Research Diary II: A Small Island in Low Season

Alban Bargain-Villéger

This is the second and final part of the diary I kept during a research trip to Groix island in December 2018. The first episode covered my journey to Paris and the train ride to Lorient. The following pages begin on the evening of my arrival, after a rough, though bearable, ferry ride across the Courreaux Strait.

Approaching Groix. Author’s photo.

December 9, 2018 – Port-Tudy, L’Auberge du pêcheur, 8:00pm

J. X. [my contact in Groix] is absolutely lovely; a tad territorial when it comes to local history, but very helpful. We had a drink at the Mojo, the bar located on the ground floor of the Hôtel de l’Escale, where I’m staying. My room is on the third floor, with a view on the harbour. At some point, the clinking of cables against masts lulled me into a reverie. I was on the brink of dozing off, when I thought I could make out “Jingle Bells.”

Wifi, TV, a moderately comfortable bed, an antiquated but functional shower: everything seemed fine… but for the absence of toilet paper! So, I went down to see the manager, who also happens to be the Mojo’s bartender. An epic quest for a roll of toilet paper ensued. We searched high and low, until we finally found one, in the last bedroom we checked.

Nursing a pint of Kilkenny at L’Auberge du pêcheur, a decent but almost empty pub: two bartenders, one barfly, and yours truly. As for the food, it’s not bad at all, mostly seafood. One of the bartenders informed me in passing that, as far as food is concerned, I don’t have much of a choice, as L’Auberge is the only real restaurant open after 7:00pm this time of year.

Within five minutes of our first meeting, J. X. reiterated what he had warned me about in one of his emails, namely that my intention to study the history of local “political dynamics” will probably elicit some suspicion from some of the local families. Apparently, memories of past events and clan/family feuds are still alive and well in these parts.

Port-Tudy – Harbour.

December 10, 2018 – Le Bourg (the “capital”), Crêperie des Îles, 12:40pm

Spent the morning chatting with J. X. in his study. He lent me a couple of books.

I just ordered a buckwheat crepe, along with a bowl of cider. This is exciting, as I haven’t had a real Breton crepe in ages.

Yesterday I took a nocturnal walk from Port-Tudy to Le Bourg. Not a soul in the streets. The stars were out, a real treat for an urbanite like me.

L’Auberge du pêcheur, 8:20pm

Today J. X. (aka “the Colonel”) introduced me to the mayor. By then, I was beginning to feel rather antsy, fearing I’d never have enough time to photograph all the documents I was planning to check out. Nonetheless, I chose to … humour the Colonel, … who kept insisting on “the Groisillons’ peculiar concept of time and place” (in other words, a variety of “island time”). Thus, I only started work at about 2:30pm.

The archive … consists of roughly two dozen leather-bound volumes, marriage records notwithstanding. The main challenge here will consist of deciphering the barely legible handwriting in the earlier volumes. In some cases, the ink has almost completely faded.

Excerpt (05_09_1852) from Municipal Deliberations – 04_1833-07_1860.

December 12, 2018 – Port-Tudy, Le Mojo, 12:38pm

Monday night, I had an interesting conversation with Guillaume and Marco, the two bartenders at L’Auberge. … To cut a long story short, after defeating me in two games of pool, Marco asked me about my business here. Once I had answered (as succinctly as I could), their faces lightened up, and they insisted that I meet Jo Le Port, one of the last two Breton speakers on the island. Since Guillaume was going to have him over at his place for dinner the next day, he invited me to join them.

So yesterday I headed to Guillaume’s place, in Le Bourg. There were five of us present: Guillaume, Magali (Groix’s Head Librarian), Thomas (who works at Parcabout, a treehouse hotel/adventure park located near Locmaria), Jo, and myself. After dinner, we had a “couple” of beers at L’Auberge, where we talked about Groix, its history, its politics, and played pool until 1:30am.

While copying documents is what I came here for in the first place, I find the various discussions I’ve had with the locals to be equally valuable. In just under three days, I’ve learned more about Groix and how its inhabitants view their island than I have in the last three years. These conversations helped me consider several facets of my topic that I had not really focused on, especially the centrality of enduring taboos, and the superimposition of identities, the latter revolving around the Groix vs. continent (known “Grande Terre”) dichotomy, various types of parochialisms (villages, “towns”), and allegiance to a given clan/family.

As for the two archival series I’ve been looking at, namely the “Mayor’s decrees” and the “Deliberations of the Municipal Council,” they hold quite a bit of promise. By “promise,” I mean that an estimated 5-10% of what I’ve collected so far (about 1,600 pictures) will end up being of some use to my study. This doesn’t seem like much, but in my books it’s enormous.

Le Mojo, 7:45pm

This is definitely the most unusual archive I’ve ever visited. The documents are there, stored, and accessible upon request. In that sense, Groix’s town hall does hold an archival collection within its premises. However, no detailed catalogue exists, and it took me two years to finally access the 2017 inventory. A quick look at the nine-page document made it plain that the (meagre) collection had been grossly neglected, sitting in an attic for several years, maybe even decades. The very fact that no one gave a clear answer to my query for two years testifies to a certain lack of interest in the island’s past. I suppose the municipal employees had bigger fish to fry at the time (which makes sense, given the island’s history).

In April 2018, a municipal employee eventually put me in touch with the Colonel, who got back to me in a matter of days, sending along the 2017 report. It took me another year to find the time and money for this trip. This minutely planned expedition has been rewarding so far. Although the archive is far from impressive quantity-wise, what I’ve found so far will undoubtedly prove decisive during the writing process.

December 13, 2018 – Le Mojo, 1:37pm

Only one volume of municipal deliberations left to look at! Then I’ll probably ask to see a few marriage records.

Ever since I got here, I’ve been struck by the importance of patronage networks and alliances among Groix’s clans well into the late twentieth century. I initially expected that reconstructing in detail the reticular reality that prevailed there in the 19th and early 20th centuries would be a bit of a challenge. However, I recently realized that an in-depth analysis of local socioeconomic and political networks is actually possible, based on marriage record patterns, combined with the registry of individual ship shares and property deeds (available in a rare issue of Les Cahiers groisillons I got my hands on while in the French National Library, in Paris). I’ll have to take a trip to Lorient, sometime in the coming year, to visit the Nunicipal and Navy archives, where I might find more information on Groix’s fishing boats and their crews.

L’Auberge du pêcheur, 7:45pm

I’m done! … One of the pros of mismanaged and/or tiny archives is that there’s very little red tape. No registration, no bored bureaucrat looking over one’s shoulder, no warehouse worker taking their sweet time fetching a box from the repository. For instance, accessing the French National Archives’ reading room is as time- and energy-consuming as some of the most wearisome border crossings I’ve ever experienced. In the present case, the secretaries left me alone in the wedding hall and free to go and get what I needed in the “storage area” (literally, the lowest shelf of a cupboard) whenever I wanted to. The main con is, of course, the poor state of the documents. Some are barely decipherable, and I even had to dispose (as delicately as possible) of tiny slate chips that had found their way into the bindings and between some of the pages.

December 14, 2019 – Le Mojo, 12:40pm

The Colonel gave me a ride to Port-Tudy … We spent the morning chatting about various subjects. Yesterday and today, he talked for at least two hours about his career in the army and in counterintelligence. The conversation was ignited by my noticing a bent, jagged shrapnel fragment on a shelf. He then proceeded to tell me how, while serving as a UN peacekeeper in Bosnia, he came very close to being hit by that very fragment, and how it was burning hot when he picked it up. He also told me of the time he was held prisoner by the Serbs.

In addition to the numerous anecdotes that occurred during his time near Sarajevo, the Colonel told me more about the surveillance and repression of drug traffickers and far-left groups … in the 1970s and 1980s. He was less verbose about his stint in Corsica during the last wave of separatist violence and clan wars, in the 1990s. A truly fascinating man.

To my surprise, the Colonel let me photograph a few rare documents he found or bought in the course of his own research.

Overall, this trip proved extremely fruitful. It took a toll on me, as I worked hard every day and often stayed up late at L’Auberge, where I knew I could garner information from the locals. This latter aspect of research is often overlooked, as the results are often immeasurable and unpublishable, unless one has previously gone through a rigorous ethics process and filled out the necessary forms … At the end of the day, such spontaneous, unquotable conversations can prove inspiring, in that they help the historian venture out of his/her comfort zone, and dabble, as a dilettante, in anthropology or sociology. In the present case, speaking with ten or so Groisillons provided me with fresh perspectives on the island.

Yesterday I walked through the cemetery, on my way to the west coast of the island. … I’m glad I found the time to go for a stroll and visit several villages and Locmaria’s 17th-century chapel.

December 13, 2018 – Lorient Station, 5:40pm

Napped during the crossing. Had an allongé (an Americano of sorts) in a bistro near the harbour, to perk me up before heading to the station. The train should be here soon. Although I physically left Groix, I believe I’m not quite “back” on the continent yet.

The end.

Leaving Groix.

Alban Bargain-Villéger is a sessional faculty member at York University, where he specializes in modern European history. His current research project involves a comparative study of Arran, Borkum, and Groix, three small islands off the coasts of Scotland, France, and Germany, respectively.

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