Travel Europe

Wednesday 23 October 2019

Living the Paris dream: My time at the Centre Culturel Irlandais


Parisian joie de vivre, where iconic landmarks include the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, and the Sacre Coeur
Parisian joie de vivre, where iconic landmarks include the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, and the Sacre Coeur

Mary O'Sullivan

Let them eat cake is reputedly what Marie Antoinette said back in the 18th Century upon learning that the French peasants had no bread to eat.

Were she alive today, it's something she might well utter annually during the month of August. It's the wicked month when Parisians flee their city in search of their yearly dose of the sea, and the vast majority of shops close up - including the boulangeries.

An annual August bread crisis was only averted when it was decreed that the boulangers had to apply for permission to close, and the Mairie of Paris decided for the sake of the citizens, bakery closures had to be staggered.

August is also the month a small group of Irish students of French descend on the little corner of Paris that is the Centre Culturel Irlandais on the appropriately named Rue des Irlandais, and this year I was among the lucky number 10.

Everyone has a bucket list, and mine was always to become a Parisian. I had studied French at university back in the mists of time but fate intervened and instead of my life going according to plan - marry a gorgeous Frenchman and spend my life swanning around Paris speaking flawless French - I ended up in Dublin working first in the civil service, then RTE and finally the Sunday Independent. And almost totally forgetting all my French.

The plan to live in Paris was always there at the back of my mind but obviously it was a pipe dream - I wasn't exactly doing any preparation for the day when I might be required to speak French, to a boulanger or indeed anyone else.

Then I met a former colleague who had done exactly what I wanted - set up home in Paris - and she was loving it. And she told me it all started for her when she applied for a bursary with the Centre Culturel Irlandais - Ireland's International Arts Centre - which included daily French classes and accommodation. By pure chance the closing date for this year's applications was mere days away, and it was a simple matter of filling in a form online and pressing submit. Nothing to lose so I did just that.

Three months later to my astonishment I was accepted, and four months after that I found myself in Rue des Irlandais meeting my fellow boursiers.

The Centre Culturel Irlandais (CCI) itself, built in the late 18th Century for the Irish student community in Paris (then mainly seminarians), is a four-storey structure built around a magnificent courtyard with a sheltered cloister on its three sides.

It was completely restored in the early noughties, and since then has operated as a vibrant arts hub where a full programme of Irish events is mounted by the director Nora Hickey M'Sichili, and all are welcome. Typical events recently included performances by fiddler Martin Hayes, a photographic exhibition by Dragana Jurisic and jazz by Sue Rynhart.

As well as preserving the wonderful St Patrick's chapel and the old library containing valuable Irish manuscripts dating from the Middle Ages, the restoration conserved the marvellous windows with their views on to the leafy, usually sun-dappled courtyard, and the gorgeous oak staircase with its patina of centuries, while technological necessities were added including a new library.

There are 45 bedrooms, all ensuite, and kitchens on every floor so the centre is ideal for Erasmus students and it's highly sought after as it's in the fifth arrondissement, a stone's throw from the Sorbonne and other universities.

In the summer months anyone Irish can stay there and it's unbelievably reasonable given its superb location; each day on my way to classes in the Institut Catholique (le Cato as it's called) I passed by Le Pantheon - burial place of France's greats, including Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Louis Braille, inventor of Braille - and through the lush Jardins de Luxembourg.

Who couldn't fail to be inspired to learn, given such surroundings? Boulevard St-Michel, Boulevard St-Germain were all close at hand, Notre Dame was a mere 20 minute away and it's not far from there to the Musee d'Orsay.

After a communal breakfast - the quality of the bread depended on which boulanger was open that week! - we boursiers (two radio producers, a poet, an actor, a composer, two arts administrators, a film maker and another journalist, a mix of ages and all great fun) headed off to classes in the Cato which were held every morning for three hours.

There were also two three-hour afternoon sessions per week but it still left plenty of time to discover Paris, and because we were there for a whole month, we could do it all at our leisure. There were days when I just sat in the Luxe, enjoying the squealing kids, supervised by their Filipina nannies, as they raced their boats on the pond, for example. Other days I went further afield, like to the Bois de Boulogne where I took in the new Frank Gehry building which houses the Fondation Louis Vuitton. I had been many times before to the obvious sights, the Arc de Triomphe, the Tour Eiffel, the Louvre, the Sacre Coeur but everything about this trip was more laid-back, less hurried and I saw things differently. I took in amazing exhibitions - like the fantastic Dior at the Louvre, the David Hockney at the Pompidou Centre and I think I've seen every painting Monet ever painted, there are superb exhibitions of his work in the Musee d'Orsay, in the Orangerie in the Jardin de Tuileries and at Maison Marmottan, a less known but equally impressive museum which houses the painting that gave rise to the beginning of impressionism.

Paris is also a dab hand at turning former homes of its greats into museums, and I visited Victor Hugo's home in Place des Vosges and Balzac's home in the 16th arrondissement. The city is good too for preserving the burial places of its VIPS so at Pere Lachaise, I visited the graves of Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde, while over at Montparnasse, I paid homage to Beckett.

It wasn't all exhibitions and museums and graves. I indulged in a huge amount of wandering around our neighbourhood; nearby is the marvellous Rue Mouffetard, chock-a-block with ethnic restaurants; a favourite of the group's was L'Assiette de Fromage which despite its name, wasn't only about cheese, and served lots of French Bistro-style dishes. Its usp, a formule at €15. The best falafels in Paris were to be found at L'as du Falafels in the Marais, in the 7th; I loved to round off a wander through its streets with one. The streets in the Marais are a curious mixture. Some are lined with wonderful old mansions, owned by the French aristocracy when there was an aristocracy - hotels de ville as they were called - and some are exceptionally narrow. It was in these narrow winding little streets that the Jewish community gathered when they first came to Paris, around 1900, escaping the pogroms elsewhere in Europe. Sadly, many were rounded up during World War II, including schoolchildren who were sent off to certain death in concentration camps. The walls are mounted with plaques testifying to the bravery of teachers and others who tried to save them.

Other places I loved to browse were Rue du Cherche-Midi which is lined with fashion boutiques and jewellery shops, Le Bon Marche (which is anything but!) just to look at its art deco staircase, and Galeries Lafayette for its stained glass dome. The laneways at the so-called flea market at Clignancourt were a treasure trove of vintage jewellery and mid-century modern furniture but were exorbitantly expensive. Instead bargains were to be had at the pop up flea market near Mouffetard.

The lovely thing about this month was you could spend time on your own or there was always company if you needed it. Classmates at the Cato were usually up for a bit of sightseeing - mine included a retired engineering professor from the US who owned an apartment in the Marais, and a young Muslim woman who works in banking in New York - as were the boursiers. And there was never a night when you would be stuck for a dining companion. Niamh NiChonchubhair, arts administrator at the Axis in Ballymun, cleverly set up a WhatsApp group for the 10 and all info was posted there. We had many wonderful meals in cheap and cheerful restaurants but probably the best nights were Nora's Wednesdays when everyone brought a dish to the courtyard; other Irish, Paris residents as well as French visitors turned up too and the eating and drinking and chatting on those gorgeous balmy summer evenings continued until the wee hours. Those Wednesdays were special and included performances by some of our group, an evening of cello courtesy of composer Rory Pierce in the chapel, a poetry reading by award-winning poet Kerrie O'Brien. And Nora herself lent her gorgeous singing voice to proceedings.

It was bliss itself to be there. Hopefully it's not the last August I spend there, and who knows? I've been continuing the French lessons, I might end up living there.

Dreams do sometimes come true.

Get there

Ireland’s International Arts Centre is located in the heart of Paris’s posh 5th arrondissement.

All details concerning available accommodation and the CCI’s residency and bursary programme are available on the CCI website

For those spending Valentine’s day in Paris, take in a Chapel Session concert by Jack O’Rourke and Roisin O in CCI’s Chapel on February 15.

St Patrick’s weekend sees Sharon Shannon, Moxie and Atlas take to the stage with a full day of events for families.

Or visit during Fete de la Musique on June 21 when all of Paris is alive with music

TAKE TWO: Top attractions

Ancient manuscripts

The CCI has a superb library with a collection of richly-decorated manuscripts, including the book of Hours of Notre Dame (a prayer book) and the Flemish psalter (above, a song book) both from the 1550s.

Impressive artwork

The CCI has an impressive art collection made up of works donated by top Irish artists. A recent addition is a wonderful Aubusson tapestry featuring lines from Seamus Heaney’s poem Lightenings viii.

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