Legation

 
 37bis, rue Villejust
In 1919, the first Irish diplomatic mission was set up in the Grand Hôtel in the rue Scribe (9
th arrondissement)—just across the road from the American Express offices that May Duignan had robbed 18 years earlier. The Irish Legation in Paris moved into premises at 37bis rue Villejust (now called rue Paul Valéry, 16th arrondissement) at the beginning of 1930. Ireland’s main diplomat in Paris at the time was the remarkable Count Gerald Edward O’Kelly de Gallagh et Tycooly (Portumna, Co. Galway, 1890 - Lisbon, 1968), who had participated in the 1919 mission to Paris. Previously posted to Switzerland and Brussels, O’Kelly arrived in Paris as minister plenipotentiary in 1929 and was to remain in this position until 1935, when he was forced out as part a De Valera purge of pro-Treaty members of the diplomatic corps. To soften the blow, O'Kelly was named "special counselor" and it was under this somewhat ambigious, semi-official designation that O'Kelly represented Irish interests in Paris during the early part of the Occupation while the two more official members of the Irish Legation—Con Cremin and Seán Murphy—moved to Vichy.

Left to his own devices in Paris until the Germans insisted that the Paris operation be closed down in mid-1941, Count O’Kelly largely looked after Irish affairs out of the premises of his wine business on the place Vendôme. O'Kelly, a likeable rogue who belonged to the Clongowes Wood mafia that ran the Irish diplomatic service for many years, surely merits a biography in his own right. One author intriguingly suggests that the Count was responsible for “securing a tea supply for Ireland during World War II”, while his Dictionary of Irish Biography entry states that he “translated the poetry of Omar Khayyâm and the writings of Marco Polo into French”. O'Kelly also contrived to sell wine to Hermann Göring and, through his brother, who had married a member of the local nobility in Bucharest,  arranged to supply the Irish Legation in Vichy with Rumainian heating oil. Last but not least, Count O’Kelly was instrumental in protecting Irish citizens during the Occupation, in part by registering as Irish a number of people who held British passports .

 
                         8, place Vendôme
The Count paid a number of visits to the internment camp for British citizens in Besançon, helping to get the likes of
Margaret ‘Bluebell’ Kelly released. In February 1941, the Count wrote on return from one of his visits to Besançon that he had "spent 10 days interviewing 200 persons who claim to be Irish by birth or parentage", with 70 deemed as definitely Irish and thus liable to be released. By contrast, James Joyce’s refusal to repudiate his British passport meant he ultimately felt constrained to flee France in 1940 and end his days in Zurich. But at least Paul Léon, Joyce’s secretary and friend, had the good sense to rescue Joyce’s papers from the latter’s flat in the rue des Vignes and confide them to Count O’Kelly for safekeeping.

 
Count O'Kelly de Gallagh in 1930
In May 1940, when the Germans launched their Blitzkrieg against France and the Low Countries, the Irish Legation hired a villa some 50 kilometres south-west of Paris in the village of Septeuil (between Mantes and Dreux) as a potential safe haven. However, the Legation never got to use these premises. Instead, on June 10, as the Germans approached Paris, Cremin and Murphy had their last fancy meals in Paris for some time—lunch in Fouquet’s (one of James Joyce's haunts, on the Champs Elysées, 8
th arrondissement) and dinner at the nearby Berkeley (Avenue Matignon, 8th arrondissement). The next day, instead of going to Septeuil, Murphy and Cremin motored south, ending up close to the Spanish border. Father Patrick Travers from the Irish College  travelled with them from Paris, but foolishly decided to go his own way in Tours. In August 1940, Murphy came back to Paris, reporting that he had lunch with four Irish priests (the Passionists O’Grady, O’Farrell, and Griffin as well as Patrick Travers). Thereafter, trips back to Paris from Vichy were difficult and sporadic, although on June 22, 1941 (the day Germany and its allies invaded Russia), Murphy reported on his visit to the Legation premises in rue Villejust. He wrote that all the carpets and furniture had been sealed and stored in the main reception room, but also that a considerable amount of damage had been done to the electric wiring due to a roof leak during the previous winter. The current embassy, the Hôtel de Bréteuil on the Avenue Hoche (16th arrondissement), was acquired by the Irish government in 1954. Perhaps these stylish fin-de-siècle premises can be sold now to help shore up the country’s precarious finances. They would fetch a hefty price.





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Select Bibliography
National Archives of Ireland, Paris diplomatic boxes
From 1940s sub-series, including:
ii) Box 52 Files 1/6-2/9
iii) Box 54, Files 17/5A - 48/11B
iv) Box file P46/17 (1)

From Series Second World War:
v) Box 56, Files P48/18 - 49/3
vi) Box 62, 49/13 (21) - 49/19
vii) Box 63, 49/19 (3) - 49/22 viii) Box 67, Files 49/86 - 50/4 and 100-100/5

Con Cremin – Ireland’s Wartime Diplomat (2006)
Niall Keogh

Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, vols. I-VI (1998-2010)
Ed. Michael Kennedy



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