AFTER four-and-a-half years welcoming members of the Irish community in Britain to their residence at the Irish Embassy in London, Ambassador Bobby McDonagh and his wife Mary are about complete their diplomatic term.
Rome beckons for the multilingual pair — who are currently learning Italian in preparation for the move — where Mr McDonagh will become the Irish Ambassador to Italy and Libya.
As they bid farewell to the many friends, colleagues and acquaintances they have built up during the Ambassadorial term, they took some time to reflect on their highlights with The Irish Post.
We met the couple in their Hyde Park home one final time, before they leave the grand venue for a similar residence in Rome, “the most beautiful city in the world” according to the pair, who married there nearly 35 years ago.
What has been the highlight of your time here in Britain?
Mary: The Queen’s visit to Ireland has to be the standout moment for me. I remember nearly pinching myself that I was standing there next to the Queen of England. And the presentation of credentials was extraordinary.
The doors opened and Bobby was already standing there and you think, ‘This is the Queen of England, the stamp has come alive’.
Ambassador: I agree, the Queen’s visit has to be the number one thing. For me it would be standing in the Garden of Remembrance when she was laying the wreath for people who died for Irish freedom.
It was a remarkable act of reconciliation just a few hundred yards from the GPO — quite unique, not just in terms of British-Irish relations, but unique almost in the world as an act of reconciliation.
What impact did the Queen’s visit to Ireland have on your time as Irish Ambassador in Britain?Ambassador: It didn’t greatly affect the relationship with the Irish community, which has always been strong with the Irish Embassy, but the visit was the ultimate gesture or act, a validation of everything the Irish community has worked for and achieved.
I think there was more of a change in the way British people saw the Embassy. There was nothing more to be done or said in terms of mutual respect between our traditions and identities, and I think that did have an additional impact on people in Britain.
I certainly found following the Queen’s visit there would be spontaneous applause whenever it was mentioned — people were so pleased that the Queen had performed so superbly and were so pleased she was welcomed so warmly throughout Ireland, so if there was a change in our experience, it was among the British community.
Your term also coincided with the London 2012 Olympic Games, how will you remember the sporting spectacle?
Ambassador: For me one of the most memorable moments was the Katie Taylor fight when she won the gold medal. It was really quite remarkable, not just because it was an Irish person winning a gold medal at the Olympics, but because of the extraordinary reaction of the crowd — which was half Irish and half British.
Everyone was on their feet shouting Kate, likewise when Nicola Adams won the bout before that for Team GB, the whole crowd were chanting for her.
Mary: The Olympics were amazing, it was Britain at its best, once everyone got over the griping in the run-up, on the weather, the transport, the difficulty getting tickets.
It was almost as if someone switched the negativity off on the first day — the weather got better and you were on the tubes and you felt you were back in Ireland… people were talking, they relaxed, it was great.
Ambassador: It was like the British all became Irish for a fortnight.
Your Ambassadorial term [from 2009-2013] also coincided with an increasingly restrictive economic climate and cutbacks in Ireland, how did this affect your role?
Ambassador: The overall Embassy budget, as for all our Embassies, has been cut, and we have lost a number of staff posts which haven’t been filled. But we have found ways of making sure we can still do a professional job, it is now very stretched but it worked very well due to the commitment of people to go beyond the call of duty.
It has definitely affected the length of hours you have to work and the commitment they need to have, but it hasn’t affected our ability essentially to deliver on the priorities.
In other ways there have been quite a lot of new arrivals from Ireland over here in that period, most of them coming to pretty well paid jobs, and many who would have come anyway, and that’s quite a positive outcome.
But you still have a smaller number of people who come here with less opportunity, people we are pleased that we are able to maintain the level of support for the front line services we deliver to Irish organisations.
It’s a tribute to the colleagues here and to the Government for maintaining priority for Irish emigrants abroad, particularly at a time where there have been cutbacks. There has been some cutback in overall spending in the Emigrant Support Programme, but we have been able to maintain our support for frontline services over the years, although maybe at a slightly smaller overall level.
Did anything surprise you about the Ambassadorial role in Britain?
Ambassador: Nothing came out of the blue, but there is an element of surprise every day in opportunities that arise and people you meet in this role. What I was so pleased to find was the extraordinary warmth of the relationship between British and Irish people.
There’s a buzz when they come together and I can’t say that wouldn’t happen in other Embassies, but I can’t imagine that it happens at the same level in most. We also found British people are surprisingly open to coming here to the Embassy.
The extent that British Ministers, for example, will come here and have breakfast or lunch or attend our receptions, I would be surprised if they go to as many other Embassies.
Because of the importance of the bilateral relationship, and with the peace process now on the right track, the wider relationship has come into view and it’s striking that there is an absolute recognition on both sides of the importance of the relationship.
What reflections do you have on the Irish community in Britain after immersing yourself within it for more than four years?
Ambassador: The Irish community is not a single set of people, we are aware all individuals are different but that there are also different categories in the community. But if you are looking at something that brings everyone together, an organisation here that succeeds in this is the GAA.
It attracts men, women, young and old and from all backgrounds. There are people here for decades, people who have just arrived and it brings all contexts of the Irish community in Britain together.
Mary: Soon after we arrived, we met the Director of the Irish Centre in Camden who told us his daughter said: ‘It’s cool to be Irish.’ We have tested that over the past four-and-a-half years and we have found we are very acceptable as Irish people, as a community, here, although you don’t need a label for that — it’s just great being Irish in Britain.
Ambassador, as a lifelong Tottenham Hotspur fan, will you miss being in such close proximity to the team?
Ambassador: I have been a Spurs fan for more than 50 years, and somebody has just given me a lovely farewell gift of some old Spurs programmes dating back to the 1960s, which is when I started supporting them, which will not be too difficult to transport to Rome.
I will miss a lot of things about London; we will miss our friends, the theatre, our wonderful colleagues, as genuinely the team here is wonderful without exception, and I’ll miss Tottenham too of course.
How are you feeling about the move to Rome?
Ambassador: We are looking forward to a new challenge, we love London but you get most of the experience you are going to get in a diplomatic term, so it’s a good system when you get a new challenge every four years.
And we are moving to the most beautiful city in the world, which is in an important country for Ireland. We are attracting tourism from there and Italy is an important partner in the European Union for us.
Mary: We got married in Italy and will celebrate our 35th anniversary next year, so that will be nice. Bobby’s father was also an Ambassador to Italy, so while we have never been posted there before there are a few links there already.
We don’t speak Italian yet, so we are working on that at the moment. It’s a lovely subtle language and we both speak French and Latin so that is going OK. But we are taking a holiday in Galway, on the West Coast of Ireland, before we head to Italy to start the new post.
Finally, is there anything you didn’t get to tick off your list of things to do in Britain over the past four years?
Mary: I came here wanting to visit the England of my literary studies. I wanted to go to the Lake District, to Brontë country and I definitely wanted to see Devon and Cornwall. I didn’t get to any of them. The job absorbed a lot of the energies we had, so we are going to have to come back.
Ambassador: You never step on your successor’s toes when you leave a diplomatic post, but we will be back to visit the Lake District and White Hart Lane of course.
New Irish Ambassador to Britain Dan Mulhall officially takes up the role in September.