Just a few hundred yards from the Pantheon in Paris, tourists who wander slightly astray will happen upon a narrow street where the Irish flag flies. This is the rue des Irlandais and the building over which the green, white and orange tricolour flies is the Centre Culturel Irlandais – the Irish Cultural Centre in the heart of the French capital’s Left Bank. The Irish presence in the area goes back well over three centuries.
The first Irish ‘college’ – a gathering of Irish students attracted to Paris by the renown of the University and escape from increasing religious and political troubles at home – was created in the early 1600s. Louis XIV granted a permanent home on the rue des Carmes to the Irish College in 1677. Previously occupied by Italian students and scholars, the building was originally known as the College des Lombards; the remains of its chapel are visible today as the Syrian Church of Saint Ephrem. As the number of Irish students and staff grew, they eventually outgrew the space available on the rue des Carmes. A large house and garden nearby was purchased in 1769 – the location of the present Centre Cultural Irlandais. Refurbished and refitted, the building housed generations of Irish Roman Catholic clerical students.
The purpose built library first opened in 1775; remarkably it is largely unchanged today. What has indeed changed is the library’s contents. How this happened involves the Reformation, the French Revolution and connections between Ireland, England, Scotland and France.
The physical remains of one of these connections can be seen not far from the Irish College/Centre Culturel Irlandais. On the sloping rue Cardinal Lemoine is a building easily passed and today most often overlooked; above the doors though are panels marked with the Cross of St Andrew, the Scottish saltire. Close links existed between Scotland and France from the 1300s. Scottish students became one of the largest groups attending the University of Paris and a Scottish college was soon functioning in the city. Numbers remained relatively steady until the disruption of the Reformation destabilised societies across almost all of Europe. Scotland became increasingly divided over religion as well as politically unsettled. The number of Scottish students in Paris dwindled and the established college faded over time.
By the early 1600s Presbyterianism was dominant in Scotland, but small areas of Catholicism remained and some remnants of old political links with France. In 1605 the Scots College was refounded and in 1665 a new and bigger premises opened on the rue des Fosses St Victor – today’s rue Cardinal Lemoine. The ‘new’ College had four stories, housing a library, classrooms and accommodation. Gradually it became the hub of the Scottish Catholic community in Paris and a focal point for disaffected Jacobites who hoped to return the exiled Stuart dynasty to the British, or at least the Scottish, throne. Memorials to a number of these prominent exiled Scots are still within the former college chapel (which today functions as a school) – the most famous and slightly macabre marking the former resting place of the brain of King James II!
Although the Scottish College no longer functions, at least it exists as a reminder of past history. English visitors to Paris are much less lucky. As is the case with their Irish and Scottish neighbours, there was an English College in Paris. Again it was in the same general area as the Irish and Scottish Colleges – but nothing remains now of the original building on the site where it stood on 22 rue Lhomond (rue des Postes until 1867). The lack of a building doesn’t by any means equal the lack of an intriguing history of course. St Gregory’s English College, to give it its full name, developed from an already long established English presence in the city. Tracing the full origins and reasons for St Gregory’s existence reads something like an historical thriller and can only be done full justice in a separate article.
For the moment however, we can say briefly that that the English College was in existence around the corner, literally, from the Irish College by the 1660s. It was not as large in size as its Irish and Scottish neighbours but this was because it was intended to serve a different purpose – as a House of Writers, dedicated to scholarly activity. From this Parisian retreat, English Catholics duelled with pen and ink in intellectual combat against English Protestants. Proximity to the Sorbonne and its libraries was crucial to their operation and a key reason, along with the city’s prime position in the European book trade, for the College’s existence in Paris.
A College so focussed on collecting and researching, reading and writing books soon accumulated a large and impressive library – far larger than might have been expected in such a relatively small institution. Over time the collection of books and pamphlets grew to somewhere near 8,000 volumes: a very extensive and very expensive asset in a period when a library of a few hundred books was considered great literary riches indeed. Subjects covered included theology (Catholic and Protestant), philosophy, history, geography, languages, travel and current affairs/news.
Religious tensions in the Three Kingdoms of England, Ireland and Scotland cooled in the 1700s but remained a live issue. Politics complicated the religious problem: the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 saw the beginning of the long exile of James II and his Jacobite followers in France. The Irish, Scottish and English Colleges became a very important part of the lives of exile communities, fixed and permanent institutions offering some familiarity and friendliness in an uncertain and strange world. Loyalty to the Stuarts continued through failed invasions, suppressed rebellions and constantly dashed hopes of a return home.
Many of the later generation of Irish, Scots and English exiles served the French crown directly in the army, navy or administration or indirectly in the French Catholic Church. Bequests and donations from these men and women helped to fund the Colleges, along with some royal grants from the King of France. Perhaps not surprisingly, when the French Revolution erupted in 1789, many of its supporters viewed the Irish, Scottish and English Colleges with suspicion given their religious function, ‘foreign’ links, and close association with the French Crown and its servants. Suspicion changed to outright hostility with the outbreak of war with Britain in 1793. All three Colleges were closed by order of the Revolutionary Directory, and their goods, including the books from all three libraries, seized.
The story might well have ended there, but fortunately did not. Amid all the upheaval and turmoil, objections and protests were made about the confiscations. In an irony of history, English, Scottish and some Irish Catholics in Paris requested (or accepted) the diplomatic protection and help of the British Government. In a way this marked the beginning of the end of the bitter religious discord and discrimination that began with the Reformation – Catholic schools, colleges and seminaries were again made legal in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and full civil rights extended to religious dissenters in 1829.
Not all the exiles in Paris were happy with the situation. Most of the Irish community objected to being classed as enemy aliens, pleaded loyalty to the new regime and remained on in Paris. Appeals to the new first consul, and later Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte were eventually successful in reaching a settlement on the lost colleges and their property. All of the ‘old’ colleges were now consolidated into one tri-nation ‘foundation,’ consisting in reality of only the Irish College on rue des Irlandais – the street name was changed in 1807 by Napoleon. None of the other buildings – the Irish College on the rue des Carmes, the Scots College, or the English College ever opened again.
One problem remained however. All of the books in the Irish College’s Library had been confiscated in the 1790s. A reopened College with bare library shelves could not operate and there was no money to buy new books. Permission was eventually obtained to try to discover and recover the seized books from within the central depot where some confiscated materials had been stored. Soon thousands of volumes were again lining the handcrafted bookcases – and are still on the same shelves in the Old Library today.
If you look inside the books though you will eventually notice that many carry an image of St Gregory and the words ‘Ex-libris Collegium Anglorum’…’from the Library of the English College.’ Evidently, most of the original Irish books from the Library disappeared during the Revolution, and what remains today is actually mostly the book collection of St Gregory’s English College – the only physical remnant of the College but perhaps the most important one that could have survived. In a strange twist of fate then, the heart of the old English College remains alive today within the Old Library of the Irish College.