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Paris’ twenty arrondissements are arranged in a spiral pattern much like a snail shell if one should look at it from an aerial perspective.  Near the center of the shell lies the fifth arrondissement, known as the Latin Quarter.  Here, you will find many of Paris’ places of interest and learning, such as the Panthéon, Jardin des Plantes, and the Sorbonne to name but a few.  It is also here that you will find the Centre Cultural Irelandis, formerly the Collège des Irlandais or the Irish College.

A physical representation of the long cultural history between Ireland and France, the Centre Culturel Irelandis occupies the four story eighteenth century building and grounds of the previous Collège des Irlandais.  It is L-shaped, with emblems of harps and shamrocks throughout, and has a large courtyard and lovely gardens.  It looks much the same on the outside as it did when it was a college, dating back to 1578.  The inside has changed since then and visitors are as likely to see Glen Hansard performing (as he did in 2011) as they are to see a painting of St. Patrick (there are several). The centre’s aim is primarily to showcase Irish culture through films, plays, concerts and exhibits to its French audience. It also acts as a hotel, university residence, and educational facility connected to the Irish embassy.

In 1578, the Collège des Irlandais was started a result of the Protestant Reformation and Tudor control of Ireland creating a need for ecclesiastical education in more Catholic tolerant countries.  It survived the French Revolution, and operated as a college until 1870, until war between France and Prussia caused it to close for a year. It was then converted in to housing for wounded French soldiers.  The same thing happened during World War I and World War II, after which the college did not reopen.

Following the closure after World War II, a large group of Polish priests who escaped death at the Dachau concentration camp were allowed to take over the property. They were fleeing religious persecution during the Cold War, similar to the initial reason the Irish College was founded.  Not only was it used as a Polish seminary, it also served as a Polish-language secondary school for the children of Polish migrant families. A Polish priest named Karol Wojtyla lived in the Irish College several times before he became Pope John Paul II in 1978.

Dreams of turning it into an Irish cultural centre began around the late 1970’s, but did not see fruition until the Polish priests left unannounced in 1997. The Fondation Irlandaise, which owns the college and other properties in Paris resumed control, finding that the building had been several neglected to the point of being dangerous to occupy except in one remodeled wing.  

While the Foundation had some funds for repairs, they did not have enough to cover everything.  The chapel was redone courtesy of donations from the Friends of the Irish College, but most repairs were left unfinished. 

The Foundation approached the Irish government with a request for funding with little initial success. Yet when the Foundation began emphasizing the college’s use as a cultural rather than religious center with housing for lay students, this renewed focus combined with the growing “Celtic Tiger” economy lead to the Irish government approving seven million Euros towards its restoration in the spring of 2000. 

The Cultural Center opened on October 18, 2002.  The restoration turned the college into a part-residence, part-education center.  There were now forty-five subsidized rooms available for rent, intended for Irish people who are studying in Paris. There was also an artists-in-residence program, who receive not only lodging but also a small stipend.  One need not be Irish, but you do need to demonstrate a definite Irish element in your work to be considered for application.  Looking at a list of past recipients, there are three to five artists-in-residence at a time. 

In 2007, the library (which had been part of the 2000-02 renovation) was reopened, becoming the home of over 8,000 rare books and manuscripts.  The original documents housed in the old college had been lost during the French Revolution.  Many date between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries and are theological, music or history themed. The library is intended for scholarship (with a research request) and has digitized fifty manuscripts so far as they develop their on-line archive.  They offer two fellowships to encourage scholars to use the library. The center now also offers certificates in Irish, and in Contemporary Irish History via a program from the NUI, Maynooth.

So, if you happen to be in Paris, you might want to stop by Ireland for a bit, too, and see what events are on at the Centre Cultural Irelandis. It could also be an excellent way to study abroad if you qualify.