From an Irish Christmas Carol service to a cupla focal on the ear and sharing joy and packets of Tayto, Paris is, for this ex-pat of two decades, the most beautiful place to spend Christmas.

For me, three of the most beautiful places in the world to spend Christmas are Dublin, (where I was born and lived till I hit the diasporic boardwalk), New York, (where I lived for a couple of years) and Paris, now my ‘hometown’ for two decades.

Around Christmas, like many, I tend to view my life under a more critical magnifying glass and can be prone to a bout of the ‘Spancil Hill’ heebeegeebees. However, for family reasons we stay in Paris for Christmas, so what works for me is to make the best of both worlds, by enjoying the stunning beauty of Paris decked out for the season while delving right into the vibrant Irish community living in Paris.

The Irish community in Paris have outdone themselves this year and despite the strikes, all festivities were maintained and well underway before I even bought a sprig of holly.

Read more: The last miles on the road home for Christmas are always the best

On Dec 8 Santa brought gifts down the chimney of the Irish embassy in Paris for the girls and boys, of the ‘Irish in France’ association. ‘NetworkIrlande’ celebrated Christmas at the embassy on Dec 4 and the ‘Irish in France’ adult’s party takes place on Dec 16.

I’m not sure how it works for Irish living in other cities regarding invitations to embassy Christmas parties, however, Irish people in France, who are members of Irish associations, are invited to their association's party at the embassy. In New York going to Christmas midnight mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral is a closed-door event.

However, here in Paris, in the Chapelle Saint Patrick, at the Irish Cultural Centre, Msgr. Hugh Connolly, the Irish Chaplin to Paris, swings the doors wide open for everyone for the annual Christmas Carol Service, (Dec 14) and for Christmas Mass on the 25th at 11h30.

Irish Christmas carol service in Paris

Msgr. Connolly led the Christmas carol service accompanied by Fr. Aidan Troy, (from the Passionist order and Parish Priest of St Joseph’s English speaking Church) and Fr. Ronald Witherup, (Superior General of the French Sulpicien’s order from the mythical Saint Sulpice church), in the beautiful chapel where many of the Irish people living in France have been married and/or had their children baptized.

There are two images and a statue of St. Patrick in the chapel, and the backdrop of the Altar is a statue of the Blessed Virgin with the Child Jesus, before which Daniel O’Connell prayed when in Paris. The three languages of the Irish Chaplaincy in Paris are Irish, English and French. Fr. Aidan Troy spoke in English, Fr. Ronald Witherup in French, with Msgr. Hugh Connolly reading his sermon first in English and then in Irish.

Hearing the words in Irish second, had the benefit of watching the “Nuacht” just after the RTE's English news, helping you catch and remember the meaning of the Irish words. For those like me with only a ‘cúpla focal’, when the pennies dropped ‘as Gaeilge’, you could see our Irish eyes smiling with a sense of belonging and any lingering heebeegeebees evaporating in the incense.

The French and other nationalities present also greatly appreciate the authenticity of hearing Irish spoken.

H.E. Patricia O’Brien, Ambassador of Ireland to France and H.E. Dermot Nolan, Ambassador of Ireland and Permanent Representative to the OECD were there and read.

The choir get better each year. Ciara Mackle the musical director sang a solo, accompanied by Nicolas Vincent on piano, and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the church.

The carol repertoire brought me back to childhood; “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, “O Come all ye Faithful”, “Joy to the World”, “The Holly and the Ivy”, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing’’, “The first Noel’’ and "Oíche Chúin"  (“Silent Night in Irish”), and an exquisite French Carol “Un Flambeau Jeanete Isabella” (“Bring the torch Jeanette, Isabelle”) I’d never heard before. Apparently, it’s a French provincial carol (circa 1553).

As we all joined in the carol singing and practically raised the roof, I was surprised by a wonderful strong melodious voice behind me. I turned around smack into Liam O Maonlaí, heavyweight of Irish traditional music and member of ‘The Hothouse Flowers’! Bono described his voice as ‘the best white soul voice in the world’. He is currently an artist in residence at the Irish Cultural Centre.

The cement of Ireland’s special relationship with Paris has always been fortified through many a creative, talented Irish mind that meandered the labyrinths of Parisian life.

After the carols, people gathered in the old courtyard, which is loved by all the Irish living in and passing through Paris. The original Irish College was founded in 1578 by Joh Lee, a refugee from the penal laws. The College moved to the current location in 1769. The old stone walls of the building, constructed in 1605, protected many from hardship including those fleeing persecution during WWII.

I noticed Msgr. Hugh Connolly’s eye scanning the crowd as he socialized. I saw him make his way over to a man who was alone and who looked a bit melancholy. The man was drawn into the festivities and came alive with the banter. The words of Msgr. Connolly’s sermon stuck in my mind how Xmas ‘is truly a time of the unexpected, a time of surprise and a time of hope’. I replayed in my mind one of the verses he quoted from G. K. Chesterton’s poem ‘The Christ Child Lay On Mary's Lap’ (aka ‘A Christmas Carol’).

The Christ-child stood at Mary's knee,
His hair was like a crown.
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.

The stars sparkled down on us on the lovely mild evening and the party was in full swing with hot wine, mince pies, chocolate Santas for the young (and not so young) and halleluiah, Sonny Delaney was dolling out packets of Tayto crisps!

A friend asked me if I was ready for Christmas and I reminded her of the other G.K. Chesterton’s line Msgr. Connolly quoted ‘the only way to view Christmas properly is to stand on one’s head’. Being in such a building reminds us that all the fanfare of commercial Christmas is not at ‘the heart of Xmas’. Msgr. Connolly also reminded us that ‘although we have stood here, year after year, as the generations who have gone before us, the wonder has not faded nor will it ever fade’. In the shelter of the old stones I shivered as some former resident, soldier, priest, scholar or artist walked quietly over my grave.

G.K. Chesterton is often referred to as the "prince of paradox" and I thought he’d enjoy that his words were echoed in the 18th century Chapel in the Centre, which paradoxically although an old haven on hallowed, calm ground is also where cutting edge Irish contemporary culture is created and showcased on one of the most important international stages of culture.

The Carol Service and party was a huge success but of course, the Irish Cultural Centre and the Chapelle Saint Patrick are open year-round, with a rich cultural programme and the chapel hosts a year-round mass at 11.30 on Sundays. The Chaplaincy also offers other pastoral services to Irish people in Paris and throughout France including baptisms, weddings and funerals as well as hospital and prisons visitation. Plans for the ‘Irish in France’ 3rd St Patrick’s Parade, which steps out from the Centre after the 11H30 mass on Sunday 15th March, are also well underway (date and time TBC on http://irishinfrance.wixsite.com/irishinfrance).

It might have been the hot wine, or the newfound conviction that I was definitely in the best city for me, on my way home from the festivities I mistakenly sang ‘If you’re Irish - come over to Pah-ree! (Paris)’. I strode down through the Place du Pantheon, whose grandeur has been beautifully contrasted with seven scintillating Xmas trees lined up at the front of the Pantheon building, while the hotel fronts and cafés lining the place are decked out in luxury similar to holiday season New York. With my stiletto boots laced together and swung over my shoulder, in my walking shoes I melted into the throngs of people walking, cycling, skateboarding and roller-skating home. James Connolly our own father of social revolution said there can be no revolution ‘without the defiant, singing of revolutionary songs.’[1] I’m not at all sure my ‘as long as you come to Pah-ree there’s a welcome on the mat’, marching song would qualify. However, with a lockout on transport in Paris, it got me home.

Nollaig Shona libh go leir!

Read more: A hard Christmas it was in London in the 1960s

[1] The James Connolly Songbook’, WCML.org

https://www.wcml.org.uk/wcml/en/our-collections/the-james-connolly-songbook/

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The choir putting the finishing touches to their repertoire before the magical Carol ServiceMsgr. Hugh Connolly.