If you had told Catherine Gagneux when she arrived in Galway 20 years ago that she would now be working as an honorary consul to the French Ambassador in Ireland, she would have laughed heartily at the idea. Because, similar to the majority, Ms Gagneux knew nothing about diplomatic relations and did not have any family ties to anybody working in this field. And that is why her story is all the more remarkable.
The Frenchwoman’s first dalliance with Ireland was back in her student days when she and a friend sought out a budget break, and by chance were pointed in the direction of Cork. The pair hitch-hiked around Ireland for a month taking in Galway along the journey. They were given a frank introduction to the somewhat ‘tropical’ Irish weather. “We thought the Irish summers were the same as the French, and were definitely not ready for the weather. We packed a tent and got soaked but had the most fantastic time. There was an ad on French TV a number of years ago about Ireland saying you will first come for Ireland but will come back for the Irish and that proved to be the truth. We discovered the people and fell in love with the place.’’
Ms Gagneux has a degree in languages and while obviously being fluent in English, also speaks Spanish and basic Italian. However it was not long before she realised the world of business was her real calling and she gained another qualification in this area. It was fate she was meant to return to our fair shores and some work experience at Bord Iascaigh Mhara in Dublin provided the perfect excuse. This trip combined with the earlier holiday cemented her love affair with Ireland.
Fell in love outside the Warwick
Friends in the west encouraged her to apply for a role in the newly set up APC, which later became known as Schnieder Electric, in Ballybrit. And the rest, as they say, is history. She celebrates 20 years in Galway this year. And the romantic liaison has not just been with Ireland and its people, but one person in particular, in the form of her husband Aindreas. The couple met - where many great relationships blossomed - outside the Warwick Hotel in Salthill.
Galway is a place that elicits fond memories for many. When you mention it is where you live, people’s eyes light up and this is exactly her reaction when describing why she loves the City of the Tribes. “It is not too small or too big. It is a very young, vibrant, lively city, there is so much energy about the place. When I arrived there were some people from different cultures but not half the amount that’s here now and it is a great thing to see. It is so artistic as well and I love the initiative - for a relatively small place so much happens. If you take the size of Galway and compare it to a similar town in France, I can’t think of anywhere that is as dynamic or where there is as much happening. The fact it is by the sea was such an attraction for me as well because I grew up inland in a city called Le Mans.”
It is estimated that there are currently about 1,000 members of the French community living in the local area and Ms Gagneux is very anxious to further embed those people into Galway life. She believes her adopted home, with its eclectic mix of cultures, has become very much like cosmopolitan European cities and is ideally placed to take the 2020 title of European Capital of Culture, a designation for which Galway is currently bidding.
Becoming ‘consule honoraire’
So how did this personable woman with no ties to diplomacy acquire the title of Honorary Consul? The process of renewing her French passport led to the original contact with the Embassy in Dublin. It was during this procedure that she realised there was a vacancy available for a consular agent in Galway, following the departure of the previous incumbent. She knew it was something which would appeal to her, being, very obviously, a people person. She applied for the role in a similar manner to anybody who applies for a job, sending a letter and CV and undergoing a formal interview process.
Ms Gagneux is a rugby player having lined out for Galwegians and her voice is familiar to Conancht rugby fans as she used to read out the teams for visitng French teams to the Sportsground.
She describes herself as being ‘completely gobsmacked’ to have been bestowed with this prestigious title which she officially took on last month. It is not something that she could have foreseen, and while it is early days she is thoroughly enjoying the diversity of the job. To describe the position in basic terms, honorary consuls represent the Dublin-based French Ambassador and French interests in their respective jurisdictions which are Limerick, Waterford, Cork, and Galway.
“I am not employed by the embassy, it is an honorary role so it is not paid. You do it for goodwill and I feel honoured and privileged to be given this role. I am an extension to the ambassador in the west of Ireland. I provide representation for the French community living in the area, if they have any general questions or problems, they can come to me and I will try to help.
“Part of my work also involves liaising with the local authorities, the French/Irish Chamber of Commerce and various other groups that somehow want to get involved with France or the French community. It could be on a cultural, political, or economical level - any aspect of Galway’s life where France could be represented. I believe that our cultures and countries have a lot to offer one another.’’
An example of work done by the honorary consul was organising a book of condolence in Galway in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, while Ms Gagneux will also be aiding the organisation of a number of events to celebrate this year’s 40th anniversary of the twinning of Galway with Lorient.
“There are a lot of exciting ideas on the table at the moment. I have already spoken in depth with the city council about different events and it is a case of watch this space. One of the ideas I have is to host a big French picnic. It would not cost a lot of money to organise as people could bring their own food. Something which is very popular in France in the summertime is ‘jour de feté’, different villages organise these, it’s like a big outdoor party with lights, dancing, and plenty of cheese and wine. I would love to do something like that to celebrate the anniversary twinning with Lorient. And who knows if it was successful we could make it an annual tradition.”
Who knows is right. With this ambitious, energetic, woman leading the way, anything is possible. The French community in Galway and throughout the west of Ireland has an inspirational leader at the helm.