Fred Johnston  is an Irish poet, novelist, literary critic and musician. He is the founder and current director of the Western Writers’ Centre in Galway. He co-founded the Irish Writers’ Co-operative in 1974, and founded Galway’s annual Cúirt International Festival of Literature in 1986. His Recent work has appeared in The Spectator, The New Statesman, STAND, and on RTE’s ‘Arena.’ His most recent collection is ‘Alligator Days’ (Revival Press) and he is working on a translation of Béroul’s prose edition of ‘Tristan et Iseut.’


By Fred Johnston

Like most people, I watched the reports and pictures of the blaze at the great cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris with feelings of sorrow and wonder. Parisians were on their knees singing the Ave Maria under the glow of the yellow flames rising out of the ancient roof. Smoke billowed over the city of Paris to create an apocalyptic scene worthy of the imaginative excesses of mediæval divines. One imagined that, in early times, the cathedral’s destruction might, to many, have heralded the end of the world.

It was impossible not to reflect on the wonderful midnight Mass I attended there one Christmas some years ago, or the leisurely strolls taken in the crowds assembled on the parvis before the cathedral; or indeed reading poetry outside the hallowed bookshop of Shakespeare and Co., which sits under the lee of the great edifice, chatting there to that marvelous Irish poet, the late Desmond O’Grady. Anyone who has visited Paris will have taken time to see the cathedral, some, perhaps, spurred on by Victor Hugo’s novel, ‘Notre-Dame de Paris,’ ‘The Hunchback of Notre- Dame,’ which is a hymn to the cathedral, though many readers have fixated on the melancholy figure of Quasimodo or the dark spectral figure of Archdeacon Claude Frollo, who had adopted him as his son and whose dabbling in alchemy raises rumours of sorcery. Hugo was interested in the preservation of Gothic architecture in his time and his novel is a flash piece of propagandizing. Yet the eager 19th century restoration work of architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, responsible for the town of Carcassone as we know it today and other Gothic buildings damaged during the Revolution, was criticised for being fantastical, even fanciful, owing more to his imagination than to history.

Anyone who has been there maintains a very personal memory, a sort of gift, which glows at the heart of their visit. No photograph, no video, can quite convey the sense of awe emanating from the great cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, Our Lady of Paris. Swift offers of funding towards rebuilding and restoration oddly became controversial, nay-sayers suggesting – missing the point entirely – that the edifice wasn’t worth the sums being offered. The main stone structure remained intact from the flames and many precious artworks and relics having been saved from destruction. (Some recent suggestions as to the form restoration may take have been quite hideous.) Somehow the great Rose Windows survived with only minimal damage. Yet it was a heart-stopping moment when the tall needle-like spire, ‘la flèche,’ built in 1859, tumbled, blazing, into the fire below. The original had been built in 1250.

The French Gothic cathedral was begun in 1160 under the direction of Bishop Maurice de Sully, and it was completed a century later, in 1260, in subsequent years undergoing many renovations. It is believed that the cathedral stands on the site of a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter. It is often forgotten that the building of a cathedral entailed the labour of local people, from artisans such as masons and carpenters to bakers and glass-workers. This labour engaged whole families and their descendants, working over many generations, which may go some way to explaining the feelings of loss and sadness felt by native Parisians during the recent fire. We tend to forget that the building of a cathedral of the era of Notre-Dame brought skilled labour to Paris as well as accommodating local labour; the consequent economic value to the small city Paris then was would have been very considerable. The building of a cathedral contributed directly to the expansion of the town.

A cathedral was not a vague idea or aspiration, but a project of praise centered on local dedication and devotion. At some point the outside of the cathedral, where we now see a stone surface, would have been painted in gay colours, as would the pillars and walls within the structure; to enter the cathedral would have been to enter a bright, dazzling, radiant and heavenly vision full of religious and redemptive symbolism, a divine oasis which comforted and enriched congregations who could neither read nor write and whose lives were short and impoverished. Here, indeed, was an anti-room of Paradise, a sheltering glimpse of an eternity of light and magical radiance where the saints prayed in frames of precious glass that shone like jewels. Here it was possible to believe in God. More than a refuge for the soul-sick and the searching, a cathedral offered a taste, at least a hint, of the paradise promised to the devout. There was more colour, more visual distraction under this great roof than an illiterate and often impoverished citizen of Paris might expect to experience in a lifetime. If daily drudgery, illness and hunger was an unstinting grey, then the gaudy illuminations, the sacred sounds and spaces of Notre-Dame, were surely its spiritually ravishing antithesis, a living vision of Heaven. Little wonder either that music itself underwent immense changes in this cathedral as time passed, from monophony to polyphony, from hymns of praise for one voice to echoing cascades of praise from several.

Steeped in our chillier age of electronic reason, cynical visual manipulation, computer-generated images and ‘virtual reality,’ we cannot now comprehend the impact of such a space, whose towers touched the skies and where every sound, every word, echoed and re-echoed as if into infinity. Nor can we quite conceive of the edifice as a great triumphal roar in stone, which it almost certainly was to those who saw the cathedral as they approached the fledgling Paris; terrifying, awe-inspiring, proof that Man could, in his efforts to praise God, perform miracles, throw walls and towers into the air high above the roofs of common humanity. For a cathedral was eternity wrapped up and parceled by hands of flesh; that God might better favour His creation.

We are used to buildings that do not last, in which there’s a ‘built-in obsolescence.’ Everything is given an end date – a cathedral was built to last for eternity. At once a symbol of power and humility, of grandeur and servitude, it was intended to outlive its builders. In a real way, it was not alone the soul, but the beating heart of a city. Hence I find all talk of the worthlessness of restoring Notre-Dame akin in a real way to denying the identity it has created around it and the history of the people who put on that identity. If one believes that restoring Notre-Dame is a strictly French affair, then one must also believe that the fate of the Taj Mahal, of St. Peter’s in Rome, of Machu Picchu, the pyramids at Giza and the structures at Newgrange does is not the responsibility of the world, but rather of some thin-skinned nationalism. In a world ruled by madmen who gather nourishment from war and death, Notre-Dame de Paris is a well at which hope may sip, at which some sort of spiritual understanding of our place in the world can be declared and some order of sanity maintained.

It is fervently to be hoped that no time will be lost in beginning Notre-Dame’s reconstruction. As someone remarked as the cathedral burned, it is ‘l’âme de Paris,’ the soul of Paris. It has survived wars and revolutions. It will survive again.