Irish culture shines in the city of light
WATCHING HUNDREDS of people gather in the magnificent courtyard of the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris on Tuesday evening for an all-star 10th-anniversary reading of the poetry of WB Yeats – one of those familiar early-autumn evenings when the old Irish college on Rue des Irlandais hums with big-night revelry – it was tempting to think that it was always going to turn out like this.
But, in truth, when the newly restored Centre Culturel Irlandais opened, 10 years ago, it was partly an act of improvisation. There was no blueprint, no model – only the ambition, as set out in 1989 by the late Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich. He envisioned that the 18th-century building would one day become “an Irish cultural centre with library, language training, student exchanges – in short, a meeting place where Ireland will meet France and through France the wider Europe.”
“When I came over, the Irish college presented the possibility of an Irish cultural centre that was quite innovative,” says Helen Carey, director of the centre from its opening, in 2002, to 2007. It had accommodation, a library, exhibition and conference spaces and a chapel, and it served at once as a haven for Irish artists and as a showcase for their work.
“So in many ways it could integrate in Paris. It could be part of a place on an ongoing basis, and that wasn’t the model that cultural centres abroad, whether you’re talking about the Alliance Française or the Goethe-Institut or any of those, followed.”
The building had been closely connected to Ireland for centuries. As the Collège des Irlandais it was a place of refuge for young Irishmen forced to emigrate to study for the priesthood during Penal times. It survived the ravages of revolution, shelling during the Franco-Prussian War, the tide of anti-clerical sentiment in the early 20th century and the Nazi occupation of Paris.
After the war it was inhabited by Polish priests who had survived the Dachau concentration camp, but gradually, in the 1980s and 1990s, the Irish claimed it back. Driven by figures such as Fr Breandán Ó Doibhlin, the longtime rector of the college, the former Irish ambassador Patrick O’Connor and many others, the idea of a cultural centre had circulated for years, but it wasn’t until 1999 that the government committed €10.5 million to the restoration and the project was set in motion.
“It was a bold, visionary idea – to establish a permanent public presence for Irish culture in France,” says Fiach Mac Conghail, who was appointed by the Department of Foreign Affairs to manage the project until 2002, and is now director of the Abbey Theatre. “There was growing policy awareness in government of how important culture could be in strengthening links between nations.”
Yet for all the support the centre receives from the State, and its close collaboration with the Irish Embassy, it has retained a strong sense of independence in its 10 years. “It undoubtedly helps with the provision of culture for official Ireland, but it enjoys an independence from that which makes it extremely valuable,” says Carey. “So you don’t have a programme that’s promoting an Ireland, Inc, or a sort of received wisdom. There have been many exhibitions that would have been quite pointed about modern Ireland and how it was going.”
Both Carey and Sheila Pratschke, who has been director since 2007, describe the centre as a work in progress, a place of constant renewal and reinvention. Rich, eclectic programming has become its hallmark. Take the anniversary celebrations. On Tuesday, less than a week after 1,500 people turned out for a raucous jazz-and-wine birthday party, a huge audience gathered to hear September 1913 and The Lake Isle of Inisfree resound around the college on an evening of Yeats readings, in tribute to the late author Josephine Hart, by Bob Geldof, Sinéad Cusack, Marianne Faithfull and Charlotte Rampling.
In the background was Patrick OReillys installation House, a giant doll’s house illuminated in pink; inside, visitors took in the current exhibition on Yeats and his work. The schedule over the coming weeks includes the unmissable Poésie et Prose literature festival, two plays, classical recitals, film screenings and a traditional-music night.
Over six months next year, for example, conventional art exhibitions will be replaced by ceramics, furniture and engineering. The latter will focus on the work of Peter Rice, the visionary structural engineer and writer who was centrally involved in the construction of Sydney Opera House and the Pompidou Centre, in Paris. “There’s that scope to sometimes do the unexpected,” says Pratschke.
That sense of renewal is also due to the continual flow of artists and students passing through the doors, finding sanctuary in a corner of the Latin Quarter where the Irish have found it for centuries.
“Paris is not the biggest international city, but it is very sophisticated and confident and not afraid of words like ‘artistic’ or ‘intellectual’ or ‘philosophical’,” says Pratschke. “A lot of people have said to me that it just gives them a blast of fresh air, a burst of energy, a sense that, ‘Yes, what I do is worth it, and I can return with a little bit more faith in myself and what I do.’ ”
What visitors think
I wrote the second half of a novel there last October on a month’s bursary/ residency. It’s a place to show work, perform music, read poems, put on plays. There is an air of quiet, confident industry about the place that hundreds of artists have found affirming and supportive. There is, too, the sense of recuperating a cultural identity, an affirmation in communion with French artists and audiences that has fed into the confidence Irish artists need to confront and face down economic reductionism. Each time I visit the centre I bring away a sense, shared with thousands by now, of pride in so many of my fellow artists: disciplined, dedicated, true ambassadors of the Irish heart and mind.
I was privileged to spend three months in the centre in 2009, attempting to fuse the music of Jean-Phillippe Rameau into a new version of Phaedra, with words by Hilary Fannin. There is an atmosphere of calm industry, the staff are incredibly kind and knowledgable, and the discovery that both Rameau and Racine are buried within minutes of the centre I saw as a little benediction on the project. I worked a lot in the magnificent baroque chapel. The highlight of my stay was a presentation of work in progress, and hearing Irish musicians belting out my version of Rameau across a sunny courtyard, with the birds tweeting along in French.
MINES ADVISORY GROUP, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO
I discovered the centre through its annual language-scholarship programme, a fantastic opportunity to learn French through an intensive course in Paris. My job involves communicating with rural communities in the French-speaking Democratic Republic of Congo about the dangers of weapons, ammunition and landmines abandoned by soldiers after the horrendous four-year Congolese war. Clear communication is essential. I also met a wealth of people: painters, musicians, lawyers, businesspeople. I found myself in a creative learning environment which facilitated dynamic discussions, debates and sharing of ideas.
A trip to Paris to become engrossed in Beckett might seem obvious, given the artist’s years of residence there, but I was reminded that in encountering his shadowy traces there I was experiencing the intensely creative nature of the Irish experience of travel, or even ‘exile’. Beckett may have found in the Paris of his time an artistic scene more capable of appreciating his creations, but he also added to that inspiring entity of overseas Ireland. For me, the thrilling epitome of experiencing the complexity of the two Irelands was the day I walked down to Beckett’s old flat. Looking into the foyer, scanning the postboxes of residents, my eyes fell on one, larger than the others and, eloquently and appropriately, set apart: ‘Beckett’.
Events to mark the 10th anniversary of the Centre Culturel Irlandais continue throughout the autumn. See centreculturelirlandais.com