My French husband said I was becoming as cranky as a French woman

I never thought I’d organise a protest, but as an Irishwoman I couldn’t keep quiet

I have learned that Parisians don’t suffer passive-aggressives. What I hadn’t reckoned on was that I would eventually find my Irish voice in France and that, despite myself, I’d blossom.

The runt of the litter, with seven siblings spread over 21 years, I benefited from the colourful patchwork of their stories and music. The afterthought of my parents, who were 61 and 47 years old when I was born, I walked a compliant line and was a yes girl for the better part of my youth. That was not necessarily my character, but Irish Catholicism interwoven through a nature-versus-nurture battle was tipped by my father’s acute illness.

People were astounded when, at 21, I left my “good job” to join Saudia airlines. The Northside Express, a local Dublin newspaper, wrote: “Patricia Killeen of Dublin Corporation’s Public Relations Department has left to join a Persian airline. What next – Noel Carroll as a pilot?”

After several years, work took me to Paris, the city of my dreams, where I was also an incongruous yes woman in a country where, since 1808, philosophy has been mandatory in the baccalauréat, or French equivalent of the Leaving Certificate.

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The French delight in contestation. But despite that, and despite having many smokers, France has one of the world’s highest life expectancies, especially for women. Can eternal protesting and contrariness gift you a few extra years?

In Paris you can be tongue-lashed for anything. I recall being chided by a woman in a Burberry coat who had brought her poodle, in a matching Burberry, inside the bakery on a winter day. She was outraged that my daughter, asleep in her streamline Maclaren stroller, was, from her perspective, monopolising valuable floor space.

When I was in my 30s I worked at a French magazine with Evelyne, an elegant French woman. She was a few years older than me – and, to use her own words, she would threaten to (and often did) “make a scandal”. These scandals were not sexual: they involved arm-flapping, shouting and generally ensuring things were done the right way – that is, her way. “You’ll see, Pa-tris-ja: you too will make scandals later on,” she assured me. She felt it would be an improvement on an overly easy-going attitude. I smiled in fake acquiescence, not believing her predictions.

Nevertheless, over my years in Paris, without realising, I was becoming more candid. My French husband remarked, “You’re becoming as cranky as a French woman!”

If you stay in Paris long enough you have to stand your ground. But I never thought I’d organise a protest. It was minor and watered-down as French protests go, but it was organised by mé féin.

A former ballet student at the late Myrtle Lampkin’s dance school on Henry Street, Dublin, I love all kinds of dancing. Over the years I often went to the Paris Lido and, when I had money jingling in my pocket, would invite visiting Irish relatives to that temple of burlesque cabaret.

The talent, rigour and feistiness of Margaret Kelly, the visionary Irishwoman who was ballet mistress and choreographer at the Lido for more than three decades, ensured her Bluebell girls and Lido boys were the best cabaret dance troupe in the world. Today they continue to do Kelly, aka Miss Bluebell, proud.

Like the Eiffel Tower, the Lido is synonymous with Paris, but the iconic venue was recently purchased by the Accor hotel group. Despite initial promises to keep the cabaret running, 75 years of razzmatazz and cabaret, I learned, was to be ousted from the Champs-Élysées.

Riled, I organised a remembrance ceremony for Miss Bluebell at Montmartre Cemetery and the Café Blanche, two doors down from where Kelly once lived. We eulogised her life and legacy while questioning the closure, yesterday, of the Lido. You can watch us here.

A fellow Irishwoman, Maria Doyle-Cuche, sang Ave Maria at Kelly’s graveside and pointed out that, were she still alive, the feisty Kelly would be dancing up and down the Champs-Élysées, with her dancers, waving Keep the Lido Open banners. Invigorated by protestation, I led the posse to Café Blanche, two doors from 83 Rue Blanche, where Kelly once lived, to celebrate her incredible life.

Glancing at Irish friends, many of whom have lived in Paris for decades, I wondered if we would have turned out differently if we had stayed at “home”. I remembered how I had smiled, albeit nervously, as I boarded that Saudia plane out of Dublin. I love Ireland to my core, but I needed to leave — and I delight in being older, crankier and feistier than when I left my native shore.

Patricia Killeen hosts Turning Points for World Radio Paris

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