'I think I was always a Francophile. It was a bit strange, even as a child I always had this thing about France'

Story by Jimmy Geoghegan

Wednesday, 9th January, 2019 5:18pm

'I think I was always a Francophile. It was a bit strange, even as a child I always had this thing about France'

Laura O'Brien

During the recent ‘Yellow Vest Revolution’ when thousands of people took to the streets of Paris in protest, French leader Emmanuel Macron must have been put off his onion soup and coq au vin for a few days at least.

The protesters weren’t impressed at the way Monsieur Macron was running the country; so he had to make changes. Laura O’Brien, like many Irish people, watched events unfolding in Paris with great interest - and she was not the least bit surprised that the French should express their displeasure by taking to the streets.
Parisians, the Navan woman will remind you, have a long tradition of creating a ruckus once they feel strongly enough about something - and she should know. 
“I remember when I lived in Paris you would sometimes see these signs that would be like a manifestation of these demonstrations. I’d be going ‘oh 
no’ because it meant your street would be probably blocked while the demonstration went past and this was relatively frequent,” she says.
“For the French, there is a very conscious, perhaps more than any other European country, a very conscious awareness of this being part of their political identity. It is a sort of re-enactment of revolutionary action.

“They build the barricades, they tear up the paving stones on the streets in Paris which is a direct reference back to the revolutionary action of the 19th century. It doesn’t necessarily do any good these days, in the 19th century the idea was that you would be able to stop access to narrow streets. It’s more about the symbol of it now; it’s about making a point.”
When it is suggested to her that the Irish are more inclined to stoically accept what their government throws at them and perhaps moan and complain over a few pints instead of taking to the streets, she responds by pointing out that this country also has a rich tradition of raising the roof. 
“Ireland is a more revolutionary nation than we give it credit for. We have a long history of sedition, unrest, resistance and protest in different ways, although maybe now we are a bit more inclined to do the complaining rather than take some action.”
Few people are as qualified as O’Brien to comment on what is happening the other side of the English Channel. Now in her mid-thirties the Navan native has been studying the history of France - and the ways of the French for much of her life. She’s a fully committed, 100 per cent Francophile - and proud of it. 
As a senior lecturer in European Studies at the University of Northumbria, O’Brien makes her living writing and speaking about characters such as Louis XVI and the one and only Napoleon Bonaparte himself. 
She has spoken about aspects of French history on Myles Dungan’s ‘History Show’ on RTE Radio as well as on BBC Radio 3. 
She has also written a book - ‘The Republican Line: Caricature and the French Republican Identity 1830 - 52’ - published in 2015. The book looks at the cartoons of the time as they appeared in various publications and what they reveal about political change in a period when there was almost constant political changes. 
“I was about looking at the sort of arguments about what a republic should be and how it should be developed and what happened when they did get a republic.”
Originally from Abbeygrove in Navan, O’Brien is the daughter of Briege and Tony O’Brien, a well known supporter of the Meath football team. Laura, who has one sister Cathy recalls how, as a youngster, she became fascinated by France and the French. 
“I think I was always a Francophile. It was a bit strange, even as a child I always had this thing about France. When I was a youngster growing up, my dad was always watching the Tour de France so that was always on. I had this thing about the Tour, it was there, you could see France every summer for a few weeks. 
“I had a great interest in Lourdes as well, my granny and aunt had been there and they brought 
back a book about the place that really interested me.” 
As she grew up Laura found she loved history, encouraged all the way by a teacher in St Michael’s, Loreto, Navan - Bernie Ryan - whose approach embodied the old saying by WB Yeats that education “is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” 
“Miss Ryan was one of those very encouraging teachers who was incredibly important during my school days. I was always a child who loved history, there are lots of kids who love history, but she was always very encouraging and supportive.

“We would have studied things like the American and French revolutions but she also did lots of stuff on local history as well. She was always reminding us that we lived in an historic part of the country; that we lived in a location where there was a lot of history and I think that makes you very conscious of your place in the bigger stage; your place in the world and European history.” 
Laura O’Brien went to UCD and completed her degree in history before going on to do a PhD. At college she received further affirmations from members of the teaching staff that she had what it took to become a historian.
She steadily improved her French and received the support of a Research Fellowership to study at the Sorbonne. She describes her time living in Paris as “amazing years.”
Her eyes light up when she talks about how looking through 19th century French newspapers and documents, she might uncover some piece of knowledge, not previously well known, about the period - like a gold digger sifting through sand and finding a gem or two. 
She picked up teaching hours in UCD and Trinity College, Dublin; experience that helped her land a job in the University of Sunderland before moving on to Northumbria. 
Married to non-fiction writer Karl Whitney who wrote a book ‘Hidden Dublin,’ Laura has started work on what she hopes will end up as her second publication. 
It’s a look at how our old friend Napoleon Bonaparte has been portrayed over the years in plays and films. 
“I once read, and I don’t know if it is true, that there are more screen portrayals of Napoleon than there are portrayals of Jesus on screen. That’s something that makes sense because people are moving away from doing religious films to more historical films. 
“I think there is a market for such a book because Napoleon is one of those figures who attracts attention. When you mention Napoleon people tend to be interested and listen. It’s a new departure for 
me but that’s what keeps you 
going, a new thing, a different approach.
“It says something about the French nation and how they see themselves through this person, how they understand history through this person.” 
France and the French has long held a fascination for the Navan woman. It continues to do so, especially when the whiff of revolution is in the air - as it was when the Yellow Vests were on the rampage through the streets of Paris.