Continuing in the series of Irish people who have made France their permanent home, we talk to two men from the West of Ireland who own a pub in the French Alps
The village of Samoëns is in the department of Haute-Savoie; high in the French Alps. It’s only 14km from the Swiss border. A place of outstanding natural beauty, the long arc of Lake Geneva is to the north while, to the south, numerous other ski resort towns are to be found. Among them are some of the most well-known, such as Chamonix, Megève, Les Arcs and Courmayeur; the latter over the Italian border.
Covey’s Irish Pub stands in the middle of Samoëns and it has just come to the end of another successful season catering for the growing number of discerning tourists that find themselves in this splendid corner of France, surrounded by majestic mountains, two national frontiers and thousands of hectares of national park.
The owners of Covey’s are Shane Cunningham and John Heraghty. Both men are in their mid-thirties and hail from Westport in Co Mayo.
“We grew up together in Westport,” says Shane, “ and then we came to France together when we finished the Leaving Cert – for a summer job, originally.”
John moved to Paris after that, where he lived with his girlfriend: “I did a year in Paris. Shane finished his studies and then came out to me for the summer.”
It was through a Donegal man named Rob McCarthy that they got an early introduction to the Alpine side of the country.
“Through him, we got a job in the Alps,” recalls John. “We’d had enough of the city and decided to try something different. Rob had been on to us for ages about how good it was. I’d been down in the summer to visit him and had seen how beautiful it was and then Shane took the first step to do a winter season.”
If both men had already been bitten by the French bug, they were really hooked once they had worked on their first winter season in the snowy Alps. For someone coming from Ireland and seeing it for the first time, the world of continental winter sports can seem like experiencing the inside of a souvenir snow globe – a fantasy world that doesn’t have an equivalent in our own country.
Shane duly abandoned his pursuit of jobs related to his chemistry studies and ventured south-east with his boyhood friend.
“We both had a kind-of adventure/travel bug at the time and we just wanted to try something different,” says Shane. John nods in agreement. “I’d never experienced the Alps or the mountains so I thought ‘I’ll just give it a go’ and I loved it.”
The pair started into a pattern of working winters in the mountains and finding summer jobs such as cleaning swimming pools in Biarritz in the summer to keep them going.“I think that we really got hooked by the mountains,” says John. “Even though we went down to the beach in the summer and had a really great time, we always knew that we were going to go back and do another winter season.”
After a couple of years, they were lucky enough to get rare year-round contracts running a hostel bar in Chamonix called The Vagabond. This fortunate turn of events was to root them in the area when they were still in their early twenties.
When The Vagabond was put on the market, the Mayo pair took a long serious look at buying or leasing the premises for themselves. They were to be disappointed when the owner sold it on after coming close to agreeing a leasing deal with John and Shane.
John was considering returning to Ireland at that point – perhaps settling into a pattern of working summers at home and spending winters in Chamonix. Friends of theirs, however, invited them to where they lived in the quiet village of Samoëns. Knowing that their Irish friends were harbouring the dream of owning their own pub, they just happened to introduce them to the owner of a little place in the village that they were considering selling.
“On the way back to Chamonix in the car, we had a chat about it, and we both thought ‘what have we got to lose?’” says John. “It was run-down and the place needed a re-vamp but we figured that we couldn’t possibly lose that much by trying.”The money being asked for the bar was a fraction of what they had been looking at with The Vagabond. Samoëns also happened to be brimming with potential. Unlike its more illustrious neighbour Chamonix, it didn’t have a well-established ski station drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors every winter. But they both knew that a new ski-lift connecting the village to the slopes had just been built. They were young and enthusiastic and they knew about running a pub. And just as there will always be room for an Italian pizzeria in a town that needs a restaurant, there will always be room for an Irish pub in a town that needs a watering hole.
The two are grateful for the fact that their “worst case scenario” was always going to be returning to Westport. As Shane says, it was fortunate to have such a “safety net… a lot of people that we met along the way didn’t have that safety net: they’d either cut ties with their families or they were travelling because they hated where they were from. We always had the advantage of coming from a lovely spot and I think that helped us in the early days to take the couple of risks that we took.”
Banks in France have never been a soft touch for easy credit, particularly so if the applicants are young foreigners with no established income, but the Westport men managed to gather the necessary funds from a variety of sources in Ireland and opened their doors for business in November 2003.Things have been progressing nicely ever since. Last year, they got some more luck when three commercial units came up for sale next door to the pub. Covey’s Bar was in a healthy enough financial state to be able to buy all three units, double in size and re-vamp the whole premises. It’s now, as Shane says, “a proper pub” serving food as well as drink. It’s also one of the biggest premises in the town, it’s the only foreign-owned service outlet and it’s the only pub (the others being brasseries or cafés).
The two men have put down firm roots in Samoëns by this stage. Shane is now married to Asa who’s originally from Sweden. They have two girls – Juliette (7) and Nikita (3). “I don’t agree with moving kids once they get to the age of 10 or 11 because of seen that happen with families who have moved into this area from abroad. I mean, they’re fine but it’s just hard for the kids to leave their buddies behind.”
John, meanwhile, has long since broken up with the French girlfriend from his days in Paris, but doesn’t see himself returning to live in Ireland any time soon either:
“We’re settled here now and we have been for the last five years or so. We always worked off a plan of giving it two to three years to see how we feel and we literally turned around after a few years here and said: ‘Things are good. This is good’ and from that point on, it became home really.
“Shane’s got kids and so it’s different for him. I still dream of retiring back home to Ireland but I think that it’s only a romantic dream I have – I don’t know if I’ll ever do it; because of the weather, I imagine.”
Both cite the weather as a strong draw, saying that when one gets used to seeing more blue sky than grey, it’s very hard to go back to the predominantly grey Irish climate.
“We both like the idea of spending more time in Ireland… it’s the people you’d miss and the ideal scenario would be to be able to spend six weeks a year or so in Ireland.”
Although France is far from being immune to the current European economic crisis, the fortunes have remained far steadier than in Ireland over the last 10 years. Back in the days of the Irish boom, there was a tendency of their friends in Mayo to persuade them to give up their seemingly nomadic lifestyle and move back and settle into a more serious and lucrative lifestyle that Ireland had to offer. When the bubble burst, however, the lads bemusedly tell how the attitude at home changed to sudden “respect” for them for holding on in France and playing it “cute”.
“It was funny for us,” says Shane, “because we were total observers to the whole thing. We left in the late 1990s when the boom was gaining momentum… It was funny how the story changed: when we first left and we were doing all the travelling, our buddies were starting to make good money and they were all like ‘What are ye doing? Will ye not come home – there’s loads of money to be made. Ye’re bumming around – what the feck are ye at?’ Two years ago, the story changed completely and they’re like ‘Jesus, lads, ye done well to get out of it while ye did!’”
The two of them burst out laughing at the recognition of this and the fact that they by-passed the entire boom-bust story and it never influenced their decisions in any way.
As for French values, both men believe that there is less emphasis on money than there is in Ireland.
“I think that they place greater values on old traditions and history,” says John. “You can see it in houses. When Ireland went through that whole boom, everybody threw everything out – everything seemed to get binned.”
They both seem to be enjoying life, but is it hard work?“It is…” says Shane. “Looking in at it from the outside, we are living a bit of a dream, for sure, in where we are and what we’re doing and the two of us being buddies from day dot and running our business in the mountains. But, it’s a seasonal working bar. We’ve just come out of the busy seasonal four months. It’s long hours.”
“It’s six-day weeks with long hours,” says John. “You’re talking about days with anything from 10 to 16 hours, so you’re basically under pressure for four months; which is hard on relationships, families and just your own body at times. There comes a time when you can rest after it but it’s a little bit of a roller-coaster. Seasonal work is hard work no matter where you do it.”
There are four types of pub licence in France and Shane and John have a Category 4 licence, which means that they can serve pretty much any kind of alcohol and serve food also. Opening hours are more flexible than in Ireland but they are required to close at 2am in the county where they’re based during high season and at 1am during low season.
The summers, they say, can be just as busy as the winter, but with a much shorter season (six weeks instead of four months). They both love the summers in Samoëns, where the weather is usually sunny (26-27˚) and the mountains turn green.
Finally, is there anything that we in Ireland can learn from the French?
“Taking a bit more time out,” says Shane. “We always tend to laugh at the French and their long lunch breaks and the 35-hour week. It can be frustrating, but I think that they’ve found a happy medium; they’ve got it right. I think that the idea of working every hour to make as much money as you can is one that’s gone wrong in Ireland – we’ve seen that.”
“The Socialist mentality can also be a bit frustrating at times,” says John, “but it is for the benefit of the common people and it’s a great way to be, really. It’s definitely what they pride themselves on internationally.”
What can they learn from us?
“Drink more! And don’t moan so much. The French are the worst moaners in the world – they moan all the time.”
“Irish people go out of their way to help, but French don’t – they don’t feel the need to please in the way the Irish do. It’s a great trait in the Irish people; they’re very much out there to help and to be friendly.”
Covey’s Irish Pub, Bat La Cour, 74340 Samoëns, France.
Tel. 00 33 4 50 18 21 15
Office de Tourisme de Samoëns, 66 place de l’Office de tourisme, BP 42, 74340 Samoëns, France.
Tel. 00 33 4 50 34 40 28