We have a quality of life that simply wouldn’t be possible at our age in Ireland

The Irishman who wasn’t ready to go back to Knocklyon after Lyon

Ian Smith is 25 and from Knocklyon in Dublin. He left Ireland in June 2021 and moved to Lyon in France where he works as a journalist.

I was 20 years old surrounded by the same friends I had had since I was four, living with my parents in the sleepy suburb of Knocklyon and struggling with my sexuality.

It was time to shake things up.

I was offered a last minute opportunity to go on an Erasmus exchange and so a couple months later off I went to France with no more than a Leaving Cert grasp of the language.


In gay Paris my mind was opened, friendships were forged and new experiences created. After eight months it was time to leave, but I wasn’t ready to go home to Knocklyon and return to the known and expected version of myself. And so I stumbled upon an English-speaking job in a call centre in the central-east city of Lyon.

It was there that I promptly fell in love. No, not with a man, but with the city itself.

Lyon is a handsome city anchored by its two beautiful rivers. It has a thriving cultural, gastronomic and music scene, is affordable (a monthly transport ticket is just €25 for under-26s and a room in a central apartment is around €500) and is ideally placed for further exploration of Europe. In other words, it’s a perfect spot for young people to live.

My connection with the city was sealed on my first night out with my new colleagues. The sun was shining and we strolled through the cobblestone streets of the stunning old town after work before settling down on the terrace of a typical French bar. We spent the evening laughing and chatting like old friends.

I didn't choose Lyon, Lyon chose me

Under the influence of several strong Belgian beers, I decided I would announce to the table that I was gay. Almost as if they had been waiting for an in, one by one half of the people at the table told me they were also LGBTQ+. By the time we got to the fourth person it was almost comical and we continued the night laughing hysterically and getting to know one another. After just five days in the city I was feeling more at home than I had in the previous three years in Ireland.

It was a fait accompli: the people, the weather, the architecture, the rivers and the lifestyle. I knew I had to live here for more than four short months. And so I returned for the following summer. And the one after that. And the one after that, before the stars aligned and I took the plunge to live here permanently last June.

The traditional young Irish emigrant’s journey is the well-trodden path to Australia, England or Canada, and many won’t even consider other destinations within the EU.

And even for those who do choose to come to France, Lyon is perhaps not the obvious choice. This was the case for 22 year-old Conor Coughlan from Ennis, Co Clare, who works for Enterprise Ireland's office in the city.

“I didn’t choose Lyon, Lyon chose me,” he laughed when I asked him why he decided to move here. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“When you throw Lyon out to an Irish person, they’ll definitely come back to you and say ‘where?’” he quipped.

But he does think this is changing. An Irish consulate is due to open in the city in September and he can see through his job all the business opportunities that are popping up in the Lyon area.

There are also growing cultural ties. Coughlan is a member of the Association Franco-Irlandaise de Lyon and plays football for the local GAA club.

“The thing that struck me about the Irish association is that it’s not just a load of expats trying to make a ‘County Lyon’ in Lyon, the membership is really 50:50 between French and Irish, especially in the GAA club.”

The association also runs An Gaeltacht sur Saone in Johnny’s Kitchen Irish pub every couple of weeks, where a group gathers to speak as gaeilge.

But living in the city is not always plain-sailing, particularly for women. Gilleesa Gillen is a 22 year-old from Donegal studying French and media in Lyon as part of the Erasmus programme. Like me she worked in the city for two summers previously and knew she wanted to come back if she ever got the chance. And while she loves Lyon, she has also experienced its flaws.

“I find that the culture towards women is very different to that that I would’ve experienced in Ireland,” Gillen told me. “You feel a lot less safe in Lyon than you would in Dublin.

“I’ve spoken to all my female friends here and we’ve all had experiences of being catcalled or street harassment,” she added.

However Gillen has found comfort in the strong Irish network in Lyon.

“There’s the ciorcal comhrá every couple weeks, an Irish-speaking group, there are loads of Irish bars and especially if you’re studying or just graduating you’ll find it easy to settle and feel at home.”

There are challenges to living in Lyon: the language, the attitude towards women and the typical French bureaucracy. But despite its flaws, Coughlan, Gillen and I love living here and we have a quality of life that simply wouldn’t be possible at our age if we were to return to Ireland. And perhaps it says it all that none of us have any plans to return.

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