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Pat Ryan
July 28, 1969
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July 28, 1969

Le Grand Charles Slept Here

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France may have its doubts, but in Ireland today there is agreement with that famous pronouncement by General Charles de Gaulle—borrowed from Madame Pompadour. He came for a sudden six-week holiday soon after his resignation as the president of France and left behind him one of the great watersheds in Irish travel history. In the pubs of County Kerry they are saying the Blarney Stone may soon be called the Gallstone, but in Dublin the Irish Tourist Board is not jesting when it estimates that de Gaulle's visit and the attendant publicity is worth several million dollars to the country.

Lured by the mystique of statesmanship, thousands of vacationers have already set out in de Gaulle's footsteps, with the most persistent of them winding up in the general's bathtub and his bed as well. They have swarmed, for example, to The Heron Cove, a dismal, third-rate hotel 75 miles from Cork where de Gaulle spent the first weeks of his holiday, and they do not seem to mind its shoddy atmosphere. Empty beer kegs and pop bottles are stacked by the entrance. The rusting gates hang morosely and a rutted lane leads past a skeleton gatehouse. Never mind. The visitors had read of it in the world's press, had they not, and it sounded aristocratic and, well, mysterious.

The press, the Irish took no particular pains to explain, labored under certain difficulties and illusions. Journalists besieged the perimeters of the general's vacation headquarters but never really got near enough to The Heron Cove to tell it like it was: to see the paint flaking from the walls of the hotel or the jungle growth of blackberry brambles and docks that choke its garden paths. How were they to know that the fierce Alsatians rumored to be patrolling the 136-acre estate during the de Gaulles' visit were actually sedentary Labradors barking at tadpoles in the still backwaters? Nor was it ever suspected that the skin-diving instructor reported to be ready and waiting at The Heron Cove to advise the general in the underwater arts was a man past 70 who could not swim. Above all, there was never a whisper in or around the nearby village of Sneem of the eviction notice served upon Richard Stanford, the proprietor of The Heron Cove, before the general's arrival. Stanford had not paid his rent in more than a year. The bailiff was due to come knocking any day, and what if the general, 11 years president of France, humiliator of nations and cowerer of kings, should be flung out upon the streets of Sneem bag and baggage? What indeed? It would have been just another footnote in one of the most bizarre vacations ever taken by a world figure, a vacation worthy, in good tourist fashion, of retracing.

De Gaulle's rented Humber ($79 a week) first crossed the cow grill at The Heron Cove gate and lurched down the dusty half-mile drive on May 10. It had been but 12 days since he had proclaimed his resignation and now he was headed for The Heron Cove on the recommendation, it is said, of Roger Robert du Gardier, the French ambassador to Ireland, who had informed Paris that the food there was commendable. Impenetrable rhododendrons hem the road that the Humber moved along, while behind them thrives a once-exotic garden of camellias, azaleas, Jerusalem palms, laburnum, fuchsias, gentians and gorse. A solitary gardener (eight men once cared for and cultivated these acres) wanders the pathways with a hoe, but age has slowed him and the undergrowth is obviously encroaching. When it rains he uses a large leaf of the wild rhubarb plant as an umbrella and works on, moving pridefully about his derelict domain.

The earliest anyone remembers, Heron Cove was the hideaway of a cashiered British naval officer who took up smuggling. A later British officer planted the gardens. In 1962 the estate was bought by a German and it was he who allowed it—literally—to go to seed. But if he did not clear the paths, he cleared a profit of $96,000 when he resold it shortly before de Gaulle's arrival. And thus, like any tourist, de Gaulle ran into the change-of-ownership problem.

But he also had the difficulty of the uninvited guests. Hardly had the general drunk his prelunch glass of sherry before the press began massing at The Heron Cove, there to find police blocking the entrance, standing sternly cross-armed and silent. A squad of 150 men, the reporters were told, was protecting the estate and would repulse any attack on the general's solitude. (Actually there were only 50 guards, working in three shifts.) A French cameraman tried the first assault. He eased over a wall and inched through the underbrush. Minutes later, muddy, bloody, wet and stripped of his film, he was dumped outside the gates. Impressed, a Paris Match photographer took to the air, hiring a plane from Shannon to record the general's vacation site for posterity.

By the morning after de Gaulle's arrival there was a flotilla of press boats bobbing in the water in front of the hotel. They were kept at bay by policemen in skiffs. The long paddle of the law, however, did not prevent one cameraman with a telephoto lens from catching the general gazing out a window, probably in amusement at the ludicrous sight stretched out before him on the seascape. After this photograph was published, curtains were hung in the windows. Two staffmen from Stern magazine risked sorties into The Heron Cove grounds, where they found "the terrain unbelievable—dense brushwood, fallen trees of enormous size, marshes and swampy areas, tiny brooks which suddenly turned into unexpectedly deep rivers. We hadn't imagined that anything like that existed outside South America. It took us half an hour to advance 100 meters. Once we got within 200 feet of the house but we would have needed axes and saws to advance farther, and all we had was a pair of garden scissors, field glasses and our cameras." In spite of their efforts, neither got a picture of de Gaulle. Nor did the photographer who fastened his camera high in a tree on a neighboring estate, with the lens focused on a Heron Cove window. After three days of waiting the photographer saw the general appear, in all his majesty. He snapped the shutter from below and, sure of a scoop, climbed up to retrieve his camera. To his dismay, he found in the three-day wait a leaf had opened up in front of the lens. Such are the vagaries of an Irish springtime.

After a while any vacationer finds solitude oppressive, and de Gaulle, like more humble tourists, turned to sightseeing. The resultant cops-and-robbers pursuit of the general by the press became a scheduled event. De Gaulle would emerge every second afternoon at precisely 3 o'clock to view the scenic splendors of Ireland. His car would be wedged between two others filled with police and the trailing police car would weave back and forth across the road to keep any vehicle from the 40-car journalistic caravan from passing. In this strange fashion, de Gaulle and the world's press crisscrossed the Kerry countryside, the general serving the dual role of sightseer and sight to see.

On one occasion the de Gaulles were taken to the restored home of patriot Daniel O'Connell at Derrynane, an attraction the Irish government has put a good deal of money into. (One can almost hear the conversation: "Now, Charles, we are not going back to France without.... ") They arrived at the house where, almost needless to say, an aspiring Irish photographer had duped the caretaker and taken his place. The general's car, however, took a turn around the driveway and drove straight away again. So much for Daniel O'Connell. On another day de Gaulle was taken to Bantry, 40 miles from Sneem, to see a statue of St. Brendan which had been put up on the beach by the Gulf Oil Corporation. He never got out of his car at Bantry, saw only the rear of the statue and drove the 40 miles back to The Heron Cove. There were other afternoons when he would be led for three hours without stopping on a tour of the countryside at a lurching, gear-shifting, 35-mile-an-hour pace. On the occasions when the de Gaulles did leave their limousine they would set off down the highway, the Humber coasting slowly at their heels.

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