Saturday, November 28, 2009
Paris is a city where you always discover new things - or old things that are new to you (i.e. to me). I was wandering around the university area, near the rue du Pot de Fer where George Orwell lived: he was just Eric Blair in those days, but this is where Down and Out in Paris and London was born. Around a corner is the rue des Irlandais, where I discovered what is now the Centre Culturel Irlandais, but was built in the 18th century as an Irish seminary. You can walk in: it's a big classical building, and it represents a lot of history. First, of course, the anti-Catholic penal laws in Britain, which applied in 18th century Ireland as well. Roman Catholic seminaries were forbidden in Ireland (as in England of course), although Ireland was at least 80% Catholic. So an Irish aspirant to the priesthood had to study on the Continent. There were Irish seminaries scattered about France and Flanders (and in Rome as well), but this Parisian seminary was large and important. It was endowed in part by the French kings, who were both intensely Catholic and highly rivalrous (to put it mildly) with England.
The Paris seminary was important to Irish Catholicism in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 20th century the building was also a home for the Polish Catholic Church in Paris. There is a plaque saying that Polish Catholics came here "who had been prisoners in Dachau and refused to return and to live under Communist totalitarianism which now ruled their country". Karol Wojtyla spent time here, both as a seminary student and later as a Bishop and Archbishop.
And finally there is a plaque that the building was used - with the consent of the Irish Church - by the US Army in 1945 and 1946 to house Displaced Persons who claimed US citizenship. "Displaced Persons" meant (mostly if not exclusively) Jewish survivors of the Nazi camps. A few had claims to US citizenship, having been born in the US or with a parent who was.
What a lot of grim history converging on one graceful Paris building! The place is a secular Irish Cultural Centre now. Which says something about today's newly secular, post-Catholic Ireland.