Irish songs in French: Renaud and his Molly Malone album

Image credit: Thesupermat

When Renaud Pierre Manuel Séchan, known in France simply as Renaud, covers Irish songs in French, this mix creates some very special music. Here’s all you need to know about Renaud’s album Molly Malone – Balade Irlandaise.

In France, people know about Renaud (the singer, not the car brand, which is not spelled the same anyway), but his interest in Irish music is not his most famous personality trait. Molly Malone – Balade Irlandaise was released in 2009, more than 40 years after he wrote his first song during the May ‘68 student protests in France. 

For those who are not familiar with the French music scene, Renaud is mostly known for his contrarian views, which have always had an impact on his music. As early as 1975, when he released his first album Les Amoureux de Paname (“Paname’s Lovers”, Paname being a slang word for Paris), his songs were already addressing society’s darkest aspects. 

Slang, shocking but often poetic lyrics, and political or personal topics have made Renaud one of the most famous French singers. He is not the youngest generation’s favourite, but it seems like he’ll always be in the landscape: the album La Bande a Renaud was released in 2014 by several younger artists who covered Renaud’s songs, proving that he isn’t forgotten, even in the 2010s. 

Renaud has more famous songs than the ones he sang on his Molly Malone album, of course, and he’s much better known for his problems with alcohol than for his love of Irish music. However, even if this album isn’t his most popular in France, he has helped the French to get in touch with Irish music. Was it a good or a bad way to do so? Only Irish music lovers and experts can judge. But at least he tried. 


The album’s history 


French people who don’t know about this album but listen to Renaud’s music are bound to know at least one of the songs on the record: “La Ballade Nord-Irlandaise”. This song, adapted from “The Water is Wide”, already featured on Marchand de Cailloux, an album Renaud released in 1991. It proves that the singer’s passion for Ireland has a long story. 

In various interviews published when he promoted his album in 2009, Renaud talked about his bond with Ireland: he went to visit the country for the first time in the 1980s for a French TV show and the magic happened. “I was overwhelmed by the landscapes, charmed by the people,” he told the journalist Victor Hache for L’Humanité. “Over there, I was guided by the country’s folklore and traditional songs.”


Irish songs in French: Renaud and his Molly Malone album


Renaud made his own experience of the Irish atmosphere in 1997, when he organised a tour of Irish pubs, presenting some of his French songs to the Irish public for the first time. “It was the best tour of my life,” he remembered, talking to Alexis Campion in 2009 for Le Journal du Dimanche

In Ireland, but also in London when he was recording, Renaud went to record shops and created his own collection of Irish traditional music. Among the hundreds of songs he owned, he had to pick only 13 to put on this album. He wanted to sing in French, but he had one regret: “The songs sound so much better in English than in French,” he confessed to Victor Hache. “The English language is more melodic.”

These 13 songs were first translated by the French author Henri Lœvenbruck and then adapted by the singer. However, these songs aren’t only Irish by their origins: most of the music was recorded at Windmill Lane studios in Dublin with Irish musicians. “I think they have been quite moved to see a French man being interested in their repertoire,” Renaud said to the journalist Marie-Christine Blais, for the Quebec website La Presse

To discuss some aspects of the songs on this album, I contacted Olwen Kelly, a final year Textile Art and Artefact student at the National College of Art and Design, who lives in Dublin. She knows a lot about Irish culture since she’s been running an Irish-interest Tumblr account for seven years (@sraithpics). You can also check out her artwork on her Instagram account @olwenkelly

I first asked her if she knew Renaud and surprisingly enough, she said yes: “I used to listen to some of his music when I was studying French in school, to get used to the sound of the language.” However, she didn’t know about the Molly Malone album, which was less surprising. 


The tricky task of translating songs


“I was surprised that I actually hadn’t heard of a lot of these before even though I have lived in Ireland my whole life and have worked in busy tourist bars which had Irish music blaring all day long,” Olwen admitted when she saw the list of Irish songs translated for the album. She went on to tell me about the songs she knew, their original stories, and the differences between them and the French versions. 

Although Renaud introduced his album as Irish songs covered in French, Olwen warns us: “There is actually more than one song which is not Irish in origin but has been covered by Irish musicians.” For instance, she tells us that “The Water is Wide” is of Scottish origins, “Farewell to the Rhondda” is Welsh (the Rhondda Valley is in Wales) and “Don’t Get Married, Girls” was written by an English songwriter. 

As I have already mentioned, “La Ballade Nord-Irlandaise” is probably the most famous song on this album. French people know it as a liberty anthem, a call for peace in Northern Ireland represented by the planting of an orange tree. It’s important to remember that if Molly Malone was released in 2009, “La Ballade Nord-Irlandaise” was first released in 1991, years before the Good Friday Agreement. 


The orange tree has been a common symbol for freedom in French since the Revolution of 1789. However, Olwen explains why the choice of an orange tree is inappropriate in the context: “The colour orange is deeply associated with the Orange Order, a right wing, unionist organisation in the North of Ireland who have exacerbated sectarianism in the region for decades”. 

She explains that the interpretation of this planting could be very different from what the singer intended when he wrote the song. “[It] could easily be interpreted as Renaud advocating that unionism will bring peace” and even if the rest of the lyrics show that it wasn’t his intention, “it’s difficult not to interpret the song in this way as an Irish person.”

Moreover, the song is a little bit simplistic. “Renaud, like many people who are not Irish, incorrectly assumes that the reason that Catholics and Protestants were killing each other was simply due to religious differences when the real picture is far more complex”. Given the deep tensions and struggles between nationalism and unionism, Olwen thinks that the singer’s solution to the conflict “in the form of simply having a beer and going fishing together is quite naive”.

One must also know that the original song “The Water Is Wide” has nothing to do with the Northern Irish conflict: “[It] is about how relationships start out happy but even the happiest relationships can sour over time and make people miserable,” Olwen says. “I’m not really sure I would consider this to be a cover since the song contains almost nothing of the original apart from the tune.”

Going on about the songs, one in particular stands out for Olwen: “Molly Malone is probably one of the most famous Irish pub songs, every Irish person knows it.”. She takes the opportunity to talk about the statue of Molly Malone in Dublin, one of her favourites as a child: “Unfortunately the statue is becoming badly damaged because tourists keep taking pictures fondling the breasts, causing the metal to corrode. If you are visiting Dublin please do not do this!”


Irish songs in French: Renaud and his Molly Malone album(Image credit: barryleiba)


However, here again, the story of Molly Malone as told by Renaud isn’t 100% accurate: from a fishmonger selling cockles and mussels, Molly Malone becomes a flower seller. “In Dublin the street sellers have a very particular way of advertising their wares where they shout in a rhythm with a kind of sing-song voice,” Olwen reminds us, before pointing to the fact that a flower seller wouldn’t shout what Renaud sings about roses and lilacs. “This removes a key part of the context of the song”.

“I think that he is guilty of romanticising the story and removing its grittier aspects,” Olwen concludes. “When changing the story to something more romantic and not including the harsher side of the life of the street seller, he is smoothing over that very real social history”.

The same cultural and translation problem can be observed in the song “Campfire in the Dark”, sung by Renaud as “Incendie”. The original song is by the Fureys, a band made of two brothers of Irish Traveller origins. “Travellers are a minority ethnic group in Ireland, who used to live a nomadic lifestyle, travelling from town to town in horse drawn wagons”, Olwen explains. Industrial history has played a role in the decline of Irish Travellers’ traditional lifestyle, by they are also very discriminated against and have been for centuries. 

The original song tells the story of a “settled” traveller who would like to enjoy the nomadic life like his parents did. “[It] also touches on the discrimination he faces […] like not being allowed into discos and having to collect dole because people won’t hire him.” Olwen says that the song is still relevant today because such discrimination still exists.

According to Olwen, Renaud did not do a good job with the translated version: “This could have been a really good way to spread awareness about the issues facing Travellers in Ireland to a wider audience, but instead he decided to make it about a family from Connemara who face discrimination in America for being Irish, completely changing what the song is about.” She regrets this change of topic and thinks that he probably didn’t understand the core of the original song. 


Good idea but mixed results


“Don’t Get Married, Girls” also saw its topic changed in French. Written by an English man but popularised in Ireland by the Dubliners, “it warns women not to get married because their husbands will lose interest in them, cheat on them, and make them do all the household work without helping.” Olwen doesn’t fail to mention that the song is not so popular today, mostly because women’s conditions have changed. When the Dubliners released their cover in 1987, “divorce was still illegal in Ireland and men weren’t expected to do an equal share of the housework.”

Renaud is a kind of revolutionary singer and so, “Don’t Get Married, Girls” became “Te Marie pas, Mary”, a mix between a love song and an anti-war song. In French, the singer talks to a girl named Mary who wants to get married, and he warns her about the fact that her husband will fight for Ireland and against England and might get killed or imprisoned. Even if the lyrics and the topic are different from the original, the poetry is beautiful.

To keep going on the anti-war theme, Renaud also sang “Willie McBride” (also known as “No Man’s Land”) with a more accurate translation. “The song is about a 19-year-old Irish man who died fighting on the side of the British in France during the First World War,” Olwen explains, and the story is the same in the French version. “It’s a very powerful song.” She also shares with us a story that shows the impact this song can have:

“Some musicians were playing it one evening when I was at work once and there were two American army veterans having tea there. […] They were both wearing jackets covered in Veterans Against War patches and pins. The musicians started playing just as they were about to leave, and they decided to stay to listen to the song the whole way through. It brought both of them to tears as the song reached the end […]. I’ll always remember that because it was so jarring to see these tough old men crying, knowing that so many young soldiers are still being killed and traumatized in wars all over the world.”


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Renaud has always been inspired by social struggles, so it’s not a surprise to find this topic in his texts, even when the original songs don’t treat these themes. However, when covering traditional songs, or at least songs that have been part of a national culture for decades, too many changes may not be the best idea. 

Renaud’s public is mostly French, his fans probably did not know the original songs when they discovered the album, and without taking anything from the quality of the record and the French texts, Olwen wasn’t sure about the idea itself: “I think it’s only a good idea if the translations are accurate and if the translator understands the history of a song before translating it.”

“It could be a good way for French people to discover Irish culture,” she says when we talk about the concept of translation. However, she doesn’t recommend this specific album for this purpose: “he doesn’t seem to understand the themes of the original songs very well.”


When a French singer covers Irish song, the initiative can be based on very good intentions, but the translation can undermine the concept of helping discover a culture. Renaud realised one of his long-term goals with this album. In his own way, he tried to pay tribute to the music he loved, even if the results were mixed. 

And you, did you know about this album on which a French singer covers Irish song? Do you agree with Olwen on the question of translation? Let us know in the comment section!

Laurine Tiran
Laurine Tiran

I'm a French student doing a Master's degree in International Politics at the University of Toulon, France.

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