Take a look inside the French ambassador's 19th century house with 20 rooms
There has always been a love affair between the Irish and the French,especially on the Irish side. We consider everything French to be the epitome of glamour: French couture, French cuisine, Champagne — no Italian Prosecco or Spanish cava will ever beat the fizz of France.
Yes, we love all things French, and we’ve embraced those we can afford.
Fifty years ago, we didn’t have croissants with our coffee, now, for many, they’re de rigueur; a weekend ritual.
In fairness, the French have been generous in response — apart, perhaps, from Thierry Henry and that goal. They did, after all, come to our aid during the Rebellion of 1798, until the winds which brought them here changed and blew them back home again.
Once more, winds of change are bringing the Irish and French closer, as Britain, with Brexit looming, seems set to abandon its former friend.
The Ambassador of France in Ireland, His Excellency Stephane Crouzat, appointed in June 2017, is very enthused about creating greater links between Ireland and France, especially in light of Brexit. “It’s a complicated issue. We’d rather it never happened. But now that it is, in all probability, happening, it does open up opportunities for our two countries. Geographically, France will be Ireland’s closest European neighbour,” he says, adding, “It’s an exciting time. It’s not really business as usual; we have to rethink our bilateral relationship.”
Stephane may have taken up his ambassadorial position just over a year ago, but he has something of a headstart in terms of knowledge of Ireland, thanks to a family link forged back in the 1970s. “Part of my family is from Toulouse in the south of France, the other part is from Poland, that’s where I have the Irish connection,” he says, going on to explain that his maternal grandfather was an officer in the Polish army during World War II, and when he left Poland to fight abroad, the rest of the family left for London. Stephane’s mother ended up meeting a Frenchman there — Stephane’s father — and moved to France with him, while her brother headed for Ireland. “My uncle, Matt Smolenski, moved to Ireland in the 1970s,” Stephane notes. “He was offered a job teaching singing at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. I came as a child and visited him in Tallaght, and went camping in Connemara. I have fond memories of Ireland.”
Stephane was born in Paris and reared there; his father died when he was just three, and his mother opted to continue life with Stephane, an only child, in the French capital. “She had a nice life,” he notes.
After his baccalaureat (an examination to qualify for university), Stephane started to study humanities, but switched to political science soon afterwards, with a view to joining the French Foreign Office. He has mainly worked abroad, with intermittent stints back in Paris.
He says he has found something to enjoy about each of the countries he has worked in. “It’s difficult to try and set a hierarchy of your preferences; every destination is so different. The first foreign country I lived in was Indonesia when
I was 23 or 24. I did my military service there, I had a Peace Corps-type posting,” he says. “I’d never been to Asia, and I was in the embassy in Jakarta. I was gobsmacked, it was an incredible experience.”
After that, he moved to Edinburgh in Scotland, where he ran the French Cultural Institute. “It was wonderful for many reasons — the incredible links between the Scots and the French; the Auld Alliance of 1295,” he notes with a laugh, alluding to the military and diplomatic alliance of those two countries the aim of which was to curtail English expansion. He adds: “And having two of my children there, that was special.”
Stephane met his American wife, Jennifer, when they were both students of political science. They have three children — Paul Louis (24), Zoe (21), and Marc (13).
After Scotland, he was posted to Warsaw, and because of the Polish family connection, that was special.
“It’s a fascinating culture, and also, on a personal level, I have some relations there, and I was very happy to get to know them better,” Stephane says, adding that Warsaw was followed by New York. “That was completely different,” he says. “Such an energetic city. I was working at the UN, it was exhilarating and infuriating and, at the same time, very, very exciting.”
It was then back to Paris for six years, before Stephane’s posting to Dublin, his first as an ambassador.
He wasn’t the first of his immediate family to come here; his daughter Zoe opted to do her primary degree at Trinity. “She decided to go to Trinity long before I was posted here. We’d been to Ireland to visit my late uncle Matt — he died in 2014 — and we visited the Trinity campus at the time. Zoe decided she liked it, she applied, and got the results to study here. She loves it. She will be finishing next year,” he enthuses.
It seems to suit his wife and younger son Marc, too (Paul Louis studied in Canada, and is working there). Jennifer is director of research at the Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicale, and commutes every other week to Paris, while also maintaining an office at the residence.
Marc attends the Lycee Francais d’Irlande (French secondary school) in Clonskeagh, and is studying piano at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, his uncle’s old stomping ground.
Since he arrived here, Stephane has embraced all the local amenities. “It’s really spectacular to have a capital city only half an hour away from the mountains. It’s a six-minute run from the residence to the beach at Sandymount.
I can go and swim at the Forty Foot or at Seapoint; otherwise, there’s a fantastic pool at UCD,” he offers.
Stephane also likes to unwind by playing the piano, which he’s done since his youth. “I loved playing, but I was lazy,” he notes. “I wish I’d studied more in my teens; it’s a crucial time.”
Nonetheless, he’s good enough to enjoy playing and often sits at the piano for an hour or so, particularly at weekends. He says the piano in the residence, an old Erard, is very good. It dates from the early 20th Century, around the same time that the French government bought the house on Ailesbury Road.
The house, which dates from the late 19th Century, differs significantly from the other houses on the road in that it is larger, and is detached.
Designed by architect Alfred Gresham Jones, who also designed the National Concert Hall, it was built in 1883 for a Donegal landowning family called the Bustards. Apparently no expense was spared in the construction and layout, with the cost estimated at £40,000, the equivalent of over €5m today.
The house consists of 20 rooms over three storeys and, despite being built at a time when light was rarely taken into consideration, it has over 60 windows and is full of light.
It was bought by the French state in 1930, and while it was substantially refurbished, it is said to remain remarkably intact in layout and detailing.
The entrance hall and reception rooms are very grand, very elegant, and fitted out with some beautiful French furnishings, ideal for the kind of entertaining necessary for an ambassador.
Stephane would like to change some of the paintings and get some contemporary works on the walls. “I would love to hang a Sean Scully,” he notes, name-checking the Irish-born, New York-based contemporary artist.
At a time when clear communication between countries is so important, it’s good to have such a fluent and eloquent envoy from France. Stephane is passionate about work as a diplomat in general. “It’s the variety that is so exciting,” he says. “You’re working on bilateral issues, working in different countries, in very different settings; that keeps the mind active.” And he’s equally fired up about his role as ambassador to Ireland in particular. “It’s important to show our solidarity with Ireland on the Brexit issue, how important it is to keep a seamless border,” he says. “We want to make this happen, we want a very close-knit group of 27 countries.”
The residence will be open to the public for Open House Dublin 2018 on Saturday, October 13, from 11am to 5pm. It’s open to all on a first-come, first-serve basis. Open House Dublin 2018 is Ireland’s largest architecture festival, and runs from October 12-14, see architecturefoundation.ie/openhouse
Sunday Indo Life Magazine