John Lee

 John Lee bust in the Irish College, Paris
Reverend John Lee (Dublin, ??—1620) is credited as founding the first Irish College in Paris. Lee arrived there with six student priests in 1578 to create the “communauté des étudiants irlandais à Paris”. Lee, who came from a Waterford merchant family with strong commercial connections to France, had the students admitted to the Collège de Montaigu in the University of Paris, before transferring them—perhaps on account of financial difficulties—to the nearby Collège de Navarre, where Lee’s successor as leader of the Irish community, Thomas Dease (Turbotstown, Co. Westmeath, 1568—Galway, 1652), was appointed to the chair of theology in 1612. Both of these colleges, which were on the Montagne Saint-Geneviève, just beside the Panthéon (5th arrondissement) disappeared in the latter part of the 18th century, and the buildings that housed them demolished in the 19th century).

While supervising the stream of Irish students that arrived in Paris after 1578, Lee was also attached to the church of St Séverin in the street of the same name (5th arrondissement). Lee was thus a busy man and must have been an able administrator. But was there something more to Lee than that? A briefing for an English spy sent to Paris in 1601 states that “There is one Leigh (? Lee) an Irishman there (in Paris), but speaks English well and naturally. It is thought him to be a dangerous man, but what intelligence he gives I cannot certifye you...but all English in Paris are affeared of him and will not converse with him nor use his company.”

 The Collège de Navarre chapel in 1809  St Séverin church
Lee’s entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography tells us that he rented a house for Irish students in rue St. Thomas around 1600. This street, which was more precisely called rue St. Thomas du Louvre, ran approximately from the current Place du Palais Royal (1st arrondissement) through the Louvre as far as the Seine before it was destroyed in the mid 19th century. But by 1605, the Irish student body, with Lee at their head, had decamped to another residence in rue de Sèvres (6th arrondissement) back on the Left Bank. The Irish were able to make this move thanks to Jean de l’Escalopier, baron de St. Just, president of the Paris parlement and eminent jurist, who not helped the Irish find their new lodgings, but also contributed to the maintenance of the community. L’Escalopier’s generosity became legendary. A century and a half later, Father James MacGeoghegan, who was elected as one of the Provisors of the Collège des Lombards in 1734, wrote in his History of Ireland, Ancient and Modern that:

“Every day that could be spared from public business, he [L’Escalopier] passed with the Irish exiles…He was frequently with them in the refectory, where his humility was such that, forgetful of his rank as first magistrate of France, and as proof of his respect for the exiled clergymen, he always chose the last place at the table. According as they had completed their studies, and were prepared to return to their country, their illustrious patron, in order to prove their capability, had them examined by Père Binet, a learned Jesuit of the time; he then himself presented them to Cardinal Retz, bishop of Paris, to receive their mission from him; after which they were furnished with clothes and everything necessary for the voyage, at his expense.”

L’Escalopier died in 1620, but through his patronage, the newly-established Irish community was introduced to the high echelons of French aristocratic society. These connections were to serve the Irish well, although it was not until the 1677 that the Irish were finally granted premises for their own college, the Collège des Lombards, in rue des Carmes (5th arrondissement)...a full 99 years after John Lee first arrived with his six students.

Select Bibliography

History of Ireland, Ancient and Modern (1831-1832)
James MacGeoghegan

Collège des Irlandais Paris & Irish Studies (2001)
Prionsias Mac Anna

The Irish-French Connection, 1578-1978 (1978)
Ed. Liam Swords