Clash of the arts – Frank McNally on the cultural dilemmas of Paris

For art lovers, a Manet-Degas exhibition was at least as dramatic a prospect as Limerick v Kilkenny

Edgar Degas: self-portrait 1865. Degas was a loner, who avoided media interviews (something he had in common with many GAA teams, including all four hurling semi-finalists this year).

If you were an Irish sports fan who also has a weakness for culture, Paris last Sunday afternoon presented tough choices.

The All-Ireland hurling final could be watched in some bars, of course, while the last stage of the Tour de France was due in town around the same time, for the usual nine laps of the city centre.

I knew from experience that a bit of both could be caught at Quai des Grands Augustins, where the terrace tables of Le Galway pub offered screens showing the GAA and a dramatic view of the peloton as it swept around the corner from Boulevard Saint-Michel onto the Seine.

But among those attending a Franco-Irish literary conference in the University of Chicago’s Paris campus on Saturday, the weekend’s hot ticket was for a joint exhibition of Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas at the Museé d’Orsay. As luck would have it, that was also ending Sunday.


For art lovers, a Manet-Degas exhibition was at least as dramatic a prospect as Limerick v Kilkenny. The two painters didn’t like each other much either, at times, thanks to very different personalities.

The sociable Manet loved publicity, for example, whereas Degas was a loner, who avoided media interviews (something he had in common with many modern GAA teams, including all four hurling semi-finalists this year).

In any case, rumour at the literary conference had been that the show was sold out, obviating any dilemma for those of us who hadn’t booked.

But finding myself in the vicinity of the Quai d’Orsay on Sunday at 4.15pm (3.15pm Irish time), I inquired in person if it was still possible attend.

Sure enough, it was! Then, knowing that my friend Catherine – a speaker at the conference – would also want to see it, I bought her a ticket too, before ringing to find out she was on the other side of Paris, in the Pompidou Centre.

That wasn’t so far away, on a normal day. The problem was that, on the last of the Tour, it was on the wrong side of the river, cut off by barricades, dense crowds, and several closed Metro stations.

But there was still time – the museum didn’t close till 6pm. So while Catherine caught a taxi, I explored the general exhibition, noting with concern the long queues still filing in to Manet-Degas, while also keeping an eye on the scores from the hurling, where Kilkenny were putting it up to Limerick.

The minutes passed. Soon it was half-time in Croker and there was still no sign of Catherine. The museum PA, meanwhile, was warning that exhibition rooms might start closing soon. So growing tense, I rang again to find that the taximan’s attempts to negotiate the traffic had ended in failure. Catherine was walking now, still a kilometre away.

When next I checked the scores from Croker, suddenly, the game was as good as over – Limerick had surged ahead. And when I checked the queues for the exhibition, suddenly, that was over too. Far from going to extra time or penalties, admissions had closed 40 minutes early, at 5.20pm.

So I saw neither the hurling nor the art show in the end, while the Tour also passed me by (but not while we were on the same street). As for Manet and Degas, a bit like the GAA All-Stars, they now travel to New York in the autumn.


Another thing I didn’t do in Paris was visit the city’s Gaeltacht. There really is one, comprising some of the 500-plus Irish speakers in France, according to Ciarán MacGuill, who has them on a mailing list (

Twenty or more of the Parisian members meet every month. And I was invited to their latest meeting: a picnic in the courtyard of the old Irish College, now the Centre Culturel Irlandais, on Tuesday. It was a tempting invitation. Alas, I flew home Monday.


Speaking of both language and the small-ball game (with apologies in advance for the indelicacy of that link), I learned a new French phrase at the weekend while sitting outside a café in Bercy.

Parisian café life is itself a form of culture. Mostly it’s a visual medium. And although the heavy-set, middle-aged man with a laptop at the next table might have passed for a respectable business executive from the ankles up, he was making a small exhibition of himself lower down by being (a) barefoot and (b) wearing an ankle bracelet with spikes.

The intrigue deepened when, suddenly, he shattered the silence of the café terrace with a roar. “Arrête de me casser les couilles!” he shouted at his laptop, startling pigeons, before slamming a metaphorical phone down (it was a Whatsapp call).

Furtively I Googled his phrase, as silence descended anew, more profound than before. The man carried on calmly, meanwhile: only his ankle bracelet hinting at inner turmoil. I knew what “casser les couilles” meant now. As for the short, one-act drama at the adjoining table, it remained a mystery almost worthy of Beckett.