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Letters to Paris: 'The Night Notre-Dame Burned'

The Croft Magazine // Xander Brett remembers the night of the Notre-Dame fire, and considers how the event has affected the city.

By Xander Brett, Third Year, History of Art and French

The Croft Magazine // Xander Brett remembers the night of the Notre-Dame fire, and considers how the event has affected the city.

22nd November, 2020

The Île de la Cité is France’s religious heart, and the beat of that heart is the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. Home to coronations, state funerals and venerations, this bastion now sits with singed edges, covered in a cocoon of scaffolding and tarpaulin. The great fire of 15th April, 2019, will live long in history. That we lived through it is fascinating. I was in Ireland that night, yet the shock of the French capital was just as palpable. I remember stepping into a taxi in Dublin, with the radio on full volume delivering the details. There was such an incredible sense of disbelief, and it was no surprise that within the minutes – seconds even – that followed the news, we turned to blame and conspiracy. It would later emerge the culprit was a lax restorer on the cathedral’s roof.

Notre-Dame | Epigram / Xander Brett

Late that evening, the president and prime minister visited the disaster site, briefing the press and taking overall control of the operation. Those images of President Macron on ‘Ground Zero’, with the flames still visible behind him, remain extremely powerful. They’re a reminder that the unity of France depends on its history and heritage. Certainly, it also reminds us that, though this is a secular nation, France’s identity is undeniably Catholic. President Macron remains determined to complete rebuilding by 2024, in time for the Paris Olympics that year. Just a day after he appealed for donations, millions flooded in. Today, it’s billions. Funding came from national governments, millionaires, billionaires and ordinary people. All of French society, all determined to resurrect a pillar of Paris and a beacon for their tourists. The former prime minister Édouard Philippe announced a competition to redesign the wooden spire, whose toppling turned it to a falling flame thrower, though it has now been confirmed the cathedral will be rebuilt in line with its original Gothic structure.

A cocoon of scaffolding and tarpaulin | Epigram / Xander Brett

The most moving images that night were the crowds of Parisians who gathered along the riverbank, not to gawp but to weep. They joined hands to sing hymns and mourn the loss of their ‘lady’, making way for fire engines speeding through. I’ve always found Notre-Dame an imposing, sinister structure… no doubt aided by such dubious characters as Quasimodo. But I couldn’t help feeling some sympathy for the Parisians, whose beloved building now lies bandaging its wounds, hidden away from their eyes. The fate of Notre-Dame transcends secularism and division, and the determination of the French people suggests that its reconstruction will be completed by 2024. Thankfully, evening mass was evacuated in time and the heroic efforts of the fire brigade meant there were no deaths. But the Notre-Dame Fire was in many ways Paris’ 9/11. This is a city of frequent tragedy and attack, but to see a very symbol of the city destroyed was devastating. We must rebuild Notre-Dame brick for brick.

Featured Image: Epigram / Xander Brett

Listen to Xander's weekly Burst Radio podcast 'Letters from Paris'.