St.Patricks Dinner in Brisbane

St. Patricks Day in Brisbane
OK this is late, but a lot is happening here in Brisbane. Our furniture arrived from Ireland-all 202 units of it. So emptying boxes has taken over any free times in the day. The delivery started at 7am on the 16th, but at 5pm the work had to stop as I was fingered to give a talk at the annual St. Patrick’s Day Dinner at the Irish Club. I was surprised to be invited but soon learned that I was a stop-gap. Typically a minister travels from Ireland and proposes the toast “The day we celebrate”. But the election in Ireland had taken place just before The Day and nobody was sent to Brisbane. In any case there is an annual newspaper shock-horror expose in Ireland where the costs of the ministerial visits (junkets inevitably in tabloid speak) are held up to shock the tax-payers. The value of maintaining the contacts with Diaspora is never factored in. Most other countries in the world would treasure a global celebration of their culture and history, but Ireland takes it for granted and pokes criticism at those who travel to maintain a good image of the country.
So I was pointed to by the Irish Embassy and the Irish club took a risk by asking me to do that duty. What I did not realise was that I was the one that was taking the risk!! A first indication of the challenge of the event came on the previous Saturday morning when I was on the reviewing stand for the St. Patrick’s Day parade. The Mayor of Brisbane Campbell Newman solemnly wished me luck for the dinner and said it was the hardest audience he ever faced. Then I learned that annually about 500 attended, drink flowed prodigiously and the speeches were to entertain and not really inform. Cheering and jeering was to be expected depending on the performance.
On the day itself I was too involved in emptying boxes and shifting things about to do any formal preparation. I had checked to see what could be celebrated on the 16th (as that was the day of the dinner i.e. the day we celebrate!) and had a start in mind for the speech-but otherwise I was pre-occupied by a search through the boxes for the one that had my dinner jacket and fancy shirt as it was a Black Tie event. When I found them, they proved to be unwearable as they were as creased and crumpled as a discarded piece of paper. Bad Start! Undaunted we went to the Irish club and there was excitement spilling out onto the street. A piper played as well known people arrived; The Australian Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott, The Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd, The Premier of Queensland Anna Bligh, The leader of the opposition in Queensland John Paul Langbroek, The Catholic, Anglican and Unitarian Bishops, The chief of the Army and the Airforce, the mayor and multiple MPs and well known dignitaries. And me in my brown suit and tie.
Before the dinner, we, the top table and other key members of Brisbane society were ushered in to the president’s room. It was like being in the dressing room before an important match. Tales of former years were recounted. A highlight had been the clash between Tony Abbott and the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd the previous year that was followed soon after by replacement of Rudd as Prime minister by his colleague Julia Gillard. We were not to know it then, but within a few days of the event this year the leader of the opposition in Queensland John Paul Langbroek resigned as the Mayor Campbell Newman made a push for his position. But in the room of the President the Irish Club, it was all back-slapping camaraderie. Then the supporting teams were sent into the dining area and we at the top table were lined up in a predetermined order in two lines and marched out behind a piper-like teams marching around Croke Park behind the Artane Band.
It was a shock to move into the room. Like a series of Rockies entering the boxing arena we faced well warmed up crowds that excitedly cheered and waved as we passed to the table. It was on a raised platform from which a good view was possible -but a strange one for me as I did not recognise any of the animated faces. Words from Padraic Colum’s poem The Drover came to mind;”…..Loud words and dark Faces and the wild blood behind” .Each table had a good supply of wine and beer and the food was planned after the first toasts. Things got down to business with Tony Abbott proposing the toast to Australia. He was cheered and applauded as he poked fun at his political rival Kevin Rudd seated close by and forced to smile , with references to events and places that do not yet mean anything to me. More than anything he, as first speaker , showed me what was needed……and it was not a history of some unknown saint who had a feast day on the 16th.When the applause died down for him, I was next to the podium. On my way I reflected on how bizarre life is when a Sligo scientist ends up facing a challenging auditorium/coliseum in Brisbane to talk around the subject of St. Patrick! I started with the saints of the 16th but switched the story to point out that these unknowns were all from an earlier day and that real miracles like the Kevin O’Brien century against England in cricket did not get him the beatification it deserved. I then characterised St. Patrick as a “Blow-in” and if he came from Wales, as is one claim, he would not be welcome after the Phillips foul try against Ireland in the 6 Nations nor would he be welcome if he came from France (the other story) because of Thierry Henry’s double handballed goal in the World cup. In my view Patricks was a master marketeer using the green branding as if it was his own. And I wondered how the people understood him…but maybe those from Derry thought he was from Kerry and vice versa as they would not have had the benefit of travel or radio and training from Jackie Healy-Ray. And so I went on moving to some more serious aspects that recognised that what we celebrated really was the fact that we are Irish. I gave some positive current data about Ireland ,such as the fact that it had the second highest balance of trade in 2010 in Europe and that Intel still thought it the right place to make a new half a billion investment.
By now the background murmur had begun to increase in volume and I knew it was time to change tack and end up. So I brought my discourse to a close by reminding them of an unusual Aussie emigrant song from the sixties…If you only had old Ireland over here. It had the prophetic line “…..if the Shannon rivers joined the Brisbane waters” a neat link to the Brisbane flooding. Did they know the song? ? YEAAAAH. Would they sing it YEAAAAH!!! And so I lead off and they carried through to the end even the parts I forgot. I escaped! Job done! Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) brought to a wider consciousness. But mostly I had survived.
Real clever speeches by all the pros I mentioned before followed. Increasingly I could absorb the evening without feeling threatened by it. I had that strange feeling of being more Irish by being abroad than I would feel at “home”; the emigrant feeling of the need to be linked to the roots. All in the room were answering the same call even if they were third generation. None of the 15000 backpacking Irish working holidayers were there and probably none of the 23000 who immigrated to Australia from Ireland in 2010 either. But those present were happy to be in Brisbane, happy to sing “Advance Australia Fair” as well as “The soldiers Song” and probably wondering of “all the strange things that would happen if we had Old Ireland here”

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