“An Introduction to Lorient” by S.M. O’Connor

Located roughly at the center of the southern coast of Brittany, which is a peninsula in northwestern France, Lorient is a small port-city at the confluence of the Scorff River, the Blavet River, and the Atlantic Ocean.  The Rade de Lorient (Bay of Lorient) is the mouth of the Blavet River and the Scorff River in the Atlantic Ocean.  [Before dikes were built in 1967, the Ter River joined them.]  The landscape around Lorient is shaped by the Blavet and Scorff river valleys.  Residents of Lorient are called Lorientais. Today, Lorient is part of the Morbihan “department” of Brittany and is home to a television station that covers Morbihan. [The Fifth Republic of France is a unitary state, which means provincial and municipal governments only have legal powers delegated by the central government.  The provinces are called administrative regions.  The French Revolutionaries subdivided the Ancien Régime[1] provinces (which were mainly duchies with a few principalities and some large counties that were not inside duchies for good measure) into départments that were named after geographical features like mountains and rivers.  The départment of Morbihan was named after Mor bihan, which is Breton for “little sea,” the little sea in question being the Golfe du Morbihan.[2]  Today, the departments fill roughly the role in French political life that counties do in the U.S.A.  They are above the communes (municipalities) and below the administrative regions, which is what the Fifth Republic of France calls the old provinces.]  The Bretons speak a form of Brythonic Gaelic like Welshmen, Cornishmen, and Manxmen, but just as the English government forced conquered Celtic populations to speak the English language, the French government forced the Bretons to speak the French language.  [Cornish Gaelic and Cumbric, which was spoken in the Lowlands of Scotland, are both dead Brythonic languages.]  The name Lorient is not example of Breton Gaelic.  Rather it is a corruption of the French phrase L’Orient, as in “the Orient.”

By 2009, the population of Lorient as a commune (municipality) had reached 57,812, while the population of the larger intercommunalité (intercommunality) was 191,716.  Lorient is the largest city in Morbihan.  It is home to a television station that covers Morbihan.  However, the 2,000-year-old city of Vannes is the préfecture (administrative capital of Morbihan).  Lorient also lies within the Diocese of Vannes.  The Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Vannes (Cathedral of Saint Peter of Vannes), also known as Vannes Cathedral, is the seat of the Bishops of Vannes.

Although Lorient is no longer home to a French naval base, the French defense contractor D.C.N.S. – which replaced the government-owned shipyard (known as the Arsenal de Lorient) – still builds warships there. Commando Marine (naval commandos), the French equivalent of U.S. Navy SEALs (Sea, Air, and Land teams) and British Special Boat Service (S.B.S.) train at Lanester, a base across the Scorff River from Lorient.  Today, the Lorient region is known for having five ports. Port de Pêche is the fishing harbor.  The Bassin à Flot harbor is at the heart of Lorient.  In addition, there are marinas for passenger ships, boats, and yachts, at Kernevel, Port-Louis, Gâvres, and Guidal.  As of 2010, the Keroman fishing port was second only to Boulogne-sur-Mer as the most successful fishing port in terms of tons of fish caught and brought back to port, and it was the most successful in terms of the monetary value of the fish.  The Kergoise cargo port is the busiest cargo port in Brittany.  There are wharves on the Scorff River for warships (mainly frigates) built by D.C.N.S.  In addition, there is now an 800-meter-long (2,600-foot-long) dock inside the old Keroman submarine base for competitive sail boats.  Nearly half a million people sail every year to the islands of Groix and Belle-Ȋle-en-Mar.  In addition to the five ports of Lorient, the city also has a train station, Gare de Lorient, and there is an airport nearby, Lorient South Brittany Airport.

Gâvres is a separate commune from Lorient.  Barbour noted that one could follow “little signs” through the “labyrinth of little streets” to reach the Tumulus of Goërem, “a neolithic burial site now indecorously squeezed between two townhouses.  The explanatory panel describes it as ‘the most beautiful example preserved of a megalithic sculpture with a right-angled corridor,’ but to say that this neglected site has been preserved is a bit on the cheeky side.”[3]  He recommended that visitors who wanted to explore the 3,000-year-old burial chamber bring (electric) torches, meaning flashlights.[4]

Lorient is home to Brittany’s largest international pan-Celtic gathering, along the lines of the old Celtic Fest Chicago, which was formerly held in Grant Park.  The Festival Interceltique (Interceltic Festival) draws members from the remaining tribes of the Celtic nation: Irishmen and Scots from Ireland, Scotland, Australia, and Canada; Manxmen from the Isle of Man; Cornishmen from Cornwall; Welshmen from Wales; and Celts from Galicia and Asturias in Spain; as well as Bretons from other parts of Brittany.[5] Insofar as I am aware, Walloons from Belgium and Celtic Americans have not attended the Festival Interceltique. Approximately 800,000 people attended the 40th annual Festival Interceltique.  Polig Monjarret (1920-2003) was the founder of the Festival Interceltique.  Since 2008, there has been a sculpture of him sitting on a bench by Bernard Potel in Polig Monjarret Square.

There is a ferry service between Lorient and the island of Groix.  Residents of Groix are called Groisillons.[6]  Locals alternatively call the largest community on Groix Le Bourg and St.-Tudy, although it is also called Groix on maps.[7]  The community is named after Saint Tudinus – also known as Saint Tegwin, Saint Thego, and Saint Tudy – a Breton saint who founded monasteries in the Breton départment of Finistère and Cornwall.[8] The nearest port to this town is Port Lay, which is in a small inlet.[9]  Visitors to the island should not expect to see any sign of the Viking burial mound that contained a man, a child, a dog and other animals, which were burnt in a Norse longship.[10]  The human and animal remains were sent, along with arms, utensils, and jewelry to the Musée des Antiquités Nationales (Museum of National Antiquities) near Paris.[11]  In living memory, sailors at sea were able to see the Grand Menhir, a schist monolith, but now it is engulfed in scrub bush.[12]  There are more megaliths and a prehistoric campsite along the southern coast of Groix.[13]  Scuba divers go to Port-St. Nicholas to see sights such as the U-171, which was sunk with all hands in 1942.[14]  Legend has it that the dolman near Port-St. Nicholas is really l’Ankou, the Breton version of the Grim Reaper.[15]  On the western side of the island, Port Mélin has a status that honors the poet Yan-Ber Kalloc’h (1888-1917), a native son of Groix whom the Bretons knew as Blemoir, who died in defense of France during the First Great World War.[16]  Geologists are drawn to the schist rocks, some of which have quartz veins, at Pointe des Chats (Cat’s Point), at the southern tip of the island.[17] The beaches on the eastern coast are of visual interest because they are red, thanks to garnet dust, but they are also small.[18]  The largest beach on the island, the Plage des Grands Sables (The Great Sands Beach), constantly moves.[19]  In Brittany, Philippe Barbour noted Le Méné, a hamlet near the harbor, was “a good place to see the traditional architecture of Groix.”[20]  After the beaches, the greatest tourist attraction on Groix is Trou de l’Enfer (Hellhole), a hole that goes through a cliff face.[21]  On a clear day, one can see through the hole all the way across the southern end of the island, from one lighthouse to another.[22]



[1] The French Revolutionaries referred to the old order before the French Revolution (1789), that is to say the socio-political regime and society of the Kingdoms of France and Navarre under the House of Valois and House of Bourbon, as the Ancien Regime, if not French society across the whole of French history, from the time the Franks conquered Gaul until 1789: the Frankish kingdoms under the Merovingians and the Carolingians, and France under the Capetians, the House of Valois, and the House of Bourbon.

[2] Philippe Barbour, Brittany. Updated by Robert Harneis.  London: Cadogan Guides (1998, 2000, 2005), p. 341

[3] Philippe Barbour, Brittany. Updated by Robert Harneis.  London: Cadogan Guides (1998, 2000, 2005), p. 348

[4] Barbour, p. 348

[5] Barbour, p. 346

[6] Barbour, p. 350

[7] Barbour, p. 351

[8] Barbour, p. 350

[9] Barbour, p. 351

[10] Barbour, p. 350

[11] Barbour, p. 350

[12] Barbour, p. 351

[13] Barbour, p. 351

[14] Barbour, p. 351

[15] Barbour, p. 351

[16] Barbour, p. 351

[17] Barbour, p. 352

[18] Barbour, p. 352

[19] Barbour, pages 349 and 352

[20] Barbour, p. 352

[21] Barbour, p. 351

[22] Barbour, p. 351

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