Breton Dance Comes to Belfast

Us Celts love a good shindig. Jane Coyle explores our French connection at Madden's Bar

The drinkers in Madden’s Bar in Belfast are well used to the sound of Irish traditional music floating over their pints on a Saturday evening. But on the second Saturday of every month, the music drifting down from the upstairs room is from a different part of the Celtic world altogether.

The first event organised by the Belfast branch of BreizhEire (Brittany-Ireland) took place in Madden’s in September 2011, and the organisers are hoping that their monthly Fest Deiz – Brittany’s answer to the ceilidh – will grow into a significant event in the city’s cultural calendar.

BreizhEire was set up in 2004 to promote Breton culture in Ireland, with which it has had a long, passionate but sometimes one-sided love affair. Already active in Dublin and Galway, the Belfast branch of the association was started by Amélie Rougeot and her partner, David.

Amélie, a teaching assistant at Queen’s University, comes from the Franche-Comté region of eastern France but has close family connections with Lorient on the south coast of Brittany. The naval town is the venue for France’s biggest festival, the Festival Interceltique de Lorient, which every year brings together some 600,000 Celts from all around the world, many of them musicians and dancers from Ireland north and south.

Amélie first came to Northern Ireland as an undergraduate. 'I worked as a French language assistant in Lisburn,' she says. 'I loved it and when I graduated, I decided to come back. That was six years ago and I’m still here.'

David is a traditional singer and musician, who works in IT. He is from Nantes, the former capital of Brittany, which, in an administrative reshuffle, was transferred to the Pays de Loire region in 1962, a process which many from the area would love to see reversed.

The two are part of a core of young French nationals, many of whom attend the regular French dance class in Belfast's City Church, taken by language teacher Vanessa Franchetti. One by one, they arrive at Madden's Bar for the latest Fest Diez and congregate around the roaring turf fire.

The French participants have clearly struck up a rapport with the local contingent, some of whom they met through Franchetti’s dance class or her language groups at Stranmillis College.

Among the emigrants is Thierry from Lisieux in Normandy, who stayed on in Belfast after graduating in ethno-musicology at Queen’s University almost ten years ago. A multi-talented musician and singer, his main instrument is the musette bechonnet, a traditional French bagpipe from the Auvergne.

Other members of the group include Belfast set dancing teachers Sean Leyden and Tim Flaherty and musician and dancer, Fergus Fitzpatrick, who, along with Franchetti, regularly travel to festivals in France to teach workshops in Irish set dancing.

Franchetti comes from Monaco and, like Amélie, teaches in the French department at Queen’s. A talented accordionist, she has been dancing since she was four years old and was tempted to follow a career in dance until, as she says, 'I took the sensible route and became a teacher'.

Every week, her pupils enjoy a whistle-stop tour of France through the joyous fandangos of the Basque region, the swirling bourrées of the Massif Central, as well as the hypnotic dances of Brittany.

'The Breton steps look small and simple, but the rhythms are complex. The feet and the arms don’t always move together,' Franchetti explains. 'In Brittany, everyone can dance, from the smallest child to the oldest person in the village. It’s in the blood. The whole community comes together, in a hall, in a field, in a barn. They link hands and dance. Breton music really gets inside your head and is wonderful to dance to.

'That’s very much the spirit emanating from these warm-hearted evenings, where new friendships are formed and the most unlikely of people discover that their two left feet can work quite effectively.'

'We’ve had a great response here and we are discovering all the things that Irish and Breton people have in common,' adds Amélie. ‘Everybody is welcome to come along to play, sing or join in the dancing. Ulla, the girl playing the guitar and singing this evening, is from Poland and another Polish girl is dancing!'

As if to prove the point, a curious customer drifts up from the downstairs bar. He is talking on a mobile phone, describing what’s going on. He hands the phone to Amélie and asks her to speak to the person on the other end.

'Of course,' she beams. 'Please come along, bring your instrument, if you have one. You’d be very welcome.' The customer bids farewell to his friend and tells Amélie that she’s on her way – from Coalisland.

Dance and music sessions are held every second Saturday of the month at Madden’s Bar from 5pm. On Wednesday, January 11 at 7.30pm, Belfast’s French Circle (Cercle Français de Belfast) will be celebrating La Fête des Rois (the Feast of the Kings or Twelfth Night) with a bal musette, complete with music, French dance, traditional galettes (cakes) and wine. The venue is the Dark Horse Coffee House in Commercial Court, Belfast.