'I was devastated': Irish in Paris react to the Notre Dame fire

Members of the Irish community describe sense of loss and resilience in the city

Saoirse O'Dea

"Ma cathédrale!" an elderly man wailed, crumbling to his knees as he was supported members of the crowd, some crying, most sombre. First aid jumped onto the scene and helped to soothe him, comforting him that his cathedral would be rebuilt. All was not lost.

I have been living in Paris for three years and admittedly have a love/hate relationship with the city. It is both a beautiful and a difficult place to live. However, never have I felt more solidarity with a group of people than I did whilst standing with thousands of other Parisians watching as the most symbolic building in France burned down. "France is going up in flames, literally," a lady muttered behind me, reflecting on the months of gilet jaune protests and political unrest in the country.

One thing which unites the French, if nothing else, is a deep sense of patriotism. They have the type of pride in their country and respect for its history and culture that I find both relatable and inspiring. As the Notre Dame burned, and we stood in silence, a man remarked that “We would have preferred it be the Eiffel Tower".

Because the Eiffel Tower is iconic. But the Eiffel Tower is not symbolic in the way that the Notre Dame is. The Notre Dame is a symbol of the history and culture of Paris: it has witnessed the Revolution, both World Wars, religious and cultural developments in Parisian society. It has provided refuge, both religious and non-religious. It has breathed life into the city and the city has breathed life into it: it is truly Parisian. It is not simply a 'tourist destination'. It is a part of Parisian life. And this is what differentiates it from the Eiffel Tower or from another tourist destination.    And so, when two American teenagers chattering behind me exclaimed that this was 'getting boring' and 'why won't it just collapse already', I put aside all my reservations about the French and the city, turned to them in truly Parisian style and simply said "Have a little respect".

Kathleen James-Chakraborty

Notre Dame is one of the first significant buildings I remember, which matters especially because I grew up to be an architectural historian.  In November 1963, when I was three, my parents, my sister and I lived in Paris for a month, because my father was on sabbatical from the small American liberal arts college where he taught.  My memory of Notre Dame is unlike any of the postcards my mother hung on ribbons in my bedroom when we returned, or any other photograph I have seen of it.  There are soldiers out front.  This is because my mother and sisters stood out front while my father went to the memorial mass for John F Kennedy.  This is my only memory related to the assassination, news of which is seared in to the memory of almost every American just a few months older than I am and of so many people from around the world.

Germaine McCormack-Kos 

I was overwhelmed by her magnificent beauty when first seeing Notre Dame during the 1968 May/June Revolution when taking photographs of one of the leaders my boyfriend was interviewing on the Ile Saint Louis.

My favorite view of Notre Dame has always been from the back and Left Bank side, where you could see the stunningly elegant flying buttresses.  Living nearby I daily felt her different moods. Notre Dame's extraordinary serenity, her beauty enhanced by the sun, the moon, magical “son et lumiere”, never ceased  to  uplift my soul.

At the Sorbonne in 1979 I was given four subjects to study for the oral exam - I chanced it only studying one of these, Notre Dame, and lucked out passing the exam.

I often go on the Batobus on the River Seine with my children and friends just to see our radiant Notre Dame at night, her reflection glittering in the water.

Despite the unbelievable tragedy on Monday, Notre Dame still stands magnificently awaiting her promised facelift  - her towers consoling our grieving souls  She has not left us.

Audrey O'Reilly

I volunteer with refugees at the Porte de Aubervilliers in the north of Paris, helping with food distribution or taking families to respite housing.  As with pretty much every attack or disaster that has happened in Paris in the last number of years, my mother in Cork heard the news first and rang to tell me. I was shocked and informed everyone in the tram carriage, who were all equally horrified.

I had work to do and spent the next while taking a Cameroon family across the city to an apartment in the 14th where an Australian woman offers night shelter in her beautiful apartment. The family didn't really have any concept of the Notre Dame, so we just go on with the task in hand.     Afterwards I went down to a road across the river from the church. A crowd was gathered there, voices raised in singing a beautiful medley of hymns.  Meanwhile, across the Seine the worst of the flames were out and only a few sparks floated into the sky. Firemen could be seen silhouetted and water from the fire hoses gushed from the gargoyles' mouths. Luckily the structure seemed intact. It will rise again.

Sean McKiernan

You could tell this was important because the rules stopped applying: city rental bikes and electric scooters were scattered everywhere as if abandoned by their riders mid-journey, and people walked with impunity across ordinarily congested roads.  When I arrived the crowd was still gasping in despair as more parts of the roof collapsed, but later this panic distilled into a sense of powerless disbelief. From behind, the whole structure was framed by white spotlights and flanked by firehose water that seemed impossibly ineffective. The burning red looked ugly and raw against the Seine, shimmering its reflection of Paris’ gold and orange lights.

Parisians, usually so demure, wore their emotion unguarded. Watery eyes reflecting how much this symbol is as much a part of their personal identity as their city’s history. Spontaneous applause sometimes broke out and on a bridge a crowd had gathered to sing hymns. A powerfully built priest in a long black tunic and clutching rosary beads came. He towered over the crowd, but stayed away from the centre, wanting to impose neither the power of his voice nor the depth of his grief. People edged to get photos. Somewhere in the refrain was chez nous; our home.

By midnight we had moved closer, navigating our way over python-like firehoses. Their urgent vibration suggesting that even the water was rushing to rescue the church. Implausibly, head torches flashed from inside the towers as firefighters swivelled through the wreckage.    At 2am I left the Parisians to their vigil.

Mary Malone

My most special memory of Notre Dame was 30 years ago, freshly arrived from Dublin after the Leaving cert at 17 planning to stay only for six months to improve my French. I was enjoying all that Paris had to offer, except perhaps the religious offering. So when my parents decided to visit I had to find a church for Sunday mass. Notre Dame would do the trick, and although I mixed up the times and we arrived an hour early we listened to the wonderful organ and choir. After mass we waited at the side while the priests came down the alley and Cardinal Lustiger stopped to talk to me.  This was purely because I was the youngest person there, but I insinuated to my parents it was because I was a regular! In any case Notre Dame holds a special place for so many people and has figured on many of my family visits to Paris since.

Catherine O'Hara

I am an Irish wedding photographer and have working and living in Paris for over eight years. I have many lovely memories of the stunning Notre Dame Cathedral from shooting clients there and from visiting it as a "resident tourist". For religious and non religious alike it is a source of awe and inspiration and every day I see tourists and locals queuing to get inside to marvel at the details inside and out. Paris is tough and it will bounce back and rise from the literal ashes and return to its former glory once again.

Orlaith Traynor
26-year-old marketing editor

It is such a special place to so many people in Paris, I was devastated. My last memory of walking by her was at night, after I broke up with my ex. We were sad and it was night time and he has his arms around me as we walked by the cathedral, across the square. I wanted to hold onto that moment.

I remember we were laughing at how cliché it all was, saying goodbye to each other there before he got his train. Yesterday evening I stood beside Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève with so many others and we watched the fire from a distance. People sat opposite on benches in clusters just dumbstruck by watching something so core to Parisian and French identity burn.

I didn’t want to watch so I walked to a friend’s place to not be alone. Helicopters were circulating, and people were running towards the river to see it all. I felt so strange. I walked home around 10pm and a friend from my building walked with me, close to the cathedral...

I saw children hoisted on top of their parents’ shoulders watch it tiredly. Lots of Parisians were eating and drinking as normal in nearby cafés. They have a staunch hardness that I admire. I guess this feeling I have today is an eerie foreboding, a sense of change. That something so enduring can be torn down.

Paris right now is uneasy. Each Saturday there are continuing protests with the Gilet Jeunes that edge people closer to disdain. But spring is here. I bet people will be sitting by the banks of the Seine this evening toasting Notre Dame as always.

Mary Cummins

We get so taken up with the details of our lives that we often forget to open our eyes and really see where we are. I have been living in Paris for 22 years. I know many of its streets better than those of Dublin where I studied or Drogheda, where I grew up.

Notre Dame has often just been a place I go when friends from home come to visit and I play the tourist. Except that last night, in the same way as the Bataclan attacks shook me and took me to the streets or the French World Cup victory had me out partying on the Champs-Élysées, I felt truly Parisian.

Her spire crashing down singed my heart and stunned me like images of 9/11 did. During my first winter here, I met a young German man who was a choir member at Notre Dame. A few days before I flew home for the holidays, he invited me to sit in on rehearsals for the Christmas mass. The cathedral was closed and I was the only audience, the entire cathedral for me alone. Christmas songs rang out and I sat there feeling truly blessed. I was.

Charlotte Forbes

I was having a drink with a friend near St Lazare, one of the major transport stations in Paris, on Monday evening. When we went inside to pay around half past eight local time, all the television screens in the bar show the images of a burning Notre Dame. We were amazed and talked about it briefly but then went on to get something to eat and didn’t even talk about it at dinner.

I left at ten because I wanted to get home in time to watch the last part of Icelandic drama Trapped but it was only when I got home that I realised the full extent of the fire and importance of what had happened- normal TV scheduling was interrupted to make way for a special news bulletin.

This morning (Tuesday), I went to Notre Dame as early as I could and jostled through tourists and journalists to get right up to the limit of the cordined-off barrier. I was so happy to see the towers and so much of the outer structure look very much intact. The cathedral and surrounding square and nearby metro station remain closed-off as of Tuesday lunch-time.

Caitríona McGuire

My partner Mary and I came to Paris for the weekend. We exchanged our home with a french couple, by coincidence also both ladies, Marie and Marielle. I did the marathon on Sunday and the sun shone over Notre Dame in all her glory as I ran past.

The French couple texted us yesterday evening after they had visited Trinity college and the National Art Gallery. They texted us to say Notre Dame was on fire and they were devastated.

It was still dark this morning when we woke but we could see hundreds of TV’s switched on in the apartments surrounding us. We went down to see the fire at dawn this morning before flying home and the fire fighters were still working on her. So sad but thankfully no loss of life.

Sean Ryan

On March 16th 2013, for the 850th Anniversary of Notre Dame de Paris, the Irish Community was invited to a “ once in a lift time moment “ to celebrate a Saint Patrick’s Day Mass. It holds special memories for Sean Ryan, communications consultant and coach, who hails from Ballinasloe, Co. Galway and has lived in the centre of Paris for 19 years.

He was in charge of communications, sang in the Irish Chaplaincy Paris Choir and proudly carried the Irish Flag as part of the entrance procession. More than 1,000 Irish people and friends from France, Ireland and other nationalities attended the green specially illuminated interior of the iconic building.

“The cathedral is a beacon in my life in Paris and for the generations of Irish people throughout the centuries, “ says Sean.

“ I see it nearly every day as recently as an hour before the first fire took hold while going home. The Irish Community was warmly welcomed by ‘Our Lady of Paris ‘ to celebrate our national day. Now it is our turn to stand side by side with Parisians and France for the restoration as we wait to celebrate its resurrection.”

Lisa Byrne

A Paris resident for two years and marketing executive at Warner Media

When I reached home just after 7pm yesterday, I turned on the news to see every news station talking about a fire that had broken out at Notre Dame. I was in shock and disbelief, as we continued to watch, the flames started to get bigger and we understood that the cathedral could collapse if the fire was not contained quickly. We even opened our apartment window from the other side of Paris and could see the smoke cloud the sky.

Notre Dame is such a significant symbol of Paris, one that I pass by several times a week and visit with people who come to stay with me in Paris. It was really heartbreaking to see it go up in flames, knowing that there was nothing we could do. The people of Paris are devastated and the mood in work today is very sombre. It will take years and years to repair these damages.

At least nobody was killed and they managed to evacuate everyone in time. Notre Dame has served as an enduring symbol of French society and culture for believers and non-believers for nearly a millennium, and will remain the beating heart of the city.”

Noreen O’Shea

I have been living in Paris for more than 40 years now and the Notre Dame cathedral has always been on my list of places for visitors to see.

As I watched the cathedral burning, I could not help thinking about my mother (who has passed away) and who visited the church every time she came to Paris. She loved going to Mass there and lighting candles for different members of the family to help them get through whatever difficulties they were enduring.

What would she think now if she had seen this beautiful edifice being eaten by flames? I know she would have been devastated, sharing the feeling of helplessness that pervaded Paris yesterday evening and shocking its citizens into the early hours of the morning.

While Paris has been disfigured, the initiative already launched to restore this world-class monument, will hopefully help to repair the effects of this tragedy.