The Connemara: Irish pub culture in wine country
A slice of Ireland in the south of France
Saturday 12 March 2022
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The Connemara has been a part of the cultural landscape of Bordeaux for twenty-eight years. An Irish pub slinging thousands of barrels of beer per year, right in the heart of wine country. Over the years it has grown both in reputation and physical size, and is now a vital touchstone of difference in a city known for its dedication to the grape.
The exterior is a bright green, vibrant against the clean lines of the city’s architecture. International flags and gold harps surround the already-familiar curling font of the Connemara’s sign. There is no doubt from the outside what kind of a place this is.
Take a step through the doors and there are moments of beauty scattered throughout a vast, cavernous interior. While upstairs boasts a dedicated whisky bar, a restaurant serving fish and chips alongside burgers and charcuterie, many punters don’t make it past the ground floor. Downstairs a long wooden bar takes centre stage, with plenty of beers on offer. The floors are intricately tiled, the furniture is sturdy and no-nonsense. Staff chatter away to each other in Australian and American accents behind a typical dark wood bar. If not for chalkboards declaring the week’s schedule of evening activities in French, you could be fooled into thinking you were in any Irish pub in any part of the world.
The pub is family-owned, with Frank and Christine Jackson continuing to be involved in the management while oldest daughter Caro takes care of the day-to-day running. Their other children, Patrick and Mary, have both had multiple stints working behind the bar, as have all of their partners.
You could be fooled into thinking you were in any Irish pub in any part of the world
Frank is an Irishman, though he’s lived in Bordeaux with his French wife, Christine, for more than forty years. His speech is a pleasing mix of a broad Belfast accent and occasional French words, perfect on his character. The pair met on a management course at Trinity and All Saints Colleges in Leeds in the late seventies and fell in love almost immediately.
After a few years of teaching and running various other businesses, starting a family along the way, they hit on the idea of an Irish pub. “At one stage I had a project to set up an Irish Cultural Centre in Bordeaux, to set up dances and twinning projects, as a hobby,” remembered Frank. “Christine said to me you should do this [professionally] because you are far more interested in it than the other businesses.” It was an astute move.
Frank knew his initial plan for the ICC would not be financially viable. “I realised the best way would be to have a bar and events to finance it.” He brought a proposal to the Rotary Club, hoping for support and funding. “They said, that’ll be okay but you’ll never be able to sell that amount of beer in Bordeaux. This is a wine city.” He’s proved them wrong and then some.
The Connemara gets through around 140,000 pints in a normal year, and plenty more when they’re hosting fans of events like the World and Euro Cups. In fact, during the 2016 Euros up to 30,000 Ireland and Belgium fans celebrated in the street directly outside the pub. They wanted atmosphere and plenty to drink, and the Connemara certainly delivered. A band set up and played on the roof while thousands of football fans in the street below belted out old favourites, swigging from pints of lager and Galway Hooker.
People all over the world go to Irish bars. There are something like 80 million people outside of Ireland who claim Irish heritage. There are also those who have no Irish blood, but who appreciate the welcoming atmosphere of an Irish pub.
Though many of us would avoid them on holiday, they play an important role in the life of an expat. Irish pubs have been important to me both growing up in Bahrain and working as a TEFL teacher in Hong Kong.
There’s something about an Irish pub that offers community and solace. It’s to do with the familiarity, the knowledge that you know what to expect. Visiting an Irish pub is something you can do in most countries around the world, which means you could be anywhere. You can speak in English, eat familiar food, drink familiar beer. Even the craic will be familiar. These are invaluable for those who feel homesick or isolated.
Some are set up with a package from the Irish Pub Company, which works with Guinness to provide international establishments the same knick-knacks and decor that an unsuspicious visitor may hope to find in the authentic ones back in Ireland. Some of these pubs feel more natural than others, and we can all cite Irish pubs that fall into paddywhackery. The fact is though, that while the look of the pub does matter, it isn’t as important as the atmosphere.
I know what i want in front of a counter, so i’ll try and do it behind the counter
Irish pubs are a hub, a meeting point. In countries around the world without their own pub cultures, they have borrowed the winning formula from Ireland. They bring people together, as proven by the hundreds of weddings and births that have taken place thanks to the Connemara. Frank chuckled as he related the story of an ex-bar maid and customer bringing their five children to visit, all the way from Australia. “They wanted to show them where mammy and daddy met!”
Frank took that knowledge of what a good pub should do and applied it to the Connemara. Though he had, by then, owned and operated more businesses than most, he had no experience of working in hospitality. Nevertheless, he got funding because of his dedication to the vision. “I said, I know what I want in front of a counter, so I’ll try and do it behind the counter,” he said, straightforwardly. “I want a bar with good products and friendly staff. The basics of a good pub.”
Nearly three decades later, it’s safe to say Frank met his own criteria. And thousands upon thousands of people who are from, have immigrated to, or visit Bordeaux agree.
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