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.
In 1769, their prefect Laurence Kelly, acquired a townhouse 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 1776 onwards; the Irish priests stayed on at the Collège des Lombards.
Counter-Reformation requirements to set up Catholic seminaries and restrictions placed on education for Catholics in Ireland by the Penal Laws meant that 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.
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.