The name Montmartre is popularly presumed to derive from the “Mount of Martyrs”, a designation earned by the early Christians who were executed there. The most famous of these was St Denis, marched up the Roman road now named after him to be beheaded on the city’s highest hill, at the Temple of Mercury.
According to tradition, post-execution, he then picked up his own head, cleaned it, and walked several miles farther until the rest of him dropped. They buried him at the spot and later built a basilica on it.
In more recent centuries, the butte of Montmartre was mined for gypsum (as used in “Plaster of Paris”). And it was in an abandoned quarry, already the site of mass burials during the French Revolution, that Montmartre Cemetery opened in 1825.
This explains one of the architectural atrocities of modern Paris, reminiscent of Dublin’s Loopline bridge but in even worse taste. The former merely obscures views of the Custom House. But when Baron Haussmann decided to build a bridge linking Montmartre to western Paris as part of his 1860s redesign of the city, he drove it right through the cemetery, and over the only entrance at that.
The weird result is that many of the kiosk-style tombs now huddle under the low wrought-iron bridge like derelicts, almost touching it at points. Those interred so near the entrance gate must have included some of the city’s most powerful people. But although it was legally challenged and delayed for a while, the bridge went ahead in 1867. Since when, whatever about perpetual light shining on those under it, actual light is scarce.
The bridge did not affect the cemetery’s notable Irish residents, however, of whom there are at least three. Myles Byrne, the United Irishman and Napoleonic soldier who had died a few years before the “Alsatian Attila” (as Haussmann’s massacre of old Paris saw him dubbed) went to work, is at the opposite end of the cemetery.
A Dublin portrait painter Harriet Osborne O'Hagan (1830–1921) is nearby, along the northern wall. And then there is the extraordinary Margaret Kelly Leibovici (1910-2004), another long-lived Paris exile, who occupies a southern corner of the cemetery, but well away from the bridge.
In one way, Kelly's life mirrored that of Byrne. Both had to leave Ireland during periods of turmoil, although in rather different circumstances. Byrne had been a willing participant in the insurrections of 1798 and 1803. Kelly was a child during the Easter Rising, and just happened to live on the street where it broke out.
She was born in 1910 at the Rotunda, of a mother named O’Brien and a father named Kelly, who were not in a position to raise the baby. A priest instead placed her discreetly with a Murphy family “in O’Connell Street”, an unusual home address and soon to be an uncomfortable one.
After the Easter Rising, one of the Murphy sisters, a nurse, emigrated with Margaret to Liverpool, but not before a Dublin doctor had given the child a name – inspired by her bright eyes – that she would henceforth prefer to all the others: "Bluebell".
Dance classes in Liverpool were at first meant only to strengthen her spindly legs. Instead, they launched her on a professional career and eventually to having her own troupe, the “Bluebell Girls”.
Marriage to a Jewish-Romanian pianist meant fraught times during the war, when both were interned for a period. Later, suspected (rightly) of hiding her husband in Paris, she was held for questioning by the Gestapo, but both survived. Francois Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980) was part inspired by the story.
At the height of their success, the Bluebell Girls were as big as Riverdance. Hundreds of chorus-girls in three different troupes performed simultaneously in Paris, Las Vegas, and elsewhere. Among other distinctions, those chosen tended to be conspicuously tall, often having grown too big for ballet, from which Kelly typically recruited them.
She was also known for strict rules about how they interacted with the (most male) audiences. Back during the glory days of journalism, circa 1971, these once included this newspaper’s then Irishman’s Diarist, in Paris on a champagne-fueled press trip. Noting the dancers’ “remarkable nubility”, he quickly added that they were said to live “under a regime as strict as postulants in a convent, their Mother of Studies being a Dublin girl called Margaret Kelly.”
Aged 94 when she died, she had been awarded several of France’s highest honours, now depicted like military medals on her gravestone. The name Margaret Kelly also features, but only on the second line. Top billing goes to the description first applied to her by a Dublin GP nine decades earlier: “Miss Bluebell”.