Parisian taxi drivers smile when you say that you're from Ireland and want to go to Rue des Irlandais, a quiet street just behind the Panthéon in the elegant fifth arrondissement. Since 2002 the street has been home to the Centre Culturel Irlandais, and a home away from home for more than 100 actors, writers, musicians and artists.
So how do you present Irish culture in a city of 10 million that has a reputation as one of the most cultured places in the world? Do you simply transplant work or play to a particular audience? Do some elements travel better? Nora Hickey M'Sichili has been teasing out these questions since she took over as director of the Irish Cultural Centre from Sheila Pratschke in 2013.
"It's a false idea to show Irish artists in isolation, because that's not how they work," she says. "The programme had always been work that came from Ireland, but we're blurring the boundaries now. The exhibition What If We Got It Wrong? was produced by the centre, and will now tour Ireland."
Hickey M’Sichili is small and energetic, with large, expressive eyes. She thinks before she speaks, pausing to tease out the dual role of programming an arts venue and presenting the culture of a nation abroad.
“It’s not enough to just present a positive image of the country,” she says. “My role isn’t to do that. It’s not about showing people wonderful Irish landscapes and traditional music; it’s about sometimes showing work that is critical of Ireland, because that’s what Irish artists are doing. It reflects well on the State – because artists are allowed to do that.”
This is a dream job for Hickey M'Sichili. "I was sitting at the kitchen table with my father, 16 or 18 years ago, and he was reading The Irish Times. He put it down and said, 'Nora, here's the perfect job for you.' That was when they were restoring the centre." Between then and now she has also worked at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, at University College Cork, and the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray.
Her father had been keeper of art at the Ulster Museum. "He was always supporting artists. It's a specific role, isn't it? Matchmaking, where you see that this person should meet this person, and they just gel."
Family was another reason to make the move. “Paris is a very international city. I’m Irish, my husband is Zambian, so for me it was very healthy.”
But the pauses get longer, and the thought process more troubled, as Hickey M’Sichili recalls the events and aftermath of November 13th, and her reluctant promotion as go-to person for the Irish media.
The Paris Photo art fair was on, she says, “and for the first time we were part of the official trail. We’d had 500 people for our opening, with major photographers and curators from South Africa, Italy, Germany, Wales. Ireland really punches above its weight in photography.”
She becomes animated as she describes the event and the after-party, before stopping herself.
“That was November 12th . . . I had a message on Facebook saying something’s going on in Paris. I turned on the news, but there was nothing yet. People’s phones started beeping. It was this strange thing, very surreal. They weren’t communicating with each other but with the outside world. And the questions they were asking: do you stay where you are? Do you try and get home? What do you do?
“I was following the news and feeding it back to people. I was at home, and we had a colleague who was at the [Bataclan] concert. It was really bizarre. He texted to say he was inside and he was hiding. And . . . ” Again she pauses. “You’re watching it unfold.”
I suggest that the human mind works by locating things personally in order to understand them. She agrees. “I haven’t met one person in Paris since who hasn’t been affected, who hasn’t known someone. That’s extraordinary. Paris is small.”
How have things changed in the city? "That's hard. I find myself thinking so much about Northern Ireland since this happened, and the fact that 20 years ago I couldn't have imagined that Ian Paisley would share government with Martin McGuinness. So the only way forward is through negotiation. I've really just been processing this the last few weeks. I wake at night. I suppose the key thing is that one must tackle the root of the problem.
“The attackers are the pawns. You’re not negotiating with the pawns, but you have to negotiate with your enemy. For me to hear Hollande talking about acts of war . . . ” Her voice gets quieter. “I feel very uncomfortable. What if we got it wrong? But I’m a cultural ambassador, not a politician; I’m not a diplomat. So my take is not . . . how do you put it? It’s personal.”
Despite all this, the work of the centre continues. The day Hickey M'Sichili and I speak, staff are preparing to host an event for alumni at the RHA in Dublin. Guests include another former director, Helen Carey, alongside Maud Cotter, Mia Gallagher, John F Deane, Amanda Coogan and Anita Groener. Partnerships with Music Network, Contemporary Music Centre, Design & Crafts Council of Ireland, Dance Ireland, Words Ireland, the Midlands arts offices and the Wicklow arts offices extend the residency programme further.
The producer and writer Róise Goan is there. "The space feels so charmed," she says. "Its spirit is so calm, peaceful and benevolent that it's hard to think about anything being not okay around it. It wouldn't stop me going back." Gina Moxley has just returned from directing Sonia Kelly's How to Keep an Alien: "We had full houses. Mixed audiences: French, German, Irish. They loved it. Post-attacks, we didn't know what to expect. It was a little bit sombre maybe, but that's also Mondays."
Visiting artists have the obvious benefits of a wonderful historic building: a former seminary, the Collège des Irlandais, on what was then Rue du Cheval Vert – Napoleon kindly changed the name – dates back to 1775. Artists also become part of a network of 53 international cultural centres in Paris.
Hickey M’Sichili is strategic about the opportunities this presents.
“We’re being proactive, making connections. We have a big event coming up at the Philharmonie in 2017 with the Gloaming, and we’re also commissioning now. Irish people don’t always realise the leverage we have through this incredible building, and with the programme.”
The centre is Ireland's cultural foothold in Europe, a crossroads where Ireland can meet the rest of the world. As the world changes around us, these places become ever more valuable.
Residencies: what artists say
Olwen Fouéré, actor: "We sold out two readings of riverrun there while I was developing it. The courtyard is one of those special places in Paris. You go because you want to be there."
Manchán Magan, writer: "Across the passageway was the room where Pope John Paul II had stayed before he was pope. Polish students would come on pilgrimages. They'd knock on the door to find a bewildered Erasmus student."
Nell McCafferty, writer: "It was near perfection, truly wonderful, but I was writing a book, so it was only half the time I needed for the project."
John F Deane, poet and writer: "I was working on a French translation of Bosquet, and I loved every minute of it. Paris is outside, and as Oscar Wilde said, I can resist anything except temptation . . . But it was good for the translation process."
Applications for 2016-17 artist and writers' residencies are open until January 11th. See centreculturelirlandais.com
Upcoming events include Silent Testimony, by Colin Davidson (January 29th-March 6th); Beckett in Paris, a new festival featuring 16 Irish artists and theatre companies around Paris (March 12th-27th); and courtyard art projects by John Byrne in May and Rita Duffy in September