Foreign missions — Frank McNally on Irish culture’s long reach, via Paris, Rome, and California

A day to remember for many devout followers of culture

Irish cultural influence may not be an empire on which the sun never sets, exactly. But as events in Paris, Rome, and Venice California will illustrate on Friday, it casts a very long shadow.

In the Eternal City at 6pm on Friday evening, a group of Irish and Italian artists, bolstered by at least two ambassadors, will launch La Casa della Cultura Irlandese, aka Áras Éigse Éireann.

Like its equivalent on the Rue des Irlandais in Paris, the Irish Cultural Centre in Rome will make its debut appearance in an old religious college, in this case on the Via degli Ibernesi.

Unlike the one in Paris, however, the Roman pontifical college is still in business training priests, as it has done since January 1st, 1628, when they couldn’t be trained in Ireland.


The Casa della Cultura is merely borrowing the venue’s “rather fabulous salone”, as described by one of the main movers behind the new centre, artist Eve Parnell. Future residency arrangements have yet to be worked out.

Like many great ideas, this one first emerged during the dark days of the Covid lockdowns, when a group of like-minded people started meeting online to share traditional music sessions, talks, and cooking demos, among other things.

Now they plan to establish “a vibrant cultural centre in Italy”, to host exhibitions, live performances, workshops, and other educational projects. It is also hoped to establish a library.

In summary, say the organisers, “we aim to cultivate a thriving hub where artists, poets, musicians, dancers, actors, and directors can showcase their talent and skills to audiences and enthusiasts in both Ireland and Italy.”

Friday’s inaugural event, sponsored by Culture Ireland, is booked out. Among the project’s many well-wishers, via a letter, was President Michael D Higgins.


February 2nd is the Christian feast of Candlemas, marking 40 days since the birth of Jesus, when hardcore traditionalists finally take down their Christmas decorations.

But for many devout followers of culture, the date is chiefly significant as the birthday of James Joyce, when Joyceans take down their copies of Ulysses – published on this date in 1922 – from the shelves and dust them off for another season.

Hence, indirectly, an event in Paris on Friday, where cultural historian Brendan Lynch will doff his cap to the birthday boy while launching a book of his own in the venue where Ulysses was introduced to the world 102 years ago.

Lynch is a cultural geographer as much as historian, because having written a previous book on “Baggotonia”, his latest work is about another Bohemian enclave of Dublin, Graftonia, as named by a man who had citizenship of both, Patrick Kavanagh.

Well at least it was in the short-lived newspaper Kavanagh’s Weekly that the name “Graftonia” first appeared in 1952, over a sort-of social column.

But Lynch suspects it was coined by John Ryan, publisher and publican, whose magazine Envoy was central to Graftonian culture, circa 1950, and published from an address on Grafton Street itself.

As to Graftonia’s borders, these were “elastic”, says the author. They extended at least as far north as Dame Street, if not Westmoreland (long home to The Irish Times), and included Dawson, Kildare, South William and other parallels to the main drag.

Paris may be pushing the boundaries slightly. But the excuse for a launch there – the Dublin one was in the United Arts Club last October – is that many Graftonians (including Kavanagh and Behan, both of whom Lynch met) sojourned occasionally in the City of Light.

Then there was the personal invitation from the man who now owns the former premises of Shakespeare & Co, on Rue de l’Odéon, where Sylvia Beach published Ulysses.

The venue is today a fashion boutique called Moicani, but the proprietor Jean Helfer is an ardent Joycean, with a university thesis to prove it. When he heard that Lynch’s new book would finish with Joyce’s departure to Paris in 1904, Helfer invited the author to launch it on the premises, an offer he couldn’t refuse.


The timing of Friday night’s Rome event was a coincidence, more to do with the pontifical college curriculum than with Joyce or St Brigid. But Joyce’s birthday is the immediate reason for a gathering in Venice Beach, California, at lunchtime on Friday.

I mentioned here last autumn (Diary, October 4th) that a Venice book club led by former Frank Zappa associate Gerry Fialka was about to complete a 28-year-saga of reading and analysing Finnegans Wake in short excerpts, once a month.

In passing, about 20 years ago, they will have noticed an apposite line on page 154: “And let me be Los Angeles.”

Which, depending on how you interpret it, could sound like a plea from Joyce for mercy. But Los Angeles is not letting him be, anytime soon. After a short hibernation, the group will start the book again Friday and continue, presumably, for another three decades.