Soon after the outbreak of war in September 1939, all the seminarians and teachers in the Irish College were evacuated back home, leaving Travers to keep watch over the place. The local air-raid protection outfit asked for use of one of the College’s halls as an administrative and storage centre, but the ‘Phoney War’ that endured for seven months was otherwise uneventful. There were plenty of air raid alarms, but bar a burst of anti-aircraft fire against a solitary German plane that flew over the French capital in November 1939, “there was nothing of importance for a long time,” according to Fr. Travers. He even managed to get back to Ireland for Christmas 1939, only to return to confront an Irish College riddled with burst pipes.
Things changed radically in May 1940 when the Germans launched their Blitzkrieg against western Europe. As the Germans approached Paris in early June, Con Cremin and Seán Murphy at the Irish Legation offered to take Travers out of Paris in their car.
On his return to the Irish College, Fr. Travers was happy to see that everything was as he had left it. Shortly afterwards, a solitary attempt by the Germans to requisition the College was beaten off by Travers and the Irish Legation who “strenuously maintained that it was Irish property and that Ireland had remained outside the war”. Various French organisations also tried to avail of the vast, empty Irish College during the war years, especially in view of France's housing crisis. Eventually, Travers gave permission to use two or three of the largest halls on the property as store rooms for emergency food supplies. By so doing, according to Travers, he ensured that the College was not sought “for less desirable purposes”.
By the autumn of 1940, food shortages were beginning to bite so Travers decided to turn his hand to market gardening, although most of the College courtyard was under cement. Nonetheless, his acquaintance with one of the gardeners in the nearby Luxembourg Gardens ensured he got soil and manure, allowing him to grow potatoes, tomatoes and a range of other vegetables. He often exchanged his bounty with his neighbours for other items.
But the acquisition of six hens was not a success, with five of the six dying without having laid a single egg. More successful was his cook-cum-concierge’s rabbit-breeding initiative, “although one can get tired of too much rabbit for dinner”. Fortunately for Travers, a Miss Mary Maher of Laval, who had spent most of her life in France, sent two geese for Christmas dinner in 1942, and continued to send parcels of egg, meat, cheese and butter right up to the end of the war.
In August 1940, Travers received a visit from a German officer who said he has spent 15 years in Ireland “as an organist and professor of music in Carlow”. He saw the same man (unnamed) several more times during the four-year Occupation. At one stage, Father Travers was invited to broadcast for the Germans on Radio Paris—an offer he wisely thought “better not to reply to at all and the matter was not pursued further”. But Travers tells us that his life in occupied Paris was dull and monotonous bar the occasional air raid, especially as D-Day approached.
On August 19, 1944, an uprising began in Paris against the German garrison. Resistance policemen took over the town hall of the 5th arrondissement, just 200 metres from the Irish College, provoking a half-hearted attempt by three German tanks parked on the place du Panthéon to dislodge them. At one stage, the police wanted to place their German prisoners in the Irish College—but again Travers refused to become involved, pointing out that 300 tons of food were already stored there. At last, the Americans arrived and on the place du Panthéon where just four days before German tanks had been in action, Fr. Travers got chatting with a GI whose parents were from Roscommon. Finally, Travers consented to the use of the College as a transit centre for newly freed prisoners of war (“on condition that certain repairs were carried out to electrical and plumbing installations”) and in June 1945 it became a centre for displaced persons claiming U.S. citizenship.
“Some Experiences During the War Years: The Irish College in Paris 1939-1945”,
Patrick Travers, republished in Colloque, the quarterly review of the Irish Vincentians (no. 18, autumn 1988)
The war years >