IN THE late sixties, when a French author and revered member of the Academie Francaise, Michel Déon, came to County Galway with his wife Chantal, he probably had no idea he would spend the remainder of his life - spanning almost a half of a century - here, and that Galway was where he would pass away.
Deon took to the south Galway landscape as a duck would to water, and it was fitting that, a few days before he died, he was handed the first copy of the English edition of his book Horseman, Pass By! Irish pages, translated by Cliona Ní Riordan. It has just been published by Lilliput Press, having originally appeared in French as Chevalier, Passe Ton Chemin in 2005 under the Gallimard imprint.
Déon’s preface concludes: “Of course my lines on Ireland do not aspire to equal those written by great travel writers. They do, however, 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, hopes, and its humanity. I have written these pages with complete honesty, while keeping uppermost in my mind the fact that Ireland has forever been a steadfast friend of the green isle of Ireland”
Déon does not need to aspire to be “equal to those written by great travel writers” simply because in many ways he gets closer to the people, the native culture, and the landscape of the country than most, if not all, of those celebrated authors.
In her excellent preface, Lara Marlowe writes: “It would be a mistake to dismiss Horseman Pass By as a Frenchman’s clichés about Ireland. Deon’s vignettes have the sark beauty of Paul Henry’s paintings of the west. That the Ireland he described is threatened renders his vision all the more poignant." He does this successfully because by merging so completely with the landscape, he becomes an integral part of it.
Written in leisurely, lazy, prose, the book pays tribute to south Galway's people with vignettes of some of its more colourful seemingly carefree, but ultimately tragic characters, whose way of life is changing before their eyes and for whom the new fangled, modern ways, have little or no meaning.
Perhaps less successful are his vignettes of Ulick O’Connor and John McGahern, and the description of his tour of Yeats’s Sligo. While his portrait of O’Connor is forceful, his one of John McGahern does not quite hit the target, while the Yeatsian tour is basically a non-event.
That said, this is essentially a warm book full of humour and humanity not devoid of a Gallic touch here and there. It is Déon’s song of gratitude to the people of south Galway who welcomed him and his family into their midst and see him one of their own.