Who are the Irish in France, and what are they doing there?

New research aims to gather the experiences of the Irish diaspora in France

The Irish-born population in France is estimated to be somewhere between 20,000 and 24,000.

The Irish-born population in France is estimated to be somewhere between 20,000 and 24,000.

 

I have been living in France for more than 20 years now. A decade ago I completed a PhD on the Irish in England, and for many years my research concentrated on this emigrant group, but in the last few years, I've been thinking about my own life as an Irish emigrant living in France, even more so since I had children. What do we know about Irish people like myself living on the European continent today? Well, the answer is, very little really.

We know a lot about the Irish who have emigrated to English-speaking destinations such as North America, Britain, Australia and Canada, but contemporary Irish emigration to Europe has remained a relatively under-researched part of Irish diaspora studies.

Irish emigration to France has always been on a vastly smaller scale to that of Irish migration to English-speaking destinations. The Irish-born population in France is estimated to be somewhere between 20,000 and 24,000.

Perhaps for this reason, the Task Force report on Ireland and the Irish abroad, published by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in August 2002, included just one paragraph on this population movement. The only other social research project on the Irish in Paris, that I was aware of, was carried out 30 years ago by Piaras MacEinri at University College Cork, when 132 Irish people were interviewed.

Thirty years later, my ‘Irish in France Research Project’ aims at continuing Dr MacEinri’s work and hopes to gather data on the Irish in France today. A website was created for the project where an on-line questionnaire can be completed by Irish people based in France who wish to share their life experiences.

I aim to establish a profile of Irish people in France, and examine the collective experiences of this migrant group by asking them about their background (age at time of departure, where they come from, their education level, why they decided to leave Ireland); how they are getting on in France (personally and professionally); their mastery of the French language; how they feel about their new lives in France (job and life satisfaction, standard of living, bringing up a family in France); connections with home, and issues around return. So far, more than 200 people have participated.

Grainne O’Keeffe-Vigneron - pictured with her two children - has been living in France for two decades.
Grainne O’Keeffe-Vigneron - pictured with her two children - has been living in France for two decades.

Who are they?

The majority of those who have completed the survey so far live in the Ile de France region (Paris and its surrounding area), attracted by its employment opportunities and cosmopolitan lifestyle, but the west of France has attracted many Irish people also.

The Irish in France have an older profile than other Irish emigrant destination countries; the majority of participants in my study so far are in their 30s and 40s, at a different stage of their lives than the younger migrant groups, when issues around job security and raising families are more prominent.

The survey so far has also revealed how emigration to France is not solely dependent on the economic climate in Ireland. There are many different reasons why Irish people move to France, employment and work experience being the most important, but personal relationships (17 per cent of all respondents had a French partner!), discovering another culture and improving language skills were also cited.

Forty per cent were married, the majority to nationalities other than Irish and almost one third of them to French people. In addition, more than 53 per cent were bringing up children in France, largely in bi-cultural households.

Education and employment

The Irish in France are a highly educated group with well over two-thirds of participants having completed a university course. Many are working in highly qualified job sectors such as business and management, information technology and teaching, and a large majority are in full-time employment. Well over half are satisfied with the salary they are earning, and express a high level of job satisfaction. The medical profession was largely absent from the survey statistics, with just three nurses participating. Those working in construction and building were not represented at all.

Half of all participants consider they have a good level in French, but the other half assess their level as “average” to “quite weak”. Living and working in a foreign language, especially if the person is not particularly at ease in the language, can prove problematic in day-to-day life and can also be a real barrier for promotion opportunities, as some respondents stated. However, the Irish people surveyed consider they have successfully integrated in France, and are very happy in general with their standard of living.

Irish people are viewed in a very positive way by French people. All respondents stated that being Irish was seen as something positive by French people.

I believe there is a real need to place the experience of the Irish in France in the wider context of Irish migration and diaspora studies. It is also important to be able to draw comparisons with other Irish emigrants on the European continent, and even in other destinations such as Britain or America.

We need to capture the experience of the Irish diaspora while these emigrant groups still exist in their current forms. It is time to make some space for the Irish on the European continent, to give them a voice, and ensure they have their place in Irish migration history.

If you are an Irish emigrant based in France and would like to participate, you can complete the questionnaire at irishinfrance.weebly.com or contact me at grainne.o-keeffe@univ-rennes2.fr. Confidentiality will be guaranteed.

The Irish Emigrant Support programme and the Irish Embassy in Paris have given great support to this research. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, through the Irish Embassy in Paris, is currently funding a national research project here in France, including a study of the Irish diaspora here. The opening symposium of the ‘Groupement d’Intérêt Scientifique en Etudes Irlandaises’ (GIS EIRE) will be held this weekend from January 18th-19th at the Université-Paris. See sofeir.fr/gis-e-i-r-e-opening-symposium for details. If you would like to come along, please email me and I will add you to the list.

Grand merci!

Grainne O’Keeffe-Vigneron is lecturer in Irish studies at the University of Rennes.

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