Jean Bijasson obituary: Pillar of the Irish community in Paris

French businessman spent 18 years on the foundation that oversees the Irish College in Paris

Jean Bijasson, who supervised the transformation of the old Irish College in Paris – formerly a seminary for training Irish priests –  into a modern cultural centre and a chaplaincy

Jean Bijasson, who supervised the transformation of the old Irish College in Paris – formerly a seminary for training Irish priests – into a modern cultural centre and a chaplaincy

 

Jean Bijasson

Born: March 22nd, 1939

Died: June 27th, 2019

Jean Bijasson, who has died at the age of 80, was a prominent French businessman who served for 18 years as the secretary general and then treasurer of the Fondation Irlandaise, which oversees the Irish College in Paris.

Bijasson “supervised the transformation of the old Irish College, which had been a seminary for training Irish priests, into a modern cultural centre and a chaplaincy,” Msgr Hugh Connolly, the college chaplain, told mourners at Bijasson’s funeral on July 4th.

Bijasson was surprised the Irish government wanted him, a Frenchman, to take one of the Irish seats on the Franco-Irish board

Bijasson was recruited by then ambassador Patrick O’Connor in the late 1990s. A graduate of the prestigious engineering school Ponts et Chausées, Bijasson was for many years a director of the Fenix company that pioneered the construction of free-standing houses in France. He later worked for Gesimo, a management company for high-rise buildings.

Bijasson was surprised the Irish government wanted him, a Frenchman, to take one of the Irish seats on the Franco-Irish board. O’Connor explained that he understood the intricacies of French building and employment law in a way no Irish person could. The position was voluntary, but Bijasson visited the college at least once a week. It was rechristened the Centre Culturel Irlandais or CCI in 2002.

When tension arose between Irish officials and the hierarchy over the role of the church in the renovated college, Bijasson did much to smooth those tensions.

‘Quiet hero’

“Jean was truly a quiet hero of Franco-Irish relations and we and Ireland are in his debt,” said Nora Hickey M’Sichili, the director of the CCI. The funeral was attended by the staff of the college, by Ireland’s current Ambassador, Patricia O’Brien, and by former ambassador O’Connor and his wife, Patricia.

Jean was a bit astonished, dumbfounded, by my Irishness

Bijasson came to know Ireland through his wife, Anne Geraldine McGrath, from Dungannon, Co Tyrone. They met when she was teaching at Marymount School in the Paris suburb of Neuilly in 1965. She was taken aback when he was sent to Tunisia for several years to supervise the construction of a factory, but when he returned at the end of 1968, he proposed. They married at Donnybrook Church in Dublin on September 1st, 1969, and honeymooned in Ireland.

Bijasson was from the small town of Thones, near Annecy in the French alps. His father, Léon, matured and exported Reblochon cheese from Savoy. His mother, Armande, raised seven children.

‘Ireland was an opening’

“Jean was a bit astonished, dumbfounded, by my Irishness,” his widow said. “The French mountains are wonderful, but people don’t come forward like the Irish. For him, Ireland was an opening, like a rainbow. In the end, he became much more attached to Ireland.”

When they met, Bijasson told McGrath that many French women were called Anne. He asked if she had a second name that sounded more Irish. Thereafter, he called her Geraldine, as she is known to the Irish community in Paris.

The Bijasson’s children, Killian and Oonagh, were born in 1971 and 1977. Ms Bijasson thought it too dangerous to take them to Dungannon, because the bank building where her parents lived was repeatedly bombed. So the family met elsewhere in Ireland for holidays.

Killian and his wife, Coralie, have three children, Henri, Emma and Martin. Oonagh and her partner François have a daughter, Niamh.

Ms Bijasson called Jean “the love of my life”and had the words “Thank you for these 50 years of happiness spent together. Geraldine” printed on his funeral Mass card. The Irish community in Paris were touched by their mutual devotion, and they were widely seen to represent all that was best about France and Ireland.