Pierre Joannon- on Michel Déon’s ‘Horseman, pass by!’


A few words by Pierre Joannon at the launch of Michél Deon’s Horseman, pass by! in April 2017.

Towards the end of his life, Michel Déon showed an intense determination to see his translated memoir of his life in county Galway published in Ireland.  Far from emanating from mere literary vanity, his determination stemmed from Michel’s desire to acknowledge his gratitude towards the community, the country and the culture in which he had made his home since the early 1970s.

Just before his death, Michel expressed this heartfelt appreciation in the book that we are launching today:

“My lines on Ireland record the grateful thanks of a French writer who has learned to love Ireland and appreciates its open-mindedness, its independence of spirit, its courage, its hope and its humanity. I have written these pages with complete honesty, while keeping uppermost in my mind the fact that France has forever been a steadfast friend of the green island”

Having a book published is like hunting in East Galway- a challenging obstacle course, fraught with hurdles and uncertainties. Horseman, pass by! proved no exception. By the summer of 2016, however, all our Franco-Irish planets finally aligned. The elegant translation by Clíona Ní Riordán, the support of the French embassy in Dublin, a generous grant from The Ireland Funds Worldwide, and the professionalism of The Lilliput Press made possible this English-language publication of Michél Deon’s tribute to his adopted homeland. The first copy of the book rolled off the press on 22 December 2016. The next day, it was personally delivered to Michel at the Galway Clinic. He was able to savour the arrival of the volume, and know that his final wish had been granted. Soon afterwards, he died peacefully on 28 December.

His book narrates the encounter between one of the greatest of contemporary French writers and a country that at first withheld its welcome to him. No better person to tell us how the miraculous change to a warm engagement occurred than Michel himself. My next quotation is not a message received from the hereafter but an extract from Michel’s address in 1998 at the annual dinner of The Ireland Fund For France. As chairman, I had asked him to deliver it in the language of Yeats and Heaney, to which he remarked ironically: “I was worried that you might want it in Irish, a language which I fully admit, I do not master, albeit a few words stolen from Aer Lingus hostesses whose striking appearances on each flight leave me mute”

His remarks began by posing the question:

“Why did I settle in Ireland in 1970 after so many years sojourning in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece? There was many reasons. After leaving ten heavenly years on a Greek island in the Aegean sea, I wanted my children, for their first year at school, to catch measles, chicken pox, mumps and a strong dose of flu in the extreme West.  In that regard, my move was a complete success, with the most dreary winter that we ever lived in Ireland, a sky obscured by clouds of ravens, crows, jackdaws and swarm of starlings. We were warned that a high tide would flood the first floor of the place we had rented, Kilcogan Castle on Galway Bay. We spent an entire day moving our furniture to the second floor. Fortunately the flood did not happen and we were captured by such good fortune. Meanwhile, I had finally finished the move that I had been working on for the previous five years. This achievement changed my life as an author and I credited my good fortune to Ireland.

“We returned to Greece for the spring and summer but we soon discovered that we all longed for another experience in Ireland. As our previous one had almost been a nightmare, we knew that it could only get better. My wife bought a gentle mare and started hunting and there was no turning back. That second autumn and winter was a dream. With the rising prosperity of Ireland, the weather improved, the skies cleared, the temperature rose and, in France, I was awarded the “Prix Interallié”.

“You might pose the question: does the rising prosperity of a country create fiber weather, silence the ravens and help a novelist to publish successfully? Economists all around the world, please take notice and study this problem”.

“For me, to live in Ireland had been a long term objective delayed only by circumstances and the places where newspapers or chance were kind enough to despatch me. As a teenager and, then as a young journalist and author, I was enthused by Irish playwrights, poets and novelists. What magic had conjured up such a flowering of genius in that impoverished island in the few decades before and after it gained its independence? If I had finally managed to finish the novel that I had been struggling with for so many years, it was partly due to the culture and the people that I had met.

“The only problem left then was to understand why most of the Irish authors that I so much admired fled their country and lived elsewhere in the world, and mainly in France. Wilde and Yeats died there, and for two decades Joyce had his table reserved at Fouquet’s on the Champs Elysées. But wherever they ended up, their main and only subject was Ireland. Was it not high time  to reverse the flow and have foreign authors test a country that so greatly stirred the imagination? So we remained in Ireland, captivated by its “terrible beauty”, becoming more Irish than the the Irish themselves. Ireland seeped into my novels, in one entirely, in others occasionally, as a reminder of what I saw through my window or encountered in East Galway” 

If we consider the book that we are launching today, Horseman, pass by! is an evocative post script to Michél’s novels, a moving and charming rendering of five decades spent in the silent Galway peace, immortalizing the friendly community of Tynagh, its fascinating characters, the unpredictable Irish writers, the melancholy remnants of the Anglo-Irish gentry, and the superb landscapes along the shores of Lough Derg, Galway Bay and the Connemara bog lands. Michel swore that he shot snipe there but never geese, in acknowledgement that he himself was one of the Wild Geese in reverse flight.

Michél Deon was undoubtedly our finest interlocutor between France and Ireland. Julian Evans, his English translator and author of a remarkable biography of Norman Lewis, wrote to me recently” “Michél’s achievement is that I can’t think of Ireland, hear Irish music, or read any Irish writer without thinking of him. He made Ireland the most French of countries for me”.

We already miss him greatly as a soul mate, a great writer and a living presence in Franco-Irish culture but his enduring books, and particularly Horseman, pass by!, enable us to continue to engage with him in a never-ending conversation about Ireland, literature and culture.  I recently read a letter by Ernie O’Malley written shortly after the death of D.H Lawrence in 1930. His words express exactly the depth of our feelings of our dear departed friend:

“I have seen so many of my comrades die that death seems as much part of life as life itself. Yet I know there were some deaths I never recovered from. they left a strange void which has always remained, a gap, yet a communion as well for I can feel the dead, nor would I be surprised to find some day that they walked in to resume an interrupted conversation”.

And since Michél Deon was a master of the French language, allow me to conclude in quoting Montaigne in his own vernacular: “Il loge encore chez moi si entier et si vif, que je ne le peux croire ni si lourdement enterré, ni si entièrement éloigné de notre commerce”.


Pierre Joannon

Galway, 25 April 2017.