by Eric Duhan
Once you touch ground in Saint-Malo you are entering a place steeped in history from the very first time when man set foot in Western Europe.
In the earlier centuries the visitors first view of the city was from out to sea as the city was surrounded by salt marches. It must have seemed a magical place floating between the sea and the sky, full of mystery for the first-time visitor. It is not a ‘normal’ seaside resort even though these days you can find chips, candy floss, and tacky souvenirs a plenty.
What you see now in front of you is a walled medieval city, surrounded by towers and bastions. Its people held off attacks from the Vikings, the French, as well as the Dutch and Spanish and of course the ‘auld enemy’, the English, over the centuries. In 1378 an English fleet with 4000 Soldiers and 8000 archers besieged the city. They had to wait for low tide each day to attack. The attempt like the four later ones failed.
On the other hand it is a city which always welcomed trade and immigration from many countries including Ireland and Scotland. The peoples of those two kingdoms were undoubtedly having disagreements with their mutual neighbour, the English. These days even if you’re English you are welcome here in the spirit of that openness which has existed for centuries and I hope that you profit from what we have to offer you in the way of comfort, arts and crafts as well as our local cuisine. Saint-Malo has been a centre of tourist interest since the phenomenon became popular in the middle of the 19th Century. Much ink has been spilled and much oil-paints and watercolours deposited on paper and canvas over that time to fill a book shop and gallery entirely. The curiously unique city/island/state has changed inevitably over the centuries having been destroyed by fire and sword on many occasions. Phoenix like it has emerged from its ashes, its veritable soul surviving all that has been sent its way to destroy it. I hope you can feel the special-ness that I sense when I ramble around its ramparts and stroll around its streets in all seasons.
A little history
In the fifth century an Irish monk trying to get away from it all landed on the island and set up his hermitage on the highest spot. The area is now occupies by a tiny chapel sitting on the original exposed rock and bearing his name, Saint Arron. This site is the oldest known area of habitation on the island and can be seen just above the Cathedral Square behind the monument of the dead from the two world wars. The site was occupied by a Benedictine foundation up to the French revolution and the monastic church now contains the Law courts for the region.
Saint Malo, another Irish monk, born in what is now known as Wales arrived some time later and was so renowned for his miracles that the local Christian community of the nearby Gallo-Roman city of Aleth offered him the job of bishop when it became available. Saint-Malo, was a student of Saint-Brendan the navigator, whom we Irish claim reached America before Christopher Columbus. That as they say is another story.
St Malo was one of the seven founding fathers of Brittany along with St-Samson of Dol, St-Brieuc, St-Patern of Vannes, St-Corentin of Quimper, St- Pol from St Pol-de-Leon near Roscoff, and St-Tugdual from Tréguier who are celebrated each year by a Pardon, or pilgrimage called the Tro Breiz, during which the cathedrals of Brittany are visited in succession one year after another. 2005 was St-Malo’s last turn and I did a painting of the arrival which I am including in this little work.
It was only in the twelfth century that the crusader and Templar bishop Jean de Châtillon moved the city to the island as it was easier to defend than the old Roman city across the bay. It was he who built the ‘new’ Cathedral and the original city ramparts. The cathedral square is named after him. When you look over the city ramparts from which ever spot you will see the tall buildings and soaring chimneys which were characteristic of Saint-Malo in the 18th Century. The tallest building is still of course the Cathedral with its spire giving the city its characteristic image and well know profile.
Built and rebuilt from the XII century just to our own day, it is a mix of contrasting styles, and is certainly outwardly not the most beautiful of the French Cathedrals and certainly the smallest. It contains the tombs of many of the cities favourite sons. You can stand or kneel on the very spot where Jacques Cartier got his Episcopal blessing before starting out on his epic journey to discover Canada.
These days the island city is connected to the continent by a causeway at one end and an articulated bridge at the other. There are four separate Docks or Bassins as we call them in France, each with a different purpose, the cargo docks or the fishing and the pleasure craft ports. When the weather is foggy the docks often resemble the artistic works of Whistler and Monet. Smoke stacks, church spires and industrial buildings act as a backdrop for the many large Sailing vessels which make visits to our maritime historic city. Often included was my home nation’s sail training ship Asgard II which I enjoy painting and sketching whenever I could, as I write it rests at the bottom of the sea off Brittany waiting to be salvaged by the Irish government when they get the money. I have become quite an expert in identifying sailing ships far out to sea as they make their way into the harbour through the difficult bay. The ‘cut of their jib’ as the old sea dogs say in the comics and pirate films and the way their high masts are slanted gives each and everyone an individual profile.
The ‘love-hate’ relationship between the French and the ‘Anglish’ was and possibly is even more intense here in Saint-Malo given the extent of the Corsair activity based in the city in by-gone days. As mentioned earlier a very substantial community of Jocobite English, Scots and Irish swelled the city population in the 1690’s. In fact not many local families escaped the ‘contamination’ of Irish blood as the second generation of immigrants intermarried with the locals.
In fact, the first expedition to Moka in Yemen to bring back a cargo of coffee had a considerable Irish contingent, including Captain Walsh of Dublin.
Not many Scots know that, later on, Bonnie Prince Charles was ferried to and rescued from Scotland after his adventure by Irish Sea captains based and flourishing in Saint-Malo. There was a very full and scholarly study made of this immigration by Dr. Guy Nicolas, available from the Association Parchemin of Rennes. firstname.lastname@example.org E,-mail and well worth the price for any scholar interested in the Irish Diaspora. The history of the extensive Corsair, Filibuster, and Pirate activity from Saint-Malo is, as they say, is another story and not my brief.
I can’t however leave the subject without telling the story of Robert Surcouf (1773-1827) who was for a time in the hands of an English captain, captured while operating under ‘Lettres des Marques’, which protected him from hanging as a pirate. When His Majesties officer made the point after dinner to the assembly that a British naval officer fought for Honour and not monetary gain the young Surcouf responded, ‘one fights for what one does not possess’, a reply which could have slipped easily from the mouth of any Irishman.
I note here that Surcouf claimed some Irish ancestry. This period is evoked beautifully by the work of Patrick O’Brien; another Irishman washed up on the shores of Gall and now unfortunately for us, departed this life. God have mercy on his soul. The recent film based on his work, Master and Commander, gives only the tip of the iceberg of the complexity of the relationships which exist between the four nations; Irish, Scots, English and French.
When the tide is out the extent of the difference between high and low tide becomes very obvious. The harbour is nearly completely deserted by the sea leaving the pleasure craft high, dry and leaning on their sides very picturesquely. We have tourists who come especially to se the high and low tides which are reputed to be the greatest in Europe. As we arrive above the Porte de Dinan if we look away from the sea towards the city we get an idea of the type of houses lived in during the period of great prosperity of the city. The late 17th Century to the early 19th Century saw the flourishing of the triangular trade. The slave trade provided many a fortune for the merchants of the city.
The European Wars indulged in by feuding Monarchs and Princes, each set on multiplying his or her influence on the face of the world, provided the backdrop by which the same merchants armed privateers to engage the enemy. The staggering fortunes made by the use of Lettres des Marques was I’m sure only matched by the staggering losses made by the merchants of Bristol, London and Liverpool as well as the channel ports. The East India trade was ravaged by the Corsairs from Saint-Malo as well as Lorient, Brest, Bordeaux and Dunkirk.
The Great fire of London started in Pudding Lane and the great fire of Chicago was started by Mrs Murphy’s cow or so they say. In Saint-Malo of 1661 a lady was heating turpentine over a fire in the back yard of her shop when the bowl caught fire and the fire spread. By the next day over two hundred and eighty houses and shops were smouldering ruins, the fire stopped at the feet of Our Lady of the Grande Porte. A miracle! The city fathers decided after that to banish any tradesmen from the city who worked with inflammable materials or whose activity could lead to another outbreak of fire. This loss of population affected the city greatly thereafter and the population declined for several decencies. From then on only stone was allowed in new building. The rubble from this fire plus the stone from the old ramparts were used to fill in the old port, Merbonne, and the reclamation allowed a more airy construction. Merbonne was where the ships anchored in the lee of the island. It separated the city from the castle built by the Dukes of Brittany. The filling in of the port area between this gate and the castle led to the enlargement of the crowded medieval city which apparently contained a population up to 16,000 souls. The independently minded people and Lord Bishops were largely against the building of the castle. A hint of this antagonism towards outside authority still exists in the psyche of the citizens of the island, more visible to an outsider like me than to the inhabitants. The old port now lies buried under the large buildings inside the new wall built to enclose the area.
My father was a sailor and he told me that sailors are somewhat superstitious, he himself didn’t believe in superstition as it brought bad luck or so he said. I was asked by the parish priest to help move the original statue on two occasions and She is a formidable piece of carving and very solid. I jokingly said to him that, in Ireland the statues move usually by themselves. I’ve never had the nerve to ask Her what she was doing out alone swimming in the channel so many years ago but I‘m sure it’s an interesting story.
There is however a story related to a Scots soldier whose daughter was seduced by the castle Governor. During the commotions related to the succession of Henry of Navarre, the protestant king who thought that, “Paris was worth a mass”, this Scot was promised a tidy sum to pull up a ladder and attach it to a cannon on top of the 44 Meters high Général tower (the one to the right when you look at the castle from the place Chateaubriand). This he did, and 55 young lads climbed up and took the guards unawares. This action introduced the Republic of Saint-Malo, which lasted for four years. I think the present day citizens think of the island as a republic still.
The Bidouane tower was built, along with other fortifications after 1675 and the grande brûlerie mentioned earlier, in the form of a horse shoe to house the gun powder store of the city.
The great attack by a fleet of 30 to 40 Dutch and British ships from July of 1692 to November 1693 was under the command of John Bembow, whom we know better as Admiral Bembow because he has given his name to more than one alehouse in England. This action is remembered by the locals because of the fire ship which was launched from the interior of the fleet and headed towards the Tour Bidouain with the expressed intention of exploding and igniting the power store of the city thus causing the maximum amount of damage to the Nid des Corsaires or nest of pirates as saint Malo was affectionately know by the Allies.
The story goes and I cannot verify it, that when the fire ship loaded with explosives and metal objects got snagged on one of the rocks off the coast exploded it cause considerable damage to the windows in the city but only one person was killed and the ships cat who was not evacuated in time was blown into the air and landed in what is now called the Rue du Chat qui Dance, Dancing cat street. It is said that the governor of the city had the dead feline placed in a casket and returned to the British with the recommendation that he be knighted as he was the only member of the expeditionary force to actually get into the city… well its a nice story. The fleet left rather quickly. Two years later under Admiral Berkeley another attack was mounted and caused considerably more damage but only 12 French were killed and over 600 British because of the efficaciousness of the Saint Malo artillerymen.