French in Ireland: What they really think of us

Two-Michelin star chef Patrick Guilbaud at his restaurant in Dublin.

With Brexit approaching, Pat Fitzpatrick thinks it might be time to cosy up to our next nearest neighbours: France. He chats to French nationals who have made Ireland home – to find out what they really make of us

We’ve always had a thing for the French here in Ireland. While the people from the island next door were doling out warm beer, mushy peas, and centuries of oppression, the next country along offered suntans, wine, and that girl you saw on the metro in Paris on a school tour in third year.

Our thing for the French could get even stronger, now that the Brits have decided to take back control by leaving the 21st century and heading back to 1956. This isn’t just about ferries bypassing Britain and heading for France — it’s about new life in an old relationship, that existed long before your one in the Kerrygold ad told Andre she’d like him to butter her spuds. (That was basically a single entendre, if you’ll pardon my French.)

Ireland obviously appeals to a new generation of French people — the 2016 census found 11,661 French nationals living here (up almost 2,000 since 2011), with almost half of that number living in greater Dublin, a further 1,119 living in Cork city.

It cuts both ways. Irish people have always had a thing about life in France. The latest wave is professional rugby players, with top stars such as Johnny Sexton, Simon Zebo, Donncha Ryan, and Tomás O’Leary making the move to France to ply their trade.

Tomás is back in Cork now, so that himself and his wife Julie can be closer to their families. But when I caught up with him recently to talk about life in Montpellier and his Told & Co range of watches, it was clear they had a ball in the south of France. “We spent Christmas in a château near Carcassonne, we had the place to ourselves, blue skies, we went for a cycle through the vineyards with our little son, Jamie.” What’s not to like?

Tomas O’Leary: The former rugby star says he loved his spell playing in France. Picture: Clare Keogh
Tomas O’Leary: The former rugby star says he loved his spell playing in France. Picture: Clare Keogh

We love France for good reasons — but what do they think of us?

Jean-Christophe Trentinella is director at the Cork office of Alliance Francaise, a global organisation tasked with promoting French culture and building ties with the host country. He only arrived here five months ago, but he’s clearly been keeping an eye on us.

In Britain, the US, and Australia, I found a social varnish that you don’t find here. When people are displeased in Ireland, they really let you know. It’s not a lack of politeness, more a relationship with your own emotions and how they can take over. It’s not aggressive, but when they’re irritated they let me know.

So much for our hundred thousand welcomes. That said, he has clearly settled in and likes a lot of things here, including the way his young daughter’s creche has them out playing in all weather. Asked if he would recommend Ireland to a French person, he said it depends where they come from. “There are a lot of people here from Brittany and Normandy, but I don’t meet too many from the south of France. I think that might be the weather, if anything, the weather here is an upgrade on Brittany.”

There goes Brittany off my holiday list.

Jean-Christophe then turns to one export that has always had a big following in Ireland: French cinema. Alliance Francaise is running the Cork French Film Festival, the oldest French film showcase in Ireland, featuring 20 films at the Gate Cinema from tomorrow, culminating with Gérard Depardieu in Cyrano de Bergerac on March 10.

Good food is another French export that never goes out of fashion in Ireland. Patrick Guilbaud has flown the flag since he arrived here in 1981 and opened his iconic Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud in Dublin, which has two Michelin stars. He found it a culture shock when he arrived 38 years ago. “Ireland was years behind France and the UK then in terms of society and savoir faire,” he tells me.

“It reminded me of Paris in the 1960s. But it has changed dramatically for the better. Dublin is a very nice capital city, it’s a very nice place to be. People complain about the traffic, but it is nothing compared to Paris or London.”

Does he think the Irish and French are compatible? “The Irish people are very close to the French people. We have a similar sense of humour, we can laugh at ourselves, we like drink and good good and good company. So, it’s very similar to the French way of life, very close, maybe because of our Catholic histories. The

English I found to be more pragmatic, and stubborn, when they decide on something they don’t change their mind.”

You can say that again.

The shared Catholic history is clearly an invisible bond, for a number of reasons.

As Jean-Christophe put it, “I heard stories [in Ireland] of abuse by the Catholic clergy being unearthed, and certain people wanted this pushed aside. We had the same issues in France.

While I’m in the Alliance talking to Jean Christoph, I catch up with three interns from France, Flore Ducasse, Sophie De Kermenguy and Diane Durey, along with Katie Nolan from Cork.

The three French women clearly love living here, once they get past the shock of the Cork accent and the sky high price of accommodation. Although, when I ask them about Irish men, they don’t agree with Patrick Guilbaud on our shared sense of humour. “Irish men are quite open but there were some jokes I didn’t get” says Diane.

Jean-Christoph Trentinella, director at the Cork office of Alliance Francaise, on the South Mall, Cork
Jean-Christoph Trentinella, director at the Cork office of Alliance Francaise, on the South Mall, Cork

“Don’t take it personally, but I think it’s closer to the British humour, sometimes you make jokes and don’t smile. So we don’t know if this person is serious.”

Handy romance tip there guys — ditch the sarcasm if you are chatting up someone from France. One other thing, and don’t take this literally, but drop the jogging pants. From what they told me, French women are, at best, puzzled by the way we walk around town in gym gear.

So, what about women here? For some reason I thought they’d judge their Irish counterparts, but in fact they envy them.“The make-up it’s so different and the tan of course,” says Flore with a giggle.

“They go on the streets and wear skirts and light clothing — in Paris you could not do this, you would be picked up on the street and men would want to talk to you, it would be awful. Here in Ireland, you can do it, and no one will bother you. You can just go out in the clothes you want to wear.”

I move on to gargle and I ask them if we drink too much here in Ireland. Apparently not.

According to Sophie, we drink the same amount as people in her native Brittany, at which point Flore jumped in, slightly peeved I think, and insisted that they also drink a lot down around her native Biarritz in the south-west. So it doesn’t sound as if drink culture will come between us and the French.

There is, however, one vast ocean of misunderstanding that threatens to come between us. When talking about her time in France, Katie from Cork mentions the lack of craic.

The three French woman ask, what is this craic? Katie and I try to explain it (I was on the verge of singing ‘The Bold Thady Quill’.) Still nothing.

After a few more attempts they said they got it, but I’m fairly sure they were pretending, just to get us to shut up. There just isn’t a French word for craic, and we might have to do something about that.

As for food, don’t go there. We could fall out over meat. Katie said she hated the chicken and beef during her time in Lille, Flore and Sophie weren’t having it, and there was nearly a diplomatic incident over the whole thing.

Sophie and Flore, who say the Irish drink about the same as in their native Brittany and Biarritz.
Sophie and Flore, who say the Irish drink about the same as in their native Brittany and Biarritz.

The three French women were polite about our restaurants, but that was as far as it went.

When I ask the one thing they miss most about home, they said cheese, almost in one voice. That said, there is plenty that unites us.

All three of them love our bookshops, they love the way you start talking to the person next to you in the pub, and bizarrely, they don’t seem to mind the weather.So, it feels like ourselves and the French are going to get along just fine.

As long as you don’t mention the craic. Or beef.

- The Cork French Film Festival begins tomorrow.

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