A festival that’s over might seem like yesterday’s news. However, the Festival of Ideas, which took place 15-17 June in the Centre Culturel Irlandais (CCI) in Paris, left attendees with strong emotions as the large, ancient, wooden doors closed behind them.

So much was enjoyed and experienced, with so many words to be digested and cogitated. Expressing and contributing to a 2023 zeitgeist of ideas and questions around Ireland, like the memorable 1996 “L’Imaginaire Irlandais en France," this festival, conceived and curated by CCI director Nora Hickey M'Sichili, also had the élan of a new starting block. In words, song, and comedy, three days celebrated the 50th anniversary of Ireland joining the European Community in 1973.

During the festival, performers, writers, thinkers, musicians, and academics also explored just how expressive and political languages can be. Irish now has official status within the EU, and Brexit has seen the island of Ireland begin to rethink in all kinds of ways. Questions of peace, politics, and identity were also at the heart of many of the panels.

Fintan O’Toole kicked off the festival, speaking about why Ireland’s identity as a truly independent nation has been vindicated by EU membership. O’Toole, whose written voice is known and lauded, is fascinating in the flesh. One of Ireland’s leading intellectuals, his humor, intelligence, and insight wove a captivating tableau. As the applause finally dwindled, I felt a new pep in my step. Yes, we were the county that made our EU entry 50 years ago, “hanging onto Britain’s coattails,” but as O’Toole’s words and the song go, just “take a look at (us) now."

Poet Mary O’Malley then reminded us of the enduring importance of France and Europe for a writer’s psyche and sense of identity. The CCI provides artists in residence and visiting artists with an iconic, safe, outside-the-box haven, to create and communicate with each other. Her words also brought home how lucky those living in Paris are. Life in the City of Light, like anywhere, can adopt a “metro, work, sleep rhythm." Many tend to still work 9 am-6 pm, even though habits have changed for some since Covid. I’m still a 5/5, 9 to 6er, and the sun-filled days at a festival, underlining that we live in one of the most vibrant cities in the world, had a distinctive “In the Summertime” Mungo Jerry vibe.

Musician and composer Liam Ó Maonlaí’s performance mesmerized, as the movements by Basque dancer and choreographer Amaia Elizaran interwove powerful images and on-the-pulse energy. Ó Maonlaí was later joined by Jack L, Paddy Sherlock, Martyn Mulhere, Stephanie Nic Cárthaigh, William Howard, and other musicians at the first of the festival’s seisiúin. He reigned like a Celtic God in the twilight, both ethereal and powerful, always mindful to pull other musicians into the limelight. The unbridled joy in the ancient cobbled courtyard was akin to what the young protagonists experienced in “Jimmy's Hall" (Ken Loach, 2014).

Irish was omnipresent over the three days; the poetic, guttural words were translated, igniting a yearning for more. The days of the old-fashioned Gaeilgeoirí of my youth, more exclusive than inclusive, are dead and gone. “All changed, changed utterly.” Irish words shared by artists and poets were framed by Hickey M'Sichili and William Howard’s introductions in Irish, English, and French. I originally intended only to attend Fintan O’Toole’s talk, however, “man plans, God laughs." Pulled in by that first day, I turned up on the following two.

Howard, Teagascóir na Gaeilge (Irish teacher) at the CCI Paris from Maynooth University, kicked off the second day with a workshop in Irish. Despite the early 6 pm start, people were spilling out of the conference room, as they learned to sing three songs, including “Óro Mo Bháidín," living proof that teaching is a vocation, and that passion beats humdrum hands down. He also chaired the discussion on the theme of the politics and politicization of languages on the third day and performed at the nightly seisiúin.

Following William Howard on the second day of the festival, poets Ciara Ní É and Ben Mac Caoilte recited in Irish and English to gasps of appreciation, amazement, and even tears.

When did Irish become so in vogue? And is Ireland now embracing bilingualism with renewed vigor?

They left the stage to musician and composer Jack Lukeman with his deep melodious voice and showmanship, accompanied by his good friend, Paris-based musician Paddy Sherlock on trombone. They set the CCI on fire.

Although the final festival day, Saturday, kicked off at 10:30 am, I could only get there at 7 pm for “Peace & Politics," the festival’s grand finale discussion. 25 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, journalist and broadcaster Dearbhail McDonald interviewed priest and writer Aidan Troy, who has tirelessly campaigned for peace since his time in Ardoyne, Belfast.

Troy agreed with McDonald’s remark that “the Troubles didn’t end with a stroke of a pen," and believes that 25 years after the GFA, peace is fragile. Brexit-related issues, and sectarian violence, linked with drug violence are all concerns. Troy and McDonald agreed that until walls in the mind were dismantled, the still-existing sectarian walls wouldn’t come down. They hope for changes in education; 96% of children in Northern Ireland currently attend segregated schools.

Troy was at the center of international attention during the 2001-2002 Holy Cross, Ardoyne protests. For months, he led Catholic schoolgirls to the front door of their school, despite abuse and death threats. He only accepted his place at the head of the cortège when someone explained to him, “if you’re shot, you won’t leave a family behind." Those protests “saw images of Catholic schoolgirls running a gauntlet of abuse from loyalist protesters as they walked to school beamed across the world”.

Although more a God’s “man on the ground,” Troy’s long Passionists habit saved the day on several occasions. On the day, he was informed there was a sniper among the Ardoyne loyalist protesters; an unusual eerie silence reigned. Just the sound of his and the children’s feet striking the pavement rang in his ears. Advancing confidently, his habit hid the terror in his knocking knees!

His experiences in Northern Ireland gave him a wealth of knowledge and resilience for what would later happen in Paris. When angry Yellow Vest protesters invaded the courtyard of Saint Joseph’s, his Paris parish church, Troy donned his habit before facing the aggrieved crowd. “Silence, please," he asked the stunned protesters. Dialogue ensued, and he welcomed them to use the facilities and avail of water. Saint Joseph’s was the only building on Avenue Hoche, near the Arc de Triomphe, whose windows weren’t smashed that day. Always frontline, to protect youth, in the wake of the 2015 Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris, Troy was mindful that Muslim school children shouldn’t suffer ostracization.

The last musical act of the festival was the Connemara duo Séamus and Caoimhe Uí Fhlatharta, performing Irish trad music and song. It was a story with a happy ending. Séamus’s harp (like the mythical Dagda’s harp), along with his tin whistle and suitcase, were lost that day on his flight from Dublin to Paris! A frantic Tweet had musicians in Paris rallying to his rescue, and the hero of the day, Scottish musician Jordan Kay, managed to get his own harp to the CCI in time for the performance. Olivier Wagner, an Irish trad musician from France, lent Séamus his tin whistle. This melting pot of community spirit was evocative of the festival itself.

The third and final seisiún was led by Inni-K, who had performed earlier in the courtyard chapel. Festivities ended in the early hours of Sunday morning.

I didn’t get to even half the events during the festival’s full, rich program. What I did see made me laugh, cry, dance, and more importantly, made me think...The CCI team’s warm welcome and rich cultural agenda continues on June 21 when thousands gather in the CCI courtyard for the annual Fête de la Musique (Music Festival).

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