Trevor Brennan, 39, is a bar-owner, businessman and former Irish rugby international, originally from Leixlip, Co.Kildare.
He played flanker and second row, and was capped just 13 times for his country, despite being widely considered one of the best Irish back-row players of his generation. In 2002 he moved to the south-western French city of Toulouse to play for Stade Toulousain.
Trevor was a particular favourite of local fans, not least for his famously physical and uncompromising style of play. He won two Heineken Cups with the club, and retired in 2007 after a controversial altercation with an Ulster rugby fan in Belfast, before going on to write his award-winning autobiography, ‘Heart and Soul.’
Let’s start at the beginning then, Trevor. How did you end up in Toulouse in the first place?
Well, I was playing rugby for Leinster in Dublin when a scout from Toulouse came to one of our matches. Actually, he’d come to check out [ex-Ireland Number 8] Victor Costello, but I was man of the match that day, playing in the back row. Next week our second row broke his leg, and when the scout saw I could play in a few different positions, that was that. I signed a two-year contract and I’ve been in Toulouse ever since.
So now that your playing career is over, what’s kept you in Toulouse?
I opened a bar here while I was still playing, and it really took off, so that was a big part of my decision to stay. The other thing is that my kids are practically French at this stage. They’re more familiar with France and the culture here than anywhere else. So, it would have been really unfair to them to up sticks and move them away from their friends and into English-speaking schools.
About the language – did it take you long to get used to it?
I’m still getting used to it. And I don’t think I’ll ever get it fully right. In fact the French themselves don’t always have it fully right. It’s a really, really tough language. Learning French was easily the biggest challenge I had when I moved to Toulouse.
Where do you always take visitors when they come to Toulouse?
The first place I take people is usually the Capitole, and the Place du Capitole. It’s beautiful, and there are some great streets around there to go for a stroll and check out the sights, with plenty of good cafés, bars and restaurants. On a sunny day I’d definitely take you up to the Victor Hugo market, where you can get fantastic fresh fruit, fresh fish and vegetables.
When friends visit from Ireland, they’re always impressed by the food in Toulouse. When you have all these restaurants using fresh ingredients straight from the Victor Hugo market, and serving steaks, foie gras, and oysters, with a nice glass of red wine – it can be a very new experience for anyone visiting from abroad.
Tell me something not many people know about Toulouse
Walking around Toulouse can be a bit like travelling through time, with all the winding old streets and places like Saint-Aubin’s church and Saint-Etienne cathedral. Some other buildings in Toulouse date back to the 9th century. Don’t get me wrong, Toulouse is also a big, very modern city, but there’s a lot of the old as well as the new here.
How do the city and the people of Toulouse compare to other parts of France?
People in Toulouse are incredibly warm. The welcome I got when I arrived here was just brilliant, whereas from my experience somewhere like Paris, for example, doesn’t have that same atmosphere. People in Paris can be a bit cold sometimes, but the people of Toulouse will talk to anyone, no matter who you are. I’d say 99% of my interactions in Toulouse have been very positive.
Now, of course rugby is a huge deal here, so that certainly helped me in the beginning. As a rugby player, you’re nearly treated like a god in Toulouse, but that basic hospitality is given to everyone. If you can’t find a taxi, someone will drive you home. You’ll get invited into a total stranger’s home for lunch – that kind of thing happens all the time in Toulouse. It’s a big city, but it feels more like a village than anything else.
What kind of advice would you give to another foreigner thinking of moving to Toulouse?
Get your job and your accommodation sorted out before you come over. Honestly, it’s so important to have that security. They don’t make those things easy in France. Some people come over, have a good time, think it’s all sunshine, then find that you need two months’ rent and a deposit up front just to get an apartment – it’s crazy! Even with all the backup I had from the club, there were moments towards the beginning when I was ready to pack up and go back home.
Really? What happened?
Well, in Ireland you’d maybe get a bit of warning and communication about bills and stuff like that. Here, though, there were a couple of incidents where I was sitting down watching TV and the electricity in the whole house just shut off. Or the water got turned off.
Tax is seriously complicated in France, too. So, all of these things can be very difficult to take when you’re not used to them.
Obviously the French love of paperwork hasn’t changed, so how did you resolve those problems?
Well, buying your own property really helps, and I’ve been lucky to be in a position to do that. But even then, it can be very difficult to get a bank loan in France. In Ireland a few years ago, you’d get 100% on a mortgage, but over here you’d have to front a serious amount of cash to get a decent loan.
Finally, Trevor – do you plan on staying in Toulouse?
Ah yeah, I’m going nowhere, at least not for the immediate future. The bar is doing really well, I just built a house here, and my kids are all well settled and starting to grow up. The wheel keeps turning. The youngest one is six years old and was born here, so we’re working on getting him French citizenship. Meanwhile the other two are getting into rugby.
What positions do they play?
Well the 11-year-old, he plays back row and second row, a bit like myself. And the 14-year-old is a prop. It’s scary, he’s already 6 ft 4 and 19 stone [193 cm and 120 kg]. So you never know, you might one day see an Irishman running on the rugby field dressed in blue.