Trad/roots: Lucie Périer's talent taps into legacy of postwar Irish hospital in Normandy

The town of Saint-Lô in Normandy was the scene of an unusual and little-known postwar link between Ireland and north-west France, a link that decades later has borne fruit in the form of the formidable musical talents of Lucie Périer

Lucie Périer whose parents organised Irish traditional music and dance events in France in the 1990s
Lucie Périer whose parents organised Irish traditional music and dance events in France in the 1990s

SAINT-Lô is a town located in Normandy, France. During the Second World War it had become German headquarters and in 1944 was completely wiped out by US bombings.

Ireland, which had remained neutral during the war, decided to help France after the bombings and Saint-Lô was selected to host the Irish Red Cross Hospital that would heal and rescue survivors of bombings. The hospital opened on April 9 1946. Among the doctors and nurses, was Samuel Beckett, working as a translator and store-keeper.

The Irish brought life back to Saint-Lô, they were remembered as kind and joyful people, and their help did not cost a penny.

Only two years after the hospital opened, the Irish were forced to go back to Ireland, history faded and an American Hospital was set up in 1950. Fifty years later, in 1995, Jacqueline Fontanel and Christian Périer, started to organise Irish music, dance workshops and sessions in Saint-Lô.

With the help of a Mme Théot, a 70-year-old lady who had never forgotten the Irish and who was determined to honor their memory, Jacqueline and Christian set up a non-profit organisation the named Shanaghy after the Gaelic word seanchaidhe, the story-teller, the bearer of memory.

For more than 20 years, Shanaghy has worked to promote Irish culture in Saint-Lô in memory of the Irish Red Cross Hospital, through music, dance, conferences and lectures, film projections, etc.

In 2016 Saint-Lô celebrated, thanks to Shanaghy, the 70th anniversary of the Irish Red Cross Hospital through a week-long festival, ending with a big night of music and dance with flute player Lucie Périer and Alicia Ducout on harp, and the Roazhon Ceili Band.

Today, Lucie – Christian and Jacqueline’s daughter – is making huge waves playing traditional Irish music as well as Breton and French folk music for dancing on her silver Boehm flute.

Growing up, she says, “all this music just made me want to dance all around the place".

"And, traditional music is, whether you like it or not, linked with dancing," she affirms. “To me, the study of music began with the study of the dance. It helps you fully understand – in your body, not just in your mind and intellect – the rhythm, the groove, the structure of the tunes."

However, there was a piano at home and, aged seven, Lucie started to play along with her favourite tape at that time: Gilles Poutoux (box) and Jean-Christophe Lequérré (piano).

“I would spend hours and hours trying to find the chords. That's when my mom put me to piano lessons, but it did not last long. Then I tried the box, and the fiddle, and finally the flute.

"My parents were my first teachers. Daddy taught me my first tunes [Jessica's Polka and The Strayaway Child, to begin with]. Then the musical friends quickly took over, and that was the best training ever, having all these people sharing their love and passion for music in a very simple way with their best friends' daughter – that was pure magic.”

Lucie also took lessons with jazzman and saxophone player Jean-François Millet and spent three years in a classical music school and passed the exams to enter the Conservatoire de Caen, but chose not to study as she was a lot more attracted to the traditional way of learning music.

With both Irish and Breton musical traditions very strong in the family, how does she compare the two styles? Are they like two accents of the same language?

“I do not compare Breton and Irish traditional music,” says Lucie. “It's always been clear for me that these two genres are two different languages, very specific in their own way.

"The dances are totally different, and so are the rhythm, the phrasing, the ornamentations... And actually, some Breton tunes and dances have more striking similarities with Middle-Eastern music and dance than with Irish or French traditional music.

“Breton and Irish trad music do have something in common, like most traditional music from all parts of the world – the soul of a true cultural identity on the one hand and their geographic location on the other hand.

“This is western traditional music we talk about, so of course, you find some similarities, in the structure of the tunes for example [AA-BB], the scales [but not the modes!] or the context of the tunes [work music, dance music, songs about wars and exiles...]."

I ask Lucie where she played her music early on and she says the place was “with my dad.”

“As soon as I could 'properly' play a dozen or so tunes, my dad would take me everywhere to play along with him, which meant sessions in pubs, gigs and festivals.

“The first significant 'on-stage' experience was during July 2000 when my father and I went to play for a world music festival in Bourg Saint-Maurice [in the French Alps]. There I discovered music and dance from all over the world and got to know wonderful musicians and dancers.

"Later on I made my own way playing at sessions but also for bals folks [evenings of traditional modern folk dancing] and festou-noz [night festivals] mostly with Les Round'Baleurs and Trio Tarare for over a decade.

Then, in April, 2017, Lucie and husband Nicholas Latouche decided to leave France and travel to the other end of the world, to New Caledonia, hundreds of miles off the Australian coast “to see what was happening beyond our borders”.

“I remember saying 'OK, let's just go there a couple of months, see what happens, and then we go back to France and Ireland'. In the end, the journey lasted a whole year.

“The two of us were lucky enough to play quite extensively in Nouméa, the island’s capital and more particularly at the Musée de Nouvelle-Calédonie where we were able to introduce Irish traditional music and dance and share beautiful musical moments with all the communities that shape the face of New-Caledonia,” she says.

The couple also set up L'École Anémochore to introduce private flute lessons in Nouméa


"It was pretty successful, and my husband Nicolas also started to give guitar and box lessons," she tells me.

Now back in France, Lucie and Nicolas plan to set up a place where musicians, singers, and dancers can discover, listen, learn and practice all kinds of traditional music and dance (with a special focus on Irish music, but not solely).

On top of that, Lucie has joined with Jérôme Marchand on cello, Yvonick Fortin on guitar to form Keveiled (Keveil is the Breton for friend or friendship) to “fully break our inner glass ceilings as far as music was concerned".

She says: "We trusted each other, and all of us took the risk to play this kind of music. The cello was the spine that let the flute sing and lead the melody, while the guitar enhanced the rhythm of the tunes.

"Making up our music was like writing poetry. We explored different musical shades, colours and moods to tell our own story about Breton music and dance."

:: You can listen to Lucie and her various collaborators at soundcloud.com/lucie-perier