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Click on the following link for the most recent Interview published by ABP, Agence Bretagne Presse, in Nov.2008:-
1987: The Planet
A Breton Political Exile
Catrin Hughes interviews Yann Fouéré
Yann Fouéré figures prominently in the history of Breton Nationalism from the Thirties onwards. Born in 1910, he returned to Brittany after graduating at Paris in law and political science to work as a civil servant and journalist and threw himself at once into cultural activity on behalf of Breton. In 1934 he helped set up Ar Brezhoneg er Skol, an organization that aimed to foster the use of the Breton language in education.
The complex politics of war-time Brittany were well analyzed, and his own position defended, in an unsigned English-language pamphlet, Breton Nationalism, which Plaid Cymru published in 1947. That same year saw a deputation from the Council of the National Eisteddfod visit Brittany to investigate the alleged repression of Breton nationalists (whether or not they had collaborated with the occupying German forces). It was from this repression that Yann Fouéré fled first to Wales and then to Ireland (where he settled) and it is with these years that the following interview deals.
In 1955 he returned to Brittany and two years later was one of the leading figures in the formation of the Mouvement pour l’organisation de la Bretagne (MOB) which helped lay the foundation of the Breton movement as it is known today.
Yann Fouéré now divides his time between Ireland and Brittany and is in the process of writing his memoirs. Among his publications are ‘l’Europe aux cent drapeaux’ (1968) which argues for an autonomous Brittany within a federal Europe; ‘La Bretagne écartelée’ (1962) a history of the Breton movement between 1938 and 1948; and ‘Ces droits que les autres ont…mais que nous n’avons pas’ (1979)- a comparative study of the regimes of the U.S.A.. Italy, Switzerland, Yugoslavia and the French State.
The following interview was conducted, recorded and translated for The Planet during March 1987, in Rennes, by Catrin Hughes.
Perhaps we could start by talking about what was happening in Brittany towards the end of the war, in 1944. What was the state of the Breton movement?
On the political front there were several tendencies within the Breton movement; there was what could be called a moderate wing, which I fought to represent with my two newspapers, La Bretagne and La Dépêche de Brest. This tendency was also represented by the Comité Consultatif de Bretagne, an assembly set up by the Vichy government to advise upon Breton rights, and thanks to which many positive changes were made, particularly in the spheres of teaching Breton language and history. This moderate wing was characterized by federalist tendencies – their aim was an autonomous Brittany within a larger framework of France.
The there was a more radical tendency, represented by Breton Nationalist Party. Its adherents had somewhat modified their aims since the beginning of the war; their aim was a Statute of Dominion, if you like, for Brittany within the framework of Europe.
Now, towards the end of the Occupation a further divergence of opinion became clear within the political movement. In December, 1943, the respected Breton patriot Abbé Perrot was assassinated by the anti-Breton section of the French Resistance section. The death of Abbé Perrot, who could be accused of no political activities whatsoever and whose efforts in favour of the Breton movement were based purely on cultural claims, stirred violent reactions in Brittany. Consequently a rift developed within the BNP; whereas one section remained faithful to the original political line of the party, a more extreme minority adopted a policy of active opposition to the French Resistance by becoming direct allies of the Germans.
Although the Abbé Perrot had been involved solely in the cultural and Catholic interests of Brittany he now became the symbolic figure that was to be avenged by this new political unit, the Formation Jean-Marie Perrot.
Although some Bretons had been assassinated before December, 1943, it was the deathe of Abbé Perrot that marked the beginning of a period of repression in Brittany when several patriots were killed regardless of their political views. How did you personally feel at this time? Were you aware that you were a potential victim of this repression?
Even before the assassination of Abbé Perrot I was aware that Breton militants were to be the object of persecutions, and it was a combination of fear and anger that I felt at the time. As the general troops retreated and the Americans advanced, the BNP decided to go underground and leave Rennes, at the same time ensuring shelter for its leading members. However I decided not to leave my home in Rennes, since I did not believe that my support for an autonomous Brittany was sufficient grounds to justify any accusations of extreme political activity. Above everything else I wanted to ensure the future of the Comité Consultatif de Bretagne, which was striving to maintain its neutrality between France and Germany. So apart from a few other militants in various parts of Brittany I was the only leader not to flee at this stage.
As a result you were arrested soon afterwards and brought to trial. Could you tell me how this happened?
The American troops entered Rennes on the 4th August, 1944. On the 10th I was arrested at my home in Rennes and taken to prison. Almost eight months went by before the first investigation. From there I was moved to a concentration camp. In a way I found it easier to cope there; there was more freedom to fill our days constructively – I made use of my time to learn Breton and to prepare articles for the press. In March, 1945, I was transferred to Quimper, my two newspapers were being printed in Morlaix and were appearing in the department of Finistere then.
In April they began the hearing of my case; however, since the magistrates could find no evidence of collaboration with the Germans, I was granted bail. So in August, 1945, a year after my arrest, I returned home to await the trial. The middle of February, 1946, had been appointed as the date. The evening before the trial, however, I was informed by friends (I had several contacts within administration and legal circles) that the sentence would be severe. I decided that I could not stay in Rennes, that I had to leave to avoid the trial.
Did you offer any explanation for your sudden departure, and were you concerned that you might be criticized for not facing up to the trial and its consequences?
I did write a public letter before my departure, outlining the reasons for my decision. I explained that the action taken against me had been inspired by the political concerns of the French government, and that I wasn’t prepared to be judged by a legal system that was so prejudiced. I declared that I would be ready to return as soon as they could consider my case in an impartial light.
As for fears of how people would react to this decision – all Breton nationalists were regarded as outcasts by the French authorities at the time. I wasn’t at all concerned by the possible reactions to my disappearance.
What happened to you immediately afterwards? I presume that your first concern was to leave Brittany as soon as possible?
I left for the Paris area – it was there that most Breton nationalists went to find refuge. My aim was to leave France as soon as possible, but of course I couldn’t do this immediately. I had to think of a way of obtaining a passport – this was obviously no easy matter. After much difficulty I managed to get a passport through fraudulent means, by giving myself a new identity.
So after a few months I was ready to leave France, and decided to leave for Wales.
What attracted you to Wales? Did you have contacts there?
While I was in Paris and trying to decide where I could seek refuge I almost left for the Basque country – there were several Basque nationalists who were favourable to our cause. I was informed that they would be willing to offer me shelter and help but that I would have to lead a clandestine life there as well – Franco at the time was of course doing his utmost to suppress all manifestations of Basque nationalism. I therefore decide that I would leave for Wales, where despite my false passport I would not have to lead a totally clandestine life. I already had some contacts in Wales at the time – acquaintances with the Abbé Perrot had established contacts with Meirion Dyfnalt then, and through these links I was assured of asylum in Wales. So with the knowledge that there would be someone to receive me there, and feeling that a certain security was guaranteed in another Celtic country which shared a similar culture and language, I felt that Wales was safest and most convenient refuge at the time.
Would you describe your journey from Paris to Wales? Did anyone travel with you?
I travelled alone, although I had left information that would be of use to others who would want to follow later – details about the procedure for obtaining false passports and other formalities.
Now that I had my passport I didn’t have to leave France in complete secrecy. So I took a train from the Gare du Nord and traveled to Ostende. I wanted to avoid as far as possible the maritime frontiers, which were more strictly supervised than the lad frontiers. So by passing through Brussels there was less risk of being stopped.
Having crossed from Ostend to Dover I traveled to London, where Merion Dyfnallt Owen was waiting for me. From there I was taken to Abergavenny
How did you react to the challenge of coping with a new life in Wales? Who in particular offered you shelter and help during these first few weeks, and how did you occupy your time now that you had left Brittany where your political and cultural interests were?
During those first few weeks Meirion Dyfnallt Owen made arrangements for me to stay first with D.J.Davies, and later with Gwenallt in Aberystwyth. Of course, I couldn’t forget what was happening in Brittany, and it was during my stay in Aberystwyth in the autumn of 1946, that I started writing the booklet Breton Nationlism, which was then published by Plaid Cymru. It was intended as an introduction to Breton History and nationalism; I wanted to give an account of the Breton movement during the war and inform readers in Wales of the repression suffered by Breton nationalists. I was advised to write the booklet anonymously, although of course there were suspicions that I was the author.
From Aberystwyth I moved to Fishguard, where I stayed for a few weeks with D.J.Williams. Ath the same time I was also trying to improve my English, because I realised that I couldn’t continue depending on the good will of others indefinitely, and that I would have to find a more permanent occupation. Thanks to the help of Mary Williams who was at the time lecturing in French at University College Swansea, I managed to obtain a post as assistant lecturer; of course, she didn’t know who I was – to her and to most people at the university I was ‘Dr. Moger’.
Now that I had found a fairly secure situation I felt that my wife and children could join me; they stayed with Gwynfor Evans and his family in Llangadog, where I would join them at week-ends.
You mentioned earlier the cultural links that attracted you to Wales. Did you find that the Bretons and Welsh did share a common culture, or were you faced with problems of adaptation?
Obviously I discovered that on a linguistic and cultural level the two nations did have much in common. But I also found divergences as far as the mentalities and attitudes of people were concerned.
Physically and spiritually, the Bretons have more in common with the Irish than the Welsh. I think that religion accounts for many of these differences – Protestantism is far more restricting than Catholicism, curious though that they may seem. Sundays, for example, seem far more sacred and austere in Wales than back in Brittany. I used to attend chapel services at Llangadog with Gwynfor Evans, and I always said that Protestantism was a far more personal religion, where every individual was his own priest.
How did you react to the constant obligation to conceal your identity during this time? Surely some people were very curious to know who you were?
I didn’t find it too much of a strain; of course some people knew I was a Breton nationalist who had been forced to leave Brittany, but they weren’t aware of my real identity.
I didn’t feel completely isolated , however; another Breton, Le Diverés, whom I already knew, was also living in Swansea at the time. He naturally recognised me as soon as he saw me; we used to meet fairly often to discuss the latest happenings in Brittany. A number of other Bretons had reached Wales by now as well, amongst them the poet Taldir-Jaffrenou, president of the Gorsedd in Brittany. He had been sentenced to five years’ imprisonment because of his ideas as a Breton patriot and regionalist, but his son managed to come over to Wales. So there were several of us scattered in various parts of the country, but mostly in the south.
It was around the summer of 1947 that it gradually emerged that I was Yann Fouéré. I, along with a few other Bretons, had been active in the electoral campaigns for Plaid Cymru, and more and more people became aware of my identity. When the French authorities in London were alerted, they informed the department of French at Swansea that there would be no further grants available from the French government if Dr.Moger were employed for another year.
I decided that I couldn’t possibly prejudice the University in this way; I therefore found a post as French teacher in a secondary school near Camarthen. At the time there was a Catholic College at Ffairach, llandeilo, founded by Irish Carmelite monks; I established a few contacts there. and was able to find accomodation for my fasmily.
Would you say that this contact with the Catholic College represented an importantperiod of your stay in Wales? Were you influenced by any particular individuals there?
I didn’t really stay there long enough to establish any lasdting links. I met Saunder Lewis a couple of times and had a few conversations with him, facilitated by the fact that he spoke French. He had by then moved away from Plaid Cymru; his philosophy of politics, influenced by Charles Maurras, had caused him to be criticized by the younger members of the party. I can’t say that I established any real contact with him, I was much closer to Dyfnallt Owen, Gwynfor Evans, D.J.Williams and others who were involved in helping the Bretons in Wales.
Now that the French authorities had been alerted to your presence, how difficult was it for you to stay in Wales?
The French Embassy was now constantly putting pressure on the British authorities and they finally refused to reknew my residence permit. That was obviously a collusion on the part of France with Britain, but there was nothing I could do to alter thyeir decision. Without directly accusing me of assuming a false identity the British authorities declared that they could no longer keep me; I had no choice but to leave Wales.
There followed quite a turbulent time for you towards the beginning of 1948 – leaving for Ireland in the hope of finding refuge there, having to return to Wales after failing to find suitable conditions, and eventually being arrested and expelled froBritain.
Yes, the original intention was to send me back to France, bu thanks to the intervention of Gwynfor Evans and other Welsh MPs this decision was revoked and I was allowed to leave for Ireland. After twenty four hours in police custody in London and then in Birmingham I was taken to Holyhead, from there I reached Bray, where I established my status as a political refugee.
Once more you were faced with the challenge of establishing a new life in a foreign country. How were you received by people in Ireland and what were the greatest difficulties you had to overcome?
Initially things were not at all easy for me and the other Bretons who had chosen to go to Ireland. We were met by the hostilities of those Anglophiles who had been critical of De Valera’s policy of absolute neutrality during the war. Then there were the Francophiles who believed that France was still the elder sister of the Church and the land of Justice and Freedom. It was thanks to De Valera that the Bretons were given the status of poltical refugees and enabled to overcome some of the initial difficulties.
From a practical and material point of view things proved to be very hard; Ireland at the time was fighting against high unemployment, people were leaving for Britain in search of jobs – prospects were not very encouraging. However we were given financial aid by various societies and charities, including the charity of St. Vincent de Paul.
During this time I had a variety of jobs to improve my financial situation – everything from giving French lessons to manufacturing liver paté.
I eventually found a permanent teaching post in a Catholic abbey run by Benedictine monks at Glenstal near Limerick, while my wife let student rooms in Dublin.
You have mentioned that you were not the only Breton in Ireland at the time. What sort of contact did you have with the other Bretons? Were there any divergences of opinion within the group, as had been then in Brittany before the war ?
There were about a dozen of us in Ireland at the time – many had been attracted there rather than to Britain since Britain had closer ties with France. We used to meet fairly regularly; divisions did become obvious, though, and have remained. Although these were on a personal rather than on a poltical level. As far as poltics were concerned we all felt somewhat helpless and detached.
How active a role did you play in Breton affairs at that stage?
I was obviously kept informed of what was happening in Brittany, and wrote articles for various journals and newspapersin ireland – I even managed to have some published, under another name, in Breton newspapers. During my stay in Wales I had been responsible for the bulletin Breton National News Service which sought to give confirmation about the repression in Brittany. I continued to have the bulletin published for a while in Ireland.
However, circumstances were such that I had to devote my time primarily to practical considerations, my main concern was to support my family and myself.
My teaching post at Glenstal didn’t relly give me the financila means to do this. As it happened, a Breton from St.Malo, involved in a lobster and crayfish business between the coasts of Brittany and Ireland, was looking for a partner. I decide to join him, and that was the start of a business that allowed me to establish a home and a livelihood in Ireland.
We moved to the extreme West coast, to Cleggan, County Galway, and had to start from scratch really in extremely primitive conditions. All we had were the four walls of a little cottage – no water, no electricity.
The rugged coast and violent storms reminded of Brittany in many ways, although conditions were much more primitive here. Then there was the challenge of re-establishing the lobster business – I had to learn very quickly about the yechnical aspects of building hatcheries and preparing the produce for export, and I soon started selling to countries further afield than France.
You strike me as being a very practical person, and you were obviously prepared to adapt to a way of life which was quite different from that of a journalist, and writer. Surely you never abandoned the idea of returning to Brittany and resuming your original career?
When my financial position in Ireland improved and the political climate in France seemed to be more favourable, I decided that I would return to Brittany. I didn’t want to be granted an amnesty – that would have meant returning because the authorities had allowed me to come back, and I wanted to show that it was they, rather than I, who were wrong. So in 1955 I decided to return, just for the trial – I had promised the magistrate in Rennes that I would be back. By now I had become an Irish citizen, and I returned under my new name. I appeared before the Military Tribunal in Paris. Finding no evidence of collaboration with the Germans they acquitted me and I was given the status of French citizen again.
You were now recognized as a French citizen, you could have stayed in France, re-established your life there and become directly involved in Breton affairs again. You nevertheless preferred to return to Ireland.
Yes, but only after months of considering my position and questioning my decision. I discovered that many people in the world of administration and journalism, who had really secured their career at the expense of myself and others like me, did not welcome my return to Brittany at all.
Furthermore, I realised that my career as a civil servant or journalist would be almost impossible, and that the problems of administration would be endless. By going back to Ireland I would be my own master and avoid the complex and severe legislation of the French State.
In a way it is this detachment from Brittany that has enabled me to work for the Breton movement without being hindered by that inferiority complex which characterized nationalists in Brittany after the war.
I was able to devote all my efforts to the formation of the MOB, in 1957, without feeling answerable to the judgements of people in France.
I think that my decision to keep Ireland as my home has helped me to safeguard my Breton identity.
If I were to define myself in any sort of order, I would say that I am primarily Breton – that is my true identity, secondly I am Irish, and then – perhaps – French