Tootlafrance talks to Irish musician Paul Tiernan, who has been living and working in the Lot-et-Garonne Department in the South-west of France since 2005.
Home for Paul is in Meilhan-sur-Garonne – a small town of just over 1,000 inhabitants on the banks of both the Lot River and the Canal du Midi at a point where the famous canal runs right alongside the river. Paul is a professional singer, songwriter and musician living in a part of the world with great food and great weather. It sounds like a hell of a plan.
“There was no plan!” he laughs. “I never made a plan in my life… fortunately and unfortunately.”
Paul was originally born in Kenya and was brought up in Dublin, Galway and Cork. In the mid-1980s, he was very much part of the Dublin music scene in a group called “Flex and the Fastweather”, in which he played alongside Maurice Seezer, amongst others. While most of his former band mates are in Ireland, Paul was drawn southwards.
“I’ve always loved France,” says Paul. “I came here first in 1976. I’d finished school and was about to go into university. I got a job down near Dax. It was a bizarre job that doesn’t exist anymore: It was called castration de mais. I basically castrated the maize to stop it from cross-fertilizing. It’s an asexual plant now so it doesn’t need to be castrated anymore.”
Having visited France on a number of occasions over the years, it was meeting “a French girl” that prompted him to stay for good.
“She’s from the Alps,” says Paul, “and that’s where we went first – over near Geneva – and between the jigs and the reels, we ended up down here. Up there, it’s quite a well-to-do middle-class area and we couldn’t afford to stay there and didn’t really want to. Being a musician, I can live just about anywhere, so we picked down here because it seemed a very chilled-out part of France and a nice place to live… It’s very quiet. I’m amazed that it isn’t busier. It’s very pretty and it’s right by the Canal, but then, France has an overabundance of pretty little villages.”Paul does acknowledge, however, that many villages away from the tourist trail in France tend to suffer what he terms a “slow death”, similar to what many small Irish communities have been suffering in recent years as a result of the removal of social centres such as the pub, the post office or even the creamery.
“A lot of cafés have shut down in the French countryside… I think that a lot of it has to do with the EU to a certain extent: Before, you had a lot of little places run by Mamy and Papy – places that would just about have a toilet, but now you can’t have those kind of places anymore.”
Having experienced some success and being very active in Dublin with his band, how different did he find the music scene in France?
“It’s very different. When I first started in France, I was playing with a Swiss-French group called ‘Hell’s Kitchen’. They were a sort-of Tom Waits style band. So I had a very easy introduction into the scene, I suppose.
“Once I left the Alps, I had to start again. I met up with some English musicians who had already something going – more bread-and-butter work like parties and private events. So I landed on my feet in that regard. But from the point of view of my own solo singer-songwriter career, it’s very different because there aren’t the same networks as what I was used to back home. Ireland being an awful lot smaller, I tended to know a lot of people in the scene and have a lot of contacts and they were easy to find. But in France, there isn’t a pub culture, especially down in the South-west so putting your finger on where to find someone to contact has been a bit tricky, but I’m getting there now.”
“Basically what happens is that if you’re out of work, you get a support from the government. When you are working, you put a lot of money back into the system. The equivalent of PRSI here is very high but you get as much back.
“In France, you tend to have a lot of associations that are set up for cultural events. It’s very different to Ireland. They tend to be semi-voluntary and non-profit making and you tend to get treated very very well. In France, as a musician, you tend to be treated like any other worker and as any other worker, you’ll be guaranteed your lunch if you’re there early enough and you’ll always get fed a big dinner and with plenty of wine, etc. In Ireland, that’s long gone: in most places, you’d be lucky to get a pint and a sandwich at the end of a gig.”
Paul describes himself now as being in a position where he’s very much “plugged into the system” and continues to write and record albums himself. Despite being a working musician in France, he isn’t, he says, much of an expert on the contemporary music scene in France. Apart from a few acts that he really loves, he claims to be relatively ignorant of the rest – something he partly attributes to the fact that he doesn’t have a television and rarely listens to the radio.
“Ironically, a great system such as the Intermittant de Spectacle can, in a way, stifle creativity because it’s a bit like being a sort-of a musical civil servant. To be honest, France is so centralised, most of the musicians end up going to Paris to make it. In Ireland, that changed after the 1980s: we used to all work on the premise that you had to go to Dublin or even to London if you wanted to make it as a musician whereas now you can be anywhere.”
In looking through some of the lyrics to Paul’s songs, I picked up on one called “Postcards”, in which he speaks of people leaving and of loneliness. Does it, I ask him, relate to life in France as an Irishman? Could it be that he finds himself pining for the old sod?
“Funnily enough, I wrote that song in Ballydehob!” he laughs. “So the song was related to what was going on at that point in Ireland. That said, the other predominant nationality around here is English. Culturally speaking, I find that I’ve a stronger link with French people than with English people. I’ve always found English culture generally to be diametrically opposed to Irish culture, so I do occasionally miss my fellow countrymen and the way we might converse!”“I used to suffer chronically from homesickness when I was first living here,” he admits, “but I’ve got over it. I’ve come to realise what a good life I have here and when I go back to Ireland, I realise that I wouldn’t be able to have that kind of life, even though the downside is the social life in Ireland – there’s no filling that gap.”
The weather, he says, is a plus factor, saying that they get a “proper winter”, followed by a long warm summer. He isn’t, however, a weather-fixated sort of person and he cites more general aspects of French lifestyle and society as being more important benefits to life in France. He left Ireland, he says, when the boom was beginning and didn’t like what he saw. It was one of the reasons he left Ireland in the first place as he didn’t want to be part of Celtic Tiger Ireland. France, he says, was never like that.
“You could almost accuse France of being stagnant at times, but the plus part of that is that the priorities of people here are quite different in a material sense. It’s a cliché, I know, but food and wine, the gastronomic pleasure, are very important here… I like that and I like the general way that the health system works and I think that the social system here is a bit more equitable than in Ireland. It’s more of a socialist country.”
The best thing about France?
“The pace of life: It’s slow and that suits me.”
And the worst thing?
“The curse of the photocopy! The bureaucracy, in other words.”
Paul gets back to Ireland regularly enough and will be next appearing at Grove House, Schull, Co. Cork on April 5th.