06 February 2024

Paris is a treat
at any time, and
it never needs
an excuse to visit

The Hotel Europe-Saint-Séverin on rue St Séverin is in the heart of the Latin Quarter in Paris

Patrick Comerford

We’ve just arrived in Paris on the Eurostar from London and we’re staying here for two nights. I suppose this is a sort of delayed birthday treat. But Paris is always a treat and it never needs an excuse for a visit.

Of course there are many close Irish cultural associations with France: James Joyce lived in exile in Paris for some years, and Ulysses was first published here; both Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett are buried in France; and WB Yeats died in France and was first buried there.

Any list would be incomplete and could perhaps even be endless.

By the time I was in my early 20s, I had hitchhiked all over England and Ireland, staying in youth hostels and cheap pubs, or couch-surfing. But I was 27 before I travelled beyond these islands. I joked I had never been east of Greenwich, although I had been in the East End and in East Anglia.

Then, in 1979, through the generosity of Douglas Gageby, The Irish Times sent me away twice in one year: first to study in Japan for a full term, and then to report back to Journalistes en Europe, the foundation in Paris that funded my fellowship. It was also the weekend of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the crowning glory of horse racing in France, so that I was kept awake late at night and woken early in the morning in the hotel on Rue Cadet not by French voices but the large number of Irish racegoers.

That was all of 45 years ago. Since then I have been back in Paris countless times. I stayed in Châtenay-Malabry in the suburbs of Paris in 1983 on my way to a mission conference in Hautefeuille, near Coullommiers. At the time, I was doing post-graduate theology at the Irish School of Ecumenics and Trinity College Dublin. Bob and Lois Witmer were Candian Mennonite missionaries, and the French philosopher Paul Ricœur (1913-2005) was their neighbour in the same suburb of Paris. They made me a welcome guest and they took time to bring me to Versailles. Back in Paris after that conference, I visited the Fast for Life protesters in Paris on behalf of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and then searched for art noveau Metro signs designed by the architect Hector Guimard.

I was back in Paris in 1995, taking part on behalf of The Irish Times in seminars with Journalistes en Europe, but cannot remember the name of the boutique hotel The Irish Times booked for me. There were two or three family visits and short breaks over a span of three or four years, including a visit to Eurodisney in 2001 that offered not one but two opportunities to spend a day in Paris, visiting Notre Dame and some other favourite churches, the Jewish area in Marais and lunch in the Latin Quarter by the Seine.

There was a visit to Paris with my mother and other family members in 2004. I took a light jog early each morning around La butte Montmartre before everyone else came down for breakfast, and that visit also allowed me to return to Versailles. And, of course, there brief stops in Paris on my way to and from different parts of the Middle East on working trips.

I have been through at least three airports in Paris: Charles de Gaulle, Orly and Beauvais. But this is my first to arrive here by Eurostar, and the journey this afternoon was interesting in itself.

We are staying in the Hotel Europe-Saint-Séverin on rue St Séverin, in the heart of the Latin Quarter. The nearby Church of Saint-Séverin was first built in 1230. Ater a fire, and was rebuilt and enlarged in the 15th to 17th centuries in the Flamboyant Gothic style. It became a parish church for students at the University of Paris and it is one of the oldest churches on the Left Bank.

In preparation for this week’s visit, I have been reading widely in French spirituality, and in my prayer diary on my blog each morningI have been reflecting on French saints, spiritual writers and thinkers .

No Irish journalist or writer can resist a few days in the city where Oscar Wilde found exile, where James Joyce found a publisher for Ulysses, and where Beckett died. But it is now many years since I have been in Paris, and I expect to find over these few days that I have forgotten how to make my away around the city.

On the other hand, I am not going to feel defeated. After all, no-one really knows Paris well enough. So I have no agenda for these few days. I want to be surprised and I want to be open to seeing the unexpected.

We are staying for two days in the Hotel Europe-Saint-Séverin in the heart of the Latin Quarter in Paris

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