AIF Mary McAleese Black Tie Dinner
Anyone on the Pyrmont Bridge in Sydney last Tuesday night, wondering where all the well-dressed, good-looking people were headed, wonder no more! The place to be was at The Star, where the Australian Ireland Fund hosted a black tie dinner for former Irish President Mary McAleese. The purpose of the gathering was to raise funds for the Chair of Modern Irish Studies at the University of New South Wales. It is a cause well remembered by and close to the heart of Dr McAleese, and she recalled launching the fundraising campaign on her first visit over here as a ‘baby president’ in 1998.
Dr McAleese is a wonderful, intelligent, warm speaker. She didn’t disappoint on Tuesday night, regaling the audience with anecdotes about her childhood, her first trips to Australia as President, and even getting in a zeitgeisty reference to the recent ice bucket challenge craze – noting Ireland’s ‘collective dousing’ in 2008. She displayed a true understanding of the background of the new waves of Irish arriving into Australia, stating that ‘Australia has always been the shock absorber for Ireland’ when things go bad.
Dr McAleese is better equipped than most to talk about the importance of the work that The Ireland Funds do. In sharing her memories of her childhood and adolescence in Belfast, she painted a vivid picture of what life was like in the North of Ireland for her generation, and the chasm that organisations like The Ireland Funds have helped to breach with their assistance.
She was also clear and engaging about the importance of the discipline of Irish Studies and its continuing relevance today. Crediting access to education as the key to her successes in life, she stressed the ongoing importance of education in the resolution of the issues in Northern Ireland. She specifically mentioned parts of Ireland’s troubled history which had been covered up, for example Irish participation in World War I. We heard again that amazing statistic that more Irish soldiers died at Gallipoli than Australian and New Zealand losses put together. She credited Irish Studies programmes around the world with being the tool that has revealed these different versions of Irish history, and in doing so have removed the complacency around certain versions of events in our past.
A special presentation of The Ireland Funds Bird and Bell award was made by Dr. McAleese and Chairman John O’Neill AO to Lady Mary Fairfax AC, OBE for all her support over the last 10 years to integrated education in Northern Ireland. The award was accepted by Lee Thomas on Lady Fairfax’s behalf.
The event was ably compered by Kerry Chickarovski, former NSW Liberal party leader and board member of the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation, a great cause supported by the AIF. Other speakers included the Chair of the Australian Ireland Fund, John O’Neill AO, who warmly welcomed Dr McAleese back to Australia. Irish Ambassador to Australia Noel White spoke about the importance of the AIF and its support for the Chair of Modern Irish Studies. He spoke about the central place of both in the narrative of the achievements of the Irish aboard. Professor Ronan McDonald of the Global Irish Studies Centre in NSW, ably closed the evening with a comprehensive summary of the work done by the Centre and the importance of being able to continue this. Many great supporters of the Chair of Modern Irish Studies were acknowledged on the evening, including Professor Patrick O’Farrell, former Irish Ambassador Richard O’Brien, and Mary Lee.
Of course the main purpose of the event was to raise funds, and that ambition was met fully, thanks to our generous attendees and sponsors. Over $62,000 was raised on the night. Finally, there were 3 lucky winners of some gorgeous raffle prizes, some generously donated by Charles Curran AC and Peter Ryan. Thanks again to all who attended and donated on the night.