Emigrants abroad

Well, that’s St Patrick’s Day done and dusted for another year. For me, anyway. It’s taking me longer and longer to recover from the endurance test that masks itself as a celebration. And this year, like other years, it included a few firsts.

I’ve always wanted to see the inside of Magyar Tudományos Akadémia (the Hungarian Academy of Sciences) and this year, it happened, courtesy of an invite from the Irish Ambassador, His Excellency Kevin Dowling, to a lunch-time National Day event, with guest of honour Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Irish Minister of State for New Communities, Culture and Equality.

The building, designed by architect Friedrich August Stüler, is a blend of the Renaissance style of Northern Italy and the Neo-Renaissance tendencies of Berlin. Suffice to say, it’s gorgeous and sitting where it does on the banks of the Danube, somewhat dwarfed by the Four Seasons across the road, it’s a classic reminder of life in Budapest in the late 1800s.

After we applauded two Hungarians students who won bursaries to study in Ireland, the Minister introduced St Patrick as an immigrant (a perspective I’d not heard before) and situated him the context of immigration today. He spoke of immigrants from Hungary (10 000), Poland (180 000), Africa, Brazil, China and other countries enriching life in Ireland. He spoke of the traditions and culture they bring with them. And he spoke of the necessity of embracing migration as a key part of global living. I was a tad surprised that he’d be so bold, given how the current Hungarian regime is, to say the least, not of the same opinion. It was a subtle dig and I wondered briefly whether it was intentional – but then as is diplomacy’s wont, of course it was.

Later that evening, at the Military History Museum (home to the famous hand of Stalin), at a second National Day reception, he would repeat these remarks and in doing so, underscored Ireland’s gift to the world – her people. I felt faint stirrings of national pride as a warm glow emanated throughout the room. Nicely done, sir, nicely done.

photo (600x800) (2)Waiting outside for a taxi to take us downtown, we stood in the shadow of the remains of the wonderful church of Santa María Magdalena. During the Turkish reign, this was the only Christian church in town, shared by Catholics and Protestants alike, a fitting tie-in with Ireland’s troubled past. Today, its winding staircase, so clearly visible through the windows, stretches up towards the heavens, as it quietly makes the case for steadfastness and tenacity. The main body of the church was destroyed in WWII but its fifteenth-century tower stands tall in the centre of Kapisztrán tér. It’s a beautiful sight.

Later that evening, over dinner and drinks with Irish, English, and Hungarian friends in an Italian restaurant and a Scottish pub, his words came back to me. It is true, that no matter where we go in the world, we are blessed in finding  new family abroad. The friends we meet on our travels and the relationships that result can last a lifetime. And if ever there was a day to celebrate the international in us all, it’s St Patrick’s Day.

PS For those of you in Budapest this weekend, the celebrations aren’t yet over. The parade will start from Szabadság tér at 3pm on Sunday with people gathering from 1.30 onwards… for the craic.

PPS Note to self – visit the 1956 room at the Military History Museum.



Moments that live on … from way, way back

I’ve walked the city of Budapest and noted the names of streets and squares without ever really paying attention to whom they’d been named after. In an effort to redress this pitiful state of ignorance, I did some research and realised that two of the bigger squares, Kossuth Lajos tér and Batthyány tér (both on the M2 red metro line) carry the names of two men who came to prominence in March 1848. (Interestingly, Kossuth also lent his name to Kossuth County in Iowa, USA.)

March is a big month in the Hungarian holiday calendar with the 15th being a day that almost every Hungarian celebrates. It was on this day, way back when, that the Hungarian revolt against the Habsburgs began. On Day 1, young revolutionaries were addressed from the steps of the National Museum by the poet Sándor Petőfi (who has a bridge called after him) after they had marched around the city reciting Petőfi‘s Nemzeti dal (National Song) and their list of twelve demands. Their numbers swelled. This bloodless mass demonstration was enough for the Imperial Governor to accept their demands, as the rulers of Habsburg Empire were a tad preoccupied with the revolution that was going on in Austria at the same time.

Journalist Kossuth Lajos came to the fore and things appeared to be going rather well for Hungarians. A new, democratic government headed by Hungary’s first Prime Minister, Batthyány Lajos, took the helm. But once things quietened down in Austria, focus returned to Hungary. The War of Independence began in all its glory and would last until August of 1949. The Habsburgs looked to the Russian Czar for help and weren’t disappointed with how his troops acquitted themselves. The revolution was quashed.

Batthyány was executed for his troubles on what’s now known as Szabadság tér and the lives of 13 other revolutionaries were cut short in the city of Arad. Although the revolution failed, 15 March is one of Hungary’s three national holidays and is celebrated with the zest of the victorious.

_IGP2353-1 (800x532)Elsewhere in the world, on 17 March, Ireland’s national day is commemorated by her broad diaspora. Hundreds of millions parade through the streets of villages, towns, and cities worldwide. This occasion for the wearing of the green has become an international holiday and an excuse to party. In its purist sense, the day is to mark the advent of Christianity to Ireland, brought to the shores by St Patrick way back when. Hardly a revolution, but a notable milestone in the country’s history nonetheless.

IMG_3393 (600x800)And Budapest is no exception. This year, the annual St Patrick’s Day Parade will wend its way through the city’s streets on Sunday, 22nd March. As the multinational following gathers about 1.30 pm at Szabadság tér, few will be thinking about Batthyány, their thoughts focusing instead on the pipe bands, the Irish Wolfhounds, and the parade’s final destination. With Irish music and Irish porter on tap, leprechauns will run amuck as kids and adult alike delight in the green, white, and gold on display. Then at 3pm, the anticipated thousands will make their way to Nagymező utca where the party will continue. An estimated 20-30 musicians, dancers, and bands will perform for the masses in the cavernous club known to all as Instant. There will be something there to suit everyone with a taste of Ireland provided by local Irish publicans.

A regular on the Budapest holiday calendar since 2011, the St Patrick’s Day Parade is preceded by the St Patrick’s Gala Dinner, this year to be held over in Buda at the Hilton. For more details see

First published in the Budapest Times 13 March 2015

2014 Grateful 12

IMG_3375 (600x800)Each year, for the last four years, Ronnie Thompson would come to Budapest in March. The Londoner visited at other times, too, but it was his March visits that I best remember. Ronnie wouldn’t have won any prizes for being the tallest chap in the room, but he made up for it by being larger than life itself when he headed up the annual St Patrick’s Day parade in the city. Ronnie was our mascot – our leprechaun – our piece of magic that made the day special.

When Mark Downey first ran into him one night in a bar and proposed the idea, Ronnie told him to feck off. If you’ve met Ronnie, you’ll know how funny this was. He thought Mark was joking, taking the mick. But he was serious. And finally convinced that it was all for real, when Ronnie donned his green and gold, he was serious, too. Seriously funny.

Ronnie (602x800) (2)His humour could draw blood from the most insipid of turnips, make a crying child laugh through their tears, and put a smile on the grumpiest of faces. You couldn’t help but laugh at his antics. I remember the first year, when he and St Patrick (aka Patrick Davitt) led the fledgling parade through the streets of Budapest, the city didn’t quite know what was happening. There were times when Ronnie appeared to be walking on air – he loved it. The celebrity hairdresser from the East End (a Brit I ask you!) leading the St Patrick’s Day parade in Hungary … how far he had come. And along that starry path I heard mention of Dragon’s Den and a chair made of hair. He was a certainly a man with stories.

Last weekend, RonIMG_1366 (464x800)nie died. Suddenly. His tea was still warm when he was found. I don’t know what happened but judging from the shock of it all, it wasn’t expected. I didn’t know him well. But what I knew of him I liked. He was a breath of fresh air, a man who loved life with a passion. His enthusiasm was infectious. Our parade will be all the greyer for his passing.

But no – wait a minute. He wouldn’t have wanted that… he’d have expected us to party on and celebrate. And we will, Ronnie, we will, and we’ll certainly raise a glass or three in your memory.

Le mile buíochas, Ronnie. I am truly grateful that I had the chance to march a few streets with you.




I’m a tad disappointed this week. I thought perhaps it was just the post-Paddy’s Day blues. When you have had such a good time, it’s hard to come back to reality. But what I’m suffering from isn’t just  case of the colours. And it’s more than disappointment – I’d go so far as to say that I’ve become disillusioned.

I’ve written a couple of posts on Firkin – that fab Hungarian band that plies its trade in Irish punk. Their stage energy and enthusiasm are hard to match and the passion they bring to their music would convince anyone that they’re Irish through and through.

IMG_1370 (800x600)IMG_1397 (800x600) (800x600)I saw them play in the basement of Instant on Sunday. My third time seeing them live. Even though the acoustics sucked, I was carried away by the foot-stompin’, head-bangin’ music – basking in the energy and the vibes emanating from the packed stage. With a lead singer (Marthy Barna) who could give Colin Farrell a run for his  money, and a flautist (János Péter) who tickles my fancy every time I see him in action, what wasn’t there to like.

IMG_1390 (800x600)And then Barna asked who in the audience was Irish. A couple of hands went up and a couple of souls shouted out. He dedicated the next song to them with the words ‘Because you’re Irish, this song’s for you’. My heart was melting (with the heat, most likely, but the emotion was there, too). Then came the song: F*&K the British Army.

Cmon lads, how long as it been and you’re still getting high on this stuff? The room, the majority of which was Hungarian, erupted. It’s obviously a popular song. Now I like some of the old rebel songs – it wasn’t long ago that I was on a bus back from Mohács urging the inimitable GO’R to give us a belt of the Men Behind the Wire, cautioning everyone present to remember the times in which it was written. For me, it’s more an account of how Belfast used to be that an incitement to hatred in 2014. That was then. This is now. And you might say I’m splitting hairs here,  being hypocritical even. Perhaps I am.

Yet this mindless appreciation for anti-British sentiment really bothered me. We’ve come so far. It’s not 1980s San Francisco or Boston, or even Dublin. We’re in 2014 for God’s sake – in Hungary. A country that has had its fair share of occupation, a country that wants to move forward. And there they were – my heros, Firkin – doing their bit to set us back. Not deliberately, I’m sure – which to my mind, makes it even worse.

Now, I thought I might have been overreacting. So I mentioned it to a few others – Irish – who had missed the gig. They weren’t impressed either. I’m all for patriotism. I’m all for the underdog standing up and being counted. I’m all for the power of music to band people together – but if there’s a cause, let it be mindful, and let it be current.

Maybe I need to lighten up…




Beyond expectations

I’m a firm believer in managing my expectations. If you tell me it’s going to be brilliant, I’ll settle for great. If you tell me it will be great, good will do just fine. Add this expectational reticence to an innate dislike of superlatives and you’ll rarely, if ever, get a ‘best day ever’ from me.

IMG_1328 (800x600)But, hand on my heart, and ready to admit my reluctance to publicly commit to something ‘fantastic’… Sunday, 16th March, in Budapest was as close as you’ll ever get to an AWESOME from me.

IMG_1239 (600x800)When I turfed up at Szabadság tér at 1.45 I was a little worried. All the publicity had said a 2pm kick-off to the parade and all present, if they’d spread their arms and tried to multiply might have made 100. But, in typical Hungarian/Irish (If there were any two nations in the world who share the same disrespect for time, these two are it) fashion, the times were flexible and by 3.30 the numbers had swelled to 1403. And I know, because I was (and have been for three years – duly noted on my CV) the parade’s official counter.

IMG_1256 (600x800)IMG_1260 (600x800)Irish wolfhounds, leprechauns, and a larger-than-life St Patrick dominated the fair. If it was green, it was worn. The Jameson stand was drank dry in 3 minutes flat. Balloons? Hats? Boon dangles? Flags? Everything was there for the wearing. As the parade, with police escort, wended its way to Nagymező utca, to Instant, few had any idea what this particular ruin pub enclosed. Three floors of Irish bands, Irish music, Irish dancing, Irish food (courtesy of Jack Doyle’s Irish Pub and Restaurant)  … what was not to like? More than 1000 people, all wearing the green, went from floor to floor in search of everything from traditional diddley-eye to punk belly dancers. It’s my third year at this gig (I was in Malta for one of them) and I can say, hand on my Irish heart, that it was one of the best days (nights) out I’ve had in years. Kudos to Mark Downey and his IHBC team for pulling this off.

IMG_1302 (800x600)What made it great was that the Irish were in the minority. Far from the soft t’s and the dropped h’s… the sounds that were taking up the bandwidth were Hungarian, and French, and Spanish, and African… it was a real, live, showcase of multicultural diversity that made me ever so proud to be Irish.

IMG_1352 (600x800)And yes, I know there are those who abhor expat events…. and there are those who dread mixing and mingling with people they wouldn’t cross the street to say hello to at home. But, honestly, for as long as I have lived abroad, I can’t remember a day like it. A day where ambassadors (like that bloomin’ Facebook page) and the like mixed with the wherewithals; a day where people left their business cards at the door and became people with names rather than titles; a day where it didn’t matter what language you spoke; a day where it was all about camaraderie, about being Irish – or part-Irish – or not Irish at all. Who gives a flying fandangle?

IMG_1365 (600x800)As my good mate FC said to me – just think, that today, all around the world, people are celebrating the Irish. What other race could pull that off? And I thought… for a while… and came up with nothing.

If you’re reading this in Ireland and are jaded about the whole Paddy’s Day thing… I suggest you look at flights now. Because as this celebration goes from strength to strength, next year’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations will be one almighty party. Don’t say I didn’t warn ye!

A bet is a bet

Fancy dress and all that comes with it makes me break out in a cold sweat. I hate dressing up unless we’re talking ‘put on your best boots and I’ll put on my pearls‘ sort of fancy. So when Tim Child agreed to participate in the GOTG on condition that I ‘dress up’ for the St Patrick’s Day parade, I reluctantly agreed. If it’s attention you seek, try dressing as a leprechaun and taking the M3 from Klinikak to Arany János utca on a quiet Sunday following the national holiday. There is no crowd to get lost in! If anything, it’s cured me of any latent desire I might have had to be famous.

IMG_2618 (600x800)

The occasion? The third annual St Patrick’s Day parade in Budapest. Alongside 1346 other people (and yes, me and my team of four stalwarts counted them all) I walked the route, decked out in my leprechaun hat and beard, silently thanking St Patrick himself that no one seemed to recognise me. Unlike last year, it was bitterly cold. Zero degrees. With sunshine. The pace was brisker than usual. It wasn’t weather for sauntering. As the crowd made its way from Szabadsag tér to Erszebet tér, it gathered momentum. In a city where demonstrations and mass gatherings are becoming more and more common, it was a refreshing change for many to have a mass of people partying not protesting.

IMG_2690 (574x800)Only the hardy braved the outdoors at Godor while the rest of us supped on our whiskies and pints of Guinness while enjoying Irish music and dance inside. Everyone who should have been there, was there. From the Irish wolfhound to the Pipe Band. From the Ambassador to the representative of the Garda Siochana. Irish, Hungarian, Spanish, English, Scottish, Welsh, American, Czech, Lithuanian, Russian, Latvian, Norwegian, Chilean, Canadian … it was an all-encompassing multinational crowd that had one thing in common: the colour green. My award for best-dressed went to Dalma Jeney  – what style!

There’s something quite remarkable about St Patrick’s Day. It doesn’t matter who you know or don’t know… everyone is the best of friends. Total strangers have the craic, friendships form on the basis that one looks more ridiculous than the other. Conversations that strike up at the bar lead to lasting friendships.

IMG_2619 (599x800)I’m proud to be Irish. I’m proud of my heritage, my tradition, and everything that makes me, me. To be Irish, away from home, on St Patrick’s Day, in a city where others share your passion for life if not your bloodline, is quite an experience. Hat’s off to Mark Downey, the IHBC, and the team of organisers that made Sunday yet another day to remember.

Don’t tell Tim Child… but loathe that I am to admit it, dressing up was actually fun!

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What I didn’t know about Ireland

Seaweed beds on the west coast of Ireland

As Ireland’s national day – St Patrick’s Day – draws near, and people around the world get ready for the ‘wearin’ of the green’, the papers will soon be full of retrospective pieces on Ireland’s recent descent from economic grace. I’ve been Irish for as long as I’ve been alive. I may not have lived there full-time for many years, and yet I still consider it my home. I thought I knew quite a lot about my country and its interrelations with the rest of the world. But I was wrong. So very, very wrong.

Last year, I took Diplo’s Diplomacy of Small States course and chose Ireland as my focus country. Over the next few weeks, I looked at Ireland’s diplomacy from a variety of angles: structure, security, economic, environmental, multilateral, and regional. Each week, I learned more and more interesting things about Ireland, things that I’d never known before. For instance, I had always thought that neutrality is enshrined in our consitution: it isn’t. I never realised that the Republic of Ireland doesn’t exist except as a soccer team. Ireland (as in the 26 counties) is known as Ireland or Éire. As the weeks advanced, the shame of what I didn’t know was soon overcome by the wealth of knowledge I was accumulating. And not just about Ireland but about each of the other small states that my classmates had focused on.

There's no place like home. There's no place like...

I unearthed a newfound pride in my country, at a time when the Irish psyche was taking a beating having gone from being Europe’s posterchild to one of its PIGS. Taking just one area – multilateral diplomacy – I discovered that in the late 1950s, Irish Foreign Minister Frank Aiken had pioneered the cause of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation at the UN, a contribution that was recognised by the UN when Minister Aiken was asked to be the first signatory to the NPT.  At the 2010 Review Conference of the NPT, Ireland chaired the body charged with making progress on the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.  Other notables include Irish diplomat Sean MacBride (Nobel-Prize laureate and co-founder of Amnesty International) who played a key role in drafting the European Convention on Human Rights; Seán Lester, the last Secretary General of the League of Nations, who handed over the flame at the birth of the UN; and Edward Phelan who played a key role in founding the ILO in 1919 and was Director General of the ILO in 1941.

While much of our lives are spent looking backward instead of forward, this course helped give Ireland’s current woes more context. Set in what I had come to understand as Ireland’s standing in diplomacy, our past achievements gave me hope that we would, indeed, recover and live to tell this tale, too. When I visit Ireland, I no longer feel dismay as how we have let ourselves go. Instead, I see a nation ready to shoulder the consequences of its actions and move forward. I sincerely hope that we have learned our lesson and I wish that more people at home would take the time, be it in a structured course like Diplo’s Diplomacy of Small States, or in private study, to learn about our country and be proud of the contributions we have made. It is only by understanding our role in the world that we can fully appreciate the power of our people and by gaining a broader appreciation of the roles other countries play, we can better measure our own progress.

First published on  5 March 2012

The wearin’ of the green

I dislike St Patrick’s Day parades with a passion that should have received specialist treatment long ago.  It’s not just St Patrick’s Day parades, it’s any parade. I’m a self-confessed parade pooper. So, sometime late last summer, when I first heard about the idea of  staging a St Paddy’s Day parade in Budapest, I cringed. I heard it twice from two people I both like and admire so for once, I kept my mouth shut; I held my counsel. For the past few months I’ve been silent on the subject, keeping my distance. Other than haranguing the organisers about missing apostrophes and unnecessary full-stops, I have said nothing, and done even less.

I even went so far to arrange to be out of the country for St Patrick’s Day itself, but I was out-paddied. The parade was scheduled for the 19th and I arrived back in town a day too soon. Today, Saturday, was a miserable day – damp, drizzly, and grey –  typical parade weather. Tempting as it was to stay home and clean my floors and windows, sort my socks and alphabetise my spices, I couldn’t not go. I’m Irish for God’s sake. I had to go. I had no excuse, at least none that would hold water. So off I toddled to Szabadság tér for the grand gathering, with every intention of showing my face, saying my quick hellos,  faster goodbyes, and then beating a hasty retreat.

When I got there, I saw a sea of green in the top corner of the square. The weather was doing little to dampen the enthusiasm of those who were first to arrive. Had Johnny Cash risen from the dead and launched into 40 shades of green, it wouldn’t have surprised me. I doubt the wearin’ of the green has ever been taken so seriously. The IHBC lads were togged out in style with St Patrick and the Leprechaun playing their parts a little too convincingly. From toddlers in prams and pushchairs to those who have seen more than a few parades in their lifetimes, the crowd slowly grew.

When the pipers arrived and opened with Amazing Grace, something inside me switched on. I finally got what it was the lads were on about, the gap they wanted to fill and suddenly a St Patrick’s Day parade didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all. It’s not often that the Irish in Budapest get to gather in one place for one reason and it quite surprised me to see so many there.  And I know they weren’t all Irish Irish – which is even better still. James Michener, in his 1957 book, The Bridge at Andau, describes the Hungarians as the Irish of Eastern Europe. There is a huge affinity here for all things Irish – and while that can be said of many places, to see such a friendly, fun, high-spirited parade in Budapest that served little other purpose than to underscore the importance of having the craic, was probably an attraction in itself.Today was a work day in Hungary but that didn’t stop those in their offices along the route stopping for a minute to wave and wonder. The bemused faces on the passersby, or the faces of drivers stopped in traffic to let the parade were priceless. For many, seeing St Patrick standing on the steps of the Basilica with a Leprechaun by his side, both dispensing blessings on the crowd below, must have seemed a little surreal. As the sea of green marched onwards towards its final resting place – the Guinness House – more and more people joined in. I stopped once to count and at a rough estimate I’d say 546 people took part, give or take a couple of balloons. Not a bad showing at all for a first attempt at rallying the troops.

If you’d told me a few months ago, or even last week, that I’d have marched in a Paddy’s Day parade of my own volition, I’d have said you were mad. If you’d told me that not alone would I have marched, but that I’d have enjoyed it, I’d have said you were off your rocker. But sometimes it’s not a bad idea to remind myself from whence I’ve come and to take a little pride in the fact that St Patrick’s Day is billed, worldwide, as the friendliest day of the year.

So kudos to Messrs Downey and Griffin and Harron, the IHBC, and parade volunteers for pulling this one off. Impressive stuff. Today was a good day to be Irish in Budapest. And, you never know, next year I might even wear a hat!