A few doors down on the village square is the shop belonging to Cyril Burke, the chemist. He is as likely to tell a customer to use water from boiled potatoes on her warts as to buy a remedy from him. Burke treats the local cows and pigs as well, and when the Irish Tourist Board needed a picture of The Heron Cove after de Gaulle showed up there, it called the chemist to see if he had ever taken one with his Brownie. He had. "We were half-insulted by de Gaulle having his bodyguards," Burke says. "You'd think we were going to poison him. If de Gaulle walked in here and asked my wife to rent him one of the rooms she has to let, we'd never let on we recognized him. We wouldn't say a thing to Himself. Of course, after he'd had his tea, my wife might run across to her neighbor and say, 'Do you know who's into me? Why, de Gaulle Himself.' William Faulkner came in here two or three times and I never let on I knew who he was. We have TV stars that come to Sneem and they're not a half hour in the village and everyone knows they're here. But we don't acknowledge it. It really bothers some of those people. After a few days they'll say to me, 'You know, one thing I like in this village is that nobody recognizes me.' "
Burke says de Gaulle's visit did not help his business. "He could be here for 200 years and maybe one day he'd send his aide to buy a two-shilling bottle of eucalyptus oil. Well, now, did you see that lady who was just in here? She came for two shillings' worth of oil and while she was in the shop spent three pounds eight. So de Gaulle would mean a loss to me of three pounds six because he wouldn't come shop himself."
Cross the square now to the post office, where Bridie Mangan and her parents handle the letters, run the Sneem telephone switchboard and sell fruit, groceries, linens, postcards and newspapers. Usually a cluster of people is waiting to be served. Ask one of the black-clad widows about de Gaulle. "Nobody here tormented him," she says. "Nobody would dream of interfering with the poor man, except perhaps to offer him a jar."
For Mrs. Helena Fitzgerald, who runs the tearoom, there are many more buses full of tourists stopping outside her house these days, and she and her sons serve scones to as many as 400 visitors in the late afternoon. Business is better, too, for Rosemary Bradshaw, a Dublin woman who came to town last spring to sell pottery and sweaters. For 30 shillings she offers chamber pots (on the bottom is printed "We aim to please"). Her bestseller these days, however, is a platter in debatable taste showing General de Gaulle walking a crooked mile with a crooked donkey.
The star of the cast of Sneem personalities, however, is Father Robert Flavin, who said Mass for the general at The Heron Cove and was journalism's only link with de Gaulle's cloistered world. Interviewed and courted continually, Father Flavin appeared on television as far away as Peru and New Zealand and began receiving letters c/o General de Gaulle A lady from California wrote to him asking for shamrocks. A French woman inquired if he would make reservations for her in Sneem, where she wished to come to gain tranquillity and equilibrium. A New York politician named Flavin asked if he were a lost relative. In his presbytery Father Flavin meditates for a moment on the coming of de Gaulle. A jackdaw mutters in the living-room chimney and in the silence there is a murmur from an electric clock. "The newsmen had a terrible time thinking of appropriate questions," he recalls. " 'Did you confess the general this morning? Do you think you will confess the general? Is it your wish to confess the general?' They asked me if they could chauffeur me to the hotel. No, I told them, I didn't think that was necessary. My housekeeper found a cassock missing from the presbytery and I wondered if one of the newsmen had borrowed it. I was relieved when it turned up later."
Of all the towns de Gaulle visited in Ireland, Sneem is the most certain to benefit from the publicity. It is, after all, in what has always been a part of Ireland's tourist belt. But where de Gaulle went next, the tourist is not so likely to follow. And it was here, surely, that he vacationed.
If ever a land suited a traveler, Connemara, six hours and some 120 miles north of Sneem, would seem to suit Charles de Gaulle. The road winds tortuously and narrowly over Macgillycuddy's Reeks, as the mountains are called. Cars crawl behind herds of cattle and slow for sheep grazing along the hedges. At Limerick the road turns north to Galway and passes through land once characterized by a Cromwellian officer as "not containing sufficient wood to hang a man, water to drown him or earth to bury him." Beyond Galway is Connemara, wild and stern, strong and self-possessed, where the Irish were banished by Cromwell. The exiles built mile after country mile of stone walls while clearing the fields of boulders. So harsh was the British overlordship that there was even a tax on the amount of daylight that filtered into a home. Windowless stone houses still stand in Connemara, testimony to dark times.
But hardship often gives character to the face of a land, as it does to a people, and such is the case here. The mountains, weathered and rock-creased, have the majesty of old men. Slate-gray ponies and black cattle graze down the hillsides and across the peat bogs to the freshwater lakes. The stone-walled pastures run out to the Atlantic Ocean. Strong winds batter down the gulls into fields of daisies and buttercups and make children playing on the sand beaches wild and skittish.
In Connemara, de Gaulle stayed at Cashel House, an 11-bedroom hotel that a local lady describes as "set in the heart of an estate that looks like the lawn before the Gates of Heaven." Actually it is a down-to-earth, quiet place, owned by a young couple, Kay and Dermot MacEvilly. The hotel has 35 acres of gardens overlooking an inlet. Behind it a mountain rises sharply. MacEvilly does the cooking, producing excellent five-course lunches and dinners, and his wife oversees other details. There is a casual grace to the hotel and a warmth conveyed immediately by the roses or wild-flowers presented to each guest.
The de Gaulles arrived at Cashel House expecting to stay four days, but after the second day they were inquiring how long the MacEvillys could keep them—which is how there arose the problem of Michael O'Toole. A local carpenter, he was being married the following week in Cashel and had reserved the hotel for his wedding breakfast. "Bridget and I don't mind postponing the marriage for awhile," he told Mrs. MacEvilly when she explained about the de Gaulles. But the general declined O'Toole's offer and said he would move out on the eve of the wedding.