The heritage of the Centre Culturel Irlandais
The development of a Centre Culturel Irlandais in a city of such heritage as Paris, within the magnificent building of the Collège des Irlandais, is a considerable statement of confidence about the strength of Irish contemporary culture. The story of the Irish in France reads like an adventure and clearly the Irish played their part in the history of Paris and its citizens. France and Ireland have had much in common in the past. Both countries are part of a future that is allied, and again the Collège des Irlandais through the Centre Culturel Irlandais plays its part in that future.
The brief of the Centre Culturel Irlandais is to show a wide range of art forms, including visual art, film, literature, music and combinations of all of these. Accommodation for 45 people, drawn from students, artists, writers - all benefitting from time spent in Paris - gives the Centre Culturel Irlandais a unique opportunity to develop a vibrant community where exchange and dialogue are part of daily life.
The course of Irish history has many twists and turns. The history of the Irish College in Paris is no exception and its periods of expansion and decline can be read as microcosms of domestic, French and international political, cultural and economic circumstances from its beginnings in 1578 to its restoration and rejuvenation in 2002. The College is more an institution than a building facilitating, as it did, the education of priests and students through four centuries and always contriving to achieve a reputation that ultimately defined the Collège des Irlandais as a collegiate community and corporate body that embraced spiritual, cultural and educational endeavours.
From the late 6th century Irish monks were a driving force in continental monasticism when they travelled throughout Europe as teachers, missionaries, founders and pilgrims, their Christian legacies still evident in France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. A millennium later, in the 16th century, religion was once again, though for very different reasons, a motivating factor for the movement of Irish students and clerics across Europe. Irish Catholics sought an education on the continent due to restrictions at home, a challenge which lasted almost three hundred years, during which time Irish colleges had been established in France, Spain, Spanish Flanders and Netherlands, Italy and Poland. Almost all of the continental Irish colleges have long since disappeared but the Collège des Irlandais in the French capital is once again flourishing in its new role as the first Irish government-supported Irish Cultural Centre in the world.
The Irish collegiate community developed on the continent from the 16th century motivated by institutional developments arising from the activities of the Counter-Reformation movement and later, by the restrictions placed on education for Catholics in Ireland whether for the priesthood or for other professions such as medicine, military, law and commerce. The Council of Trent (1545-’63) played a central role in the Counter-Reformation. The Council proposed diocesan seminaries as a solution to the low clerical standards and poor educational attainment of priests. The seminaries would train the clerical students and provide sound knowledge of theology for priests already ordained in Ireland. Political circumstances determined that seminaries for Irish students would have to be established outside the country, a situation that was compounded by the enactment of the Penal Laws.
These popery laws, devised by the English as part of their conquest and colonisation strategy in Ireland, consisted of a series of repressive anti-Catholic measures enacted from 1695 to 1728 and not finally repealed until Catholic emancipation in 1829. By the end of the 18th century, approximately thirty colleges had been established in university towns such as Louvain, Lille, Lisbon, Prague, Salamanca and Rome. The collegiate community in Paris established itself as the most important of the Irish Colleges abroad not only in terms of the numbers of students it accommodated, but also in its influence in France and Ireland.
Fr. John Lee of Waterford is credited with the founding of the first Irish collegiate community abroad in 1578 when six students under his tutelage entered the Collège de Montaigu in the University of Paris. They installed themselves on the rue St. Thomas and as their numbers increased they found new accommodation on the rue de Sèvres where the Irish community of students lodged itself for forty years. The rector of the University of Paris stipulated in 1623 that the College of Irish scholars in the University of Paris should bear the title "Seminary". Louis XIV, by Letters Patent from Versailles, granted the Irish College its first permanent home in 1677 on the rue des Carmes at the Collège des Lombards, an institution that had been established in 1330 to house poor Italian students that had included among its ecclesiastics Ignatius Loyola in 1528 and later, François-Xavier. The Collège des Lombards became the centre for Irish people studying in Paris over the next hundred years. The students and priests of the Collège made significant academic achievements, some of them becoming professors and rectors in colleges and universities in Ireland and France; they held numerous chairs in the University of Paris. The greatest achievement was considered to be the supply of highly educated clerics for the home mission.
|John Lee of Waterford, with a small group of Irish clerical students, set up "the Community of Irish students in Paris" at the Collège de Montaigu in 1578.
Priests returning from the continent had influence not just on religious life but on Irish life and culture generally: "Their earlier prejudices were corrected and mitigated by foreign travel. They had sometimes mixed with a society far more cultivated than an Irish Protestant country clergyman was likely to meet, and they came to their ministry at a mature age with a real and varied knowledge of the world. If they produced little or nothing of lasting value in theology and literature they had at least the manners and feelings of cultivated gentlemen and a high sense of clerical decorum." (W. Lecky, A History of Ireland in the eighteenth century, 1892).
No amount of decorum prevented the conflict that arose between the priests and students at the Collège des Lombards. The disputes, motivated for the most part by discrepancies in income between students who depended on charity and the priests who had regular incomes from Mass-stipends, had been partially resolved by the King through royal decree in 1728 when he assigned separate buildings to each community.
|Louis XIV by Letters Patent of 1677, gave the Irish possession of the Collège des Lombards, a former Italian foundation dating from 1330, together with "all the privileges, rights and exemptions enjoyed by colleges founded in favour of the French".
The next important event in the life of the Irish collegiate community occurred when ninety-eight years after its installation on the rue des Carmes, the community of students moved to the recently secured Collège des Irlandais once again in the heart of the Latin Quarter. In 1769, the prefect of the Collège des Lombards, Laurence Kelly, had acquired a town house and grounds on the rue du Cheval Vert. Following major refurbishment and extension, the building then provided accommodation for both lay and clerical students from 1775 onwards while the Irish priests stayed on at the Collège des Lombards. But the enjoyment of the Irish College on the rue du Cheval Vert was short-lived. The French Revolution in 1789 profoundly affected the course of the Irish collegiate communities in Paris. By 1793 both the Collège des Lombards and Collège des Irlandais had been seized. The latter was recovered in 1795 but the Irish never again occupied the former. The old Irish Brigade, composed of regiments in the service of France after 1691 and which had close links with the Collège where many of its soldiers were educated, was disbanded at the beginning of the French Revolution. At home, conquest and colonisation proceeded and the winds of change were blowing throughout the 18th century, changes that impacted on the Irish colleges on the continent not least on the Irish College in Paris.
The use of the Irish language declined and Irish people had begun to look to the English-speaking world as a place to emigrate.
|The chapel of the Collège des Lombards in the rue des Carmes is the only surviving part of the first Irish College. In its crypt are buried several illustrious Irishmen associated with the early days of the foundation.
Maynooth College was founded as a counter-revolutionary seminary in 1795 as a direct consequence of the suppression of the Irish College in Paris that was then responsible for the education of one third of Irish clerics on the continent. Diocesan seminaries were established throughout Ireland from the early 19th century. France as a destination had become less significant.
The Collège des Irlandais became home to a school for French boys under the direction of Abbé MacDermott from 1793 to 1802. The fact that Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Jérome’s student days there were not regarded as academically productive may have influenced his decision to issue a Consular Decree allowing the College to be reopened under very different circumstances in 1805. The decree involved the consolidation of former Irish, English and Scots foundations and colleges in Paris into the Irish College, effectively bringing an end to the occupancy by Irish priests of the Collège des Lombards. The chapel of the Collège des Lombards still exists on the rue des Carmes. It bears the name L’Eglise Saint Ephrem des Syriens and represents the only structure in Paris modelled on a building by Bernini, the great Italian architect. Its crypt is the final resting-place of many of the Irish men associated with the former Collège.
The superior of the Irish College, Jean-Baptiste Walsh, persuaded Napoleon to change the name of its street by prefectorial decree in 1807 from rue du Cheval Vert to rue des Irlandais. Napoleon’s rationalisation of the Collège des Irlandais, while extremely unpopular and resisted by all interested parties, probably ensured its ultimate survival. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries the college resumed its role as seminary to Irish – and latterly Polish – students, and survived the Franco-Prussian war and the two World Wars. As the Irish had previously sought refuge in the Collège des Irlandais and their other establishments in Paris from the 16th century, they in turn made the College available as a safe haven to others in times of need. It was converted into a hospital to accommodate three hundred French soldiers during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71; the premises served the United States army in 1945 as a shelter for displaced persons claiming American citizenship. The Polish seminary in Paris established itself in the Collège in 1945 and remained there until 1997. These stories have not yet been fully documented and remain to be told as part of the overall story of the Irish College.
|The First Consul, later Napoleon I, took a close interest in the Irish Brigade and the Collège des Irlandais. Though the Irish regiments had been disbanded in 1791, Napoleon created an Irish Legion, to which he presented its own colour.
A distinguished past
The Irish College as an institution has witnessed and experienced many changes. For the last 400 years, the institution of the collegiate community of the Irish in Paris has provided spiritual, educational and cultural leadership to Ireland, France and other international communities.
The impact of the legacy of the Collège des Irlandais has not yet been fully assessed but its significance cannot be denied. The achievements of the collegiate community, as often as not documented through anecdote and folklore as much as by the historical record, are very real.
Montesquieu observed that the Irish students arrived in Paris "taking nothing with them to meet the bare necessities of life, except a formidable talent for argument". This "formidable talent" may have been a factor in helping to keep the college in existence over four centuries for an enduring legacy must be its own survival. Even a cursory glance at its history reveals the ability of the leaders of the collegiate community to navigate the stormy waters, negotiate at the highest levels whether with Louis XIV or Napoleon Bonaparte and adapt as expedient to the changing cultural and political landscapes of Ireland and France. Nor is the story of the Irish College lacking in incident and the Champ de Mars mêlée is a good example.
The Irish students celebrated the feast of St. Nicholas in 1790 with a game of football on the Champs de Mars using the recently erected Altar of the Fatherland as the goal area. When the Altar suffered the inevitable score, the outraged French onlookers set about lynching the culprits. The ensuing mêlée would undoubtedly have led to the summary execution of the students but for the timely arrival of General Lafayette at the head of a troop from the National Guard. The incident precipitated the publication of thirty pamphlets the following day and were it not for the spontaneous rousing account, delivered by student Patrick McKenna, of Ireland’s fight for freedom and search for liberty in France, the Collège des Irlandais would have been at the least invaded by the angry mob outside, or at worst subjected to permanent closure.
The linguistic competence of clerical students in eighteenth century France must be an inspiration and model for Irish students today. Irish was a pre-requisite for entry to Irish colleges on the continent and in Bordeaux, for example, students were required to be proficient in Latin, French, Spanish, Irish and English. Competence in the Irish language was a practical necessity for priests intending to serve the pastoral needs at home. In the 18th century, Irish was still the majority language in Ireland and most of the students in the Collège des Irlandais would have been fluent Irish speakers.
The first endowment for the teaching of Irish in modern times was set up in the Collège. The fact that the publication of both Conchobhar O Beaglaoich and Aodh Mac Cuirtin’s English-Irish Dictionary in 1732 and Aindrias Ó Doinnshléibhe’s An Teagasg Críosduidhe Do Réir Ceasda agus Freagartha (The Catechism or Christian Doctrine by way of Question and Answer) in 1742, took place in Paris was due to the presence of an educated and intellectually minded Irish collegiate community. On a practical level, the Abbé Begly of that community had Irish type cast there in 1730. A second dictionary, John O’Brien’s Focalóir Gaoidhilge-Sax-Bhéarla (An Irish-English Dictionary) was published in Paris in 1768.
In 1769, as already noted, Laurence Kelly acquired a town house on the rue du Cheval Vert and transferred the ownership of the building to the community of students. It is believed that the architect of the new college was François-Joseph Bélanger, renowned for his work with Louis XVI's brother for whom he built the Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne. He constructed a fifteen bay four-storey structure with wings on the garden front, effectively converting the building from a town house to a college. Part of the original town house was retained including the 17th century staircase that can still be seen. It opened as the Collège des Irlandais in 1775.
One of the wings built by Bélanger houses the Chapel and Library. The Chapel, dedicated to St. Patrick, is regarded as the most significant architectural space within the College. It is the most highly decorated area and the quality of the paintwork and decoration, completed c. 1860, is exceptional. The statue of the Mother and Child in the niche above the High Altar may have come from Collège des Lombards. The Library, located in a vaulted room above the Chapel, has an almost purpose built austerity. It was to this library that a treasure from the manuscripts collection of Ireland, the Great Book of Lecan written between 1390 and 1418, was brought for safe keeping and there it remained for most of the 18th century before being returned safely, in 1787, to the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.
The original library collection of the Collège des Irlandais was entirely lost during the Revolution. Its current collection of 8,000 items, of which almost half date from the 15th to the 18th centuries, consists of books and manuscripts from suppressed religious establishments, particularly English-speaking ones in Paris such as, the Collège des Ecossais and the English seminary, together with works of Irish interest acquired in the 19th century. As Napoleon by his edict of 1802 had amalgamated the English and Scots colleges, so the Collège acquired items of furniture and paintings from these institutions such as the 17th century painting of the martyrdom of St. Edmund. The Library, currently a museum library and not a working library, has been completely restored.
|The Library contains many rare and valuable items not merely of Irish interest but also deriving from the collections of the other Catholic colleges in Paris before the amalgamation.
Through the vision and support of the Irish Government and the efforts of the Conseil d’Administration de la Fondation Irlandaise, major restoration and refurbishment works have been achieved to provide a new focus based on Irish culture for the Irish College in Paris. Walking along the rue des Irlandais to No. 5 and entering to discover the oasis of space and calm in the hustle and bustle of the Latin Quarter, is as much a surprise to the senses today as it must have been when the Irish first enjoyed the courtyard in 1775. They could not have imagined the profound relationship that would develop and continue into the 21st century. Throughout its history, the corporate body of the Collège des Irlandais has changed direction, shifted emphasis and found new inspiration. The beautiful restoration of the College and the establishment of the Centre Culturel Irlandais as its core function have once more placed the Collège des Irlandais in the vanguard of the development of Franco-Irish relations. .
The Collège des Irlandais and the broader topic of the Irish in France have been the subject of excellent research and publication particularly in the last thirty years. The most comprehensive works are penned by Fr. Liam Swords whose scholarly research based on original manuscripts and his experience as head of the College combine to provide first class references.
Caillet, M., 1995, Bibliothèque du Collège des Irlandais, Patrimoine des bibliothèques de France. Paris, pp. 168-169.
Mac Cana, P., 2001, Collège des Irlandais and Irish Studies. Dublin.
McDonnell, J., 2001, From Bernini to Celtic Revival: A Tale of Two Irish Colleges in Paris, Irish Arts Review, pp. 165-175.
O'Sullivan, T., (Ed.) and Devlin, B., The Irish College in Paris. Dublin.
Swords, L., 1985, Soldiers, Scholars, Priests. Paris.
Swords, L., (Ed.), 1978, The Irish-French Connection, 1578-1978. Paris.
Swords, L., 1989, The Green Cockade. The Irish in the French Revolution 1789-1815. Dublin.
The author acknowledges the generous and practical assistance of Ms. Helen Carey, Ms. Róisín Dockery and Ms. Rosetta Beaugendre, Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris.
Galway, September 2002