Inaugurated in 2002, the Centre Culturel Irlandais is situated in the Collège des Irlandais, or Irish College, formerly home to a large collegiate community of Irish priests, seminarians and lay scholars whose origins stretch back to 1578.
The Irish collegiate community developed on the continent of Europe from the 16th century onwards motivated by Counter-Reformation requirements to set up Catholic seminaries and later, by the restrictions placed on education for Catholics in Ireland by the Penal Laws. 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 Irish College in Paris became the most important, 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. Louis XIV granted the Irish community its first permanent home in 1677 on the rue des Carmes at the Collège des Lombards. Over the next century, the students and priests held numerous chairs in the University of Paris as well as in colleges and universities in Ireland; they swelled the numbers of the Irish Brigade, composed of regiments in the service of France; and guaranteed a supply of highly educated clerics for the home mission, which was considered to be their greatest achievement.
However, no amount of decorum prevented the conflict that arose between the priests and students at the Collège des Lombards, motivated for the most part by discrepancies in income. In 1769, their prefect Laurence Kelly, acquired a town house and grounds on the rue du Cheval Vert. Following major refurbishment and extension of the building, the new Collège des Irlandais came into being, providing accommodation for both lay and clerical students from 1775 onwards; the Irish priests stayed on at the Collège des Lombards. But the enjoyment of the Irish College on, what was then, the rue du Cheval Vert was to be 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 original library collection of the Irish College was entirely lost during the Revolution. The old Irish Brigade was disbanded at the beginning of the French Revolution. At home, Maynooth College was founded as a seminary in 1795 as a direct consequence of the suppression of the Irish College in Paris. Diocesan seminaries were established throughout Ireland from the early 19th century. France as a destination had become less significant.
In 1805, Napoleon issued a Consular Decree consolidating the former Irish, English and Scots foundations and colleges in Paris into the Irish College. Precious books, manuscripts and paintings came to the Collège des Irlandais from these suppressed seminaries. Two years later, in 1807, Napoleon was persuaded to change the name of the street from rue du Cheval Vert to rue des Irlandais.
For most of the 19th and 20th centuries the college resumed its role as seminary to Irish - and latterly Polish – students. It survived the Franco-Prussian war, during which it was converted into a hospital to accommodate three hundred French soldiers, and the two World Wars. 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 des Irlandais in 1945 and remained there until 1997.
The Irish government announced initial funding for the restoration of the building in 2000 (the final sum being €14.5 million) and expressed the desire that it become a major cultural and educational centre, a flagship building in the heart of Europe, providing a vision and profile of the personality of Ireland.
The inauguration of the Centre Culturel Irlandais in 2002 once more placed 5 rue des Irlandais in the vanguard of the development of Franco-Irish relations.
Listen here to Liam Chambers’ lecture From Restoration to Revolution: The Irish Colleges in Paris, 1660-1818
In 2012, the Centre Culturel Irlandais commissioned Liam Chambers to write The Irish Colleges in Paris, 1578 - 2002: History. This work of authority is available to read and download.
A selection of other publications is available at the Médiathèque:
Patrick Boyle, The Irish College in Paris from 1578-1901 (London, 1901).
Maurice Caillet, ‘La bibliothèque du Collège des Irlandais et son fonds des livres anciens’ in Mélanges de la Bibliothèque de la Sorbonne, 2 (1991), pp 151-63.
Proinsias MacCana, Collège des Irlandais Paris and Irish studies (Dublin, 2001).
Joseph McDonnell, ‘From Bernini to Celtic Revival: A Tale of Two Irish Colleges in Paris’ in Irish Arts Review, 18 (2002), pp 165-175.
Thomas O’Connor, Irish Jansenists, 1600-70: Religion and Politics in Flanders, France, Ireland and Rome (Dublin, 2008)
Liam Swords (ed.), The Irish-French connection 1578/1978 (Paris, 1978).
Liam Swords, Soldiers, scholars, priests: a short history of the Irish College (Paris, 1985).
Liam Swords, The green cockade: the Irish in the French Revolution 1789-1815 (Dublin, 1989).