By Thomas O’Grady
Special to The Guardian
Fifty years ago I stood on a street corner in Charlottetown, watching members of the Benevolent Irish Society march in parade formation to the Basilica for St. Patrick’s Day mass. Forty years ago I marched in the parade myself, playing trumpet with the Colonel Gray band.
This year I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in Paris.
France and Ireland have a long shared history—military, political, literary, cultural. Some of that history is sad, some of it glorious. France supported Ireland during its failed uprising against British rule in 1798. Irish women and men, including author Samuel Beckett, played important roles in the French Resistance during the Second World War. French President Charles de Gaulle was a proud lineal descendant of the McCartan clan from County Down. The green, white and orange flag of Ireland is modeled on the blue, white and red French tricolour.
For centuries Paris has been a destination for Irish men and women: for seminarians and scholars, for rebels on the run and disaffected patriots, for writers-in-exile like Beckett, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce. (Wilde and Beckett are buried in Paris.) With the collapse in recent years of the once-robust Irish economy known as the Celtic Tiger, a new wave of young Irish men and women have gravitated toward Paris in search of employment. They have brought their country’s vibrant personality with them to La Ville Lumière, The City of Light.
Small wonder, then, that Paris during St. Patrick’s week is a hub of spirited activity. Predictably, some of that activity is centered in pubs like Corcoran’s on rue St. André des Arts in the bohemian Latin Quarter, The Coolin in the vibrant Saint-Germain-des-Prés district, and Finnegans Wake, aptly named for its proximity to an area where James Joyce once lived and wrote, not far from the site of the Irish College (founded in 1605), which is now home to Centre Culturel Irlandais. The Guinness signs worked like magnets for bonafide ex-pats and would-be Paddies alike.
But drink was not the only Irish draw in the city. On Wednesday evening, the CCI co-sponsored at an international film festival a screening of the darkly comic movie adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s novel The Butcher Boy. (Both novel and film are set in County Monaghan, ancestral home to many Prince Edward Islanders of Irish descent.) Acclaimed director Neil Jordan and actor Stephen Rea spoke briefly beforehand about their experience making the film, and Ambassador Paul Kavanagh welcomed the audience in impressively fluent French.
After the film I introduced myself to the Ambassador, who with typical Irish gregariousness said, “Why don’t you come ’round to the Embassy tomorrow evening for a little event we’re having, and we can have a good chat.” That little event was actually the Embassy’s annual St. Patrick’s soirée for hundreds of members of the expatriate community—a splendid gathering, evidently sponsored in part by the Jameson whiskey distillery. The Attorney General of Ireland, Maire Whelan, offered remarks on behalf of the government back home. As they say in the old country, “The craic was mighty!”
But without a doubt, the highlight of St. Patrick’s week was the first Aifreann Naofa (Holy Mass) ever celebrated in the Irish language at the iconic Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. Renowned for its stunning Gothic architecture, including its legendary gargoyles, and made famous by novelist Victor Hugo and his hunchback Quasimodo, Notre Dame is observing its 850th anniversary this year. (Next week, on Palm Sunday, a new set of bells will ring out for the first time from the twin towers of the cathedral.) Hundreds of Irish citizens and descendants turned out for the service “as Gaeilge” at midday on Saturday. The principal celebrant of the Mass was County Monaghan native Bishop Noel Treanor. The thousands of tourists who filed through that landmark attraction during the service must have wondered what language was being spoken and sung from the altar of the very emblem of French Catholicism.
Given the strong ties between Ireland and Paris, I was surprised to learn that there is no parade marking St. Patrick’s Day itself. Still, many people dressed in green for the occasion and a few overdressed in leprechaun hats and springy shamrock hairbands. A few even seemed to underdress in kilts—but they turned out to be Scotsmen in town for the France-Scotland rugby match.
Thomas O’Grady grew up in Charlottetown. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the American University of Paris.