Faint traces in Arcueil

Those interested in the story of the Irish in Paris have, in all probability, at least some knowledge of the Irish College (now the Irish cultural centre) in the heart of the Left Bank. Some might even know that the original Irish College was a few hundred metres away in the rue des Carmes. Although the royal blazon over the front door was hacked away by revolutionary mobs, the church used by the Irish until the 18th century still stands in rue des Carmes and is now used by the Syriac Catholic community.

The Arcueil country house in the early 1930s
 The same site today
But fewer people know of the Irish College’s association with Arcueil, a town in the near suburbs of Paris that since the Second World War has been blighted by left-wing administrations and poor urban planning. Undoubtedly, Arcueil was a more attractive place when Irish seminarists regularily set forth from rue des Irlandais in Paris for this secondary residence either by foot or by train.

In 1834, Dr. Patrick McSweeney, superior of the Irish College “purchased a country house of the college at Arcuil (sic.), one hour’s walk from Paris. It consists of a large building with six acres of land beautifully planted.” Street names linger—Arcueil boasts a villa des Irlandais and a cité des Irlandais—but nothing besides remains. The Irish College’s country house and playing fields have long been replaced by drab council flats.

Canon Ouin-la-Croix, who was in charge of the Irish College and its properties at the time of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, left a vivid account of the depredations the Arcueil summer house suffered at the hands of French looters as the Prussians tightened their noose around the city in September 1870. "Unknown marauders", he wrote, broke into the property in their hundreds and looted everything they wanted...There are no doors, window shutters, wood panelling, window panes or parquet floorboards left. Many trees in the park are missing, as well as several tables from the refectory and the chalets: they were removed to be used in the earthworks of the Hautes Bruyères redoubt situated on the heights above Arcueil..."

The Irish College plot in Cachan
Before the Irish College sold up after the Second World War, the house in Arcueil consisted of around 50 rooms for seminarians, larger sleeping quarters for their teachers, a number of annexes scattered around the centre of Arcueil, playing fields, a barnyard, a large kitchen garden and a chapel. Traditionally, seminarians resident at the Irish College in Paris spent weekends and public holidays at Arcueil. Up until the First World War, poor transport connections to Ireland meant they even spent their summer holidays there. In an interesting account published in 2005, Canon Séamus Corkery, who studied at the Irish College in the 1930s, writes that he and his fellow seminarians went to Arcueil twice a week, often on foot from rue des Irlandais in Paris, to play gaelic football and hurling matches in the grounds of the country house.
“We used to have mini All-Ireland’s…Competition was always keen,” he writes, and during the winter, “there would be a roaring fire.” At Christmas, writes Corkery,“some enterprising student might get a goose from home and we would have a party.”

Corkery also refers to All Soul’s Day visits to the graves of Irish priests and seminarians in Cachan cemetery, a short walk from the country house in Arcueil. On a trip back to Paris several decades later (possibly in the early 1990s?), Corkery writes that he was dismayed to find in lieu of the Irish graves a bare Celtic cross, but “no inscription and the grave unkempt”. When asked, a caretaker explained that the dead Irishmen had been grouped together since their vaults “were neglected and no one ever contributed to their upkeep”.

When he got back to Ireland, Corkery contacted the ecclesiastical authorities about the abandoned Irish graves. Funds were quickly "made available for the continued upkeep of the graves”, with the Irish ambassador attending the blessing ceremony and prayers for the dead. The cross currently bears the name of 11 Irishmen who all (bar one) died in their twenties between 1859 and 1891. However, the restoration project instigated at least in part by Corkery was incomplete. Close to the restored plot adorned with a Celtic high cross are two other adjacent plots belonging to the Irish seminary, neither of which has been restored. One plot is marked simply by a small stone, while the other contains a vault topped by a stone stab on which are written the names of about 10 Irishmen. Alas, their names are barely readable.

Select Bibliography
“La résidence des Irlandais”, at www.arcueilhistoire.fr 

"The Siege of Paris seen from Collège des Irlandais" in
The Irish-French Connection, 1578-1978 (1978)  
Liam Swords (ed.)

Memories of 5, rue des Irlandais and its Students (2005)
Canon Seamus Corkery

Documents on Arcueil are also to be found in the Irish College archive,