By Olivia Tracey
It was a noble and elegant sight indeed as Celtic-clad ladies with Irish wolfhounds flanked the entrance to the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The occasion was the recent American Ireland Fund West Coast Annual Gala, where elegance and nobility are consistently a given. This year, festivities were really in orbit as the long-awaited Good Friday peace agreement afforded the worthy peace, culture and education charity the best reason to celebrate.
It seems especially fitting that former Sen. George Mitchell was honored with the Distinguished Leadership Award 1998 for his tremendous role as chairman of the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland.
Once we had dined on smoked salmon, succulent lamb and cheesecake, we tuned in for some musical entertainment with the sensationally talented Irish Canadian Leahy family, introduced by the evening’s hosts, Roy and Patty Disney. To say that they were superb is an understatement. It seems like there is nothing this nine-piece family band cannot do. They began with an upbeat track that had the entire ballroom rocking, followed by a magnificent new release and a bout of stepdancing that would give "Riverdance" a run for its money. One of the female band members, apparently only playing the fiddle two weeks, managed to not only play the instrument beautifully, but also to do so holding it upside-down — and while dancing. Any opportunity you get to go see this band, I urge you to take it. In fact, they are currently rounding off a U.S. tour alongside Shania Twain, with performances throughout December from Buffalo and Rochester to Las Vegas and Phoenix. For details, call Bruce Sullivan in Milwaukee (414) 961-8350.
We could have listened to the Leahy’s all night, but, of course, there was more entertainment in store. This time it was in the form of a bespectacled and very distinguished looking Liam Neeson on the big screen, speaking to us in very ‘sthetic terms about the new-found peace in Northern Ireland, describing it, a la Seamus Heaney, as "a time when hope and history rhyme" or, in James Joyce words, "a nightmare from which we are trying to awake."
Neeson was followed on the big screen by the no less distinguished President Clinton, who paid tribute to Sen. Mitchell, congratulating him for having "the stamina to outlast a roomful of adamant Irishmen," and not least of all for his contribution to peace in Ireland.
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Then the lights went low and the Southern California Children’s Chorus, from tots to teens, all holding candles, streamed in like a group of angels, singing "Let There be Peace on Earth." It was quite a perfect introduction for Sen. Mitchell as he accepted his well-deserved honorary award. He spoke with sincerity and grace about his three and a half years in Northern Ireland as the talks’ chairman, a time he described as demanding yet the most rewarding thing he had ever done. He remembered times when progress was slow and prospects so bleak that he thought about leaving. However, he encountered a turning point in his own life when his elegant wife, Heather, gave birth to their son, an event that prompted the senator to wonder what life would be like for his own son had he been born in Northern Ireland. There and then he resolved to stay to the end. Now, in the aftermath of the peace agreement, his new dream is to return to Northern Ireland in a few years with his son and watch the political assembly talk of democracy, health care, education and tourism. He was then presented with a sparkling piece of Waterford Crystal to a standing ovation and rapturous applause.
Of course, the night didn’t end there as we revelers adjourned to the after-party upstairs. In the celebrity stakes was Charles Bronson, the delightful John Hurt and equally charming Dana Delaney. Our own Noel Pearson was in twinkling form and looking forward to the New York premiere of his latest movie "Dancing at Lughnasa." Producer Frank Price and his wife, Katherine Crawford, were as distinguished as always along with Sen. Tom Hayden and his wife, Barbara. National AIF President Loretta Brennan Glucksman was elegant in a black off-the-shoulder ballgown, as was Pat Heirs with her new short hairstyle. Michael and Lee Roarty were singing the praises of their numerous visits to Ireland and looking for an excuse to make another one, while Aer Lingus Marketing Director David Bunworth was excited about their new direct flights from Los Angeles to Dublin from May 28, 1999.
As gregarious as ever was the Irish Tourist Board’s Tom Heneghan along with his wife, Stephanie, not to mention Jimmy and Anne Murphy, who were having a whale of a time with their two handsome sons in tow, Sean and Jamie. Singer Anne Bushnell was doing the rounds as was the Irish Fair’s Terry Anderson and the Southern California Rose, Alison McGuire. Also there were Disney’s Michael and Jane Eisner, Kingworld’s Michael King and Merrill Karpf, and, of course, Merv Griffin. Unfortunately, Gregory Peck couldn’t make it this time as he was being honored with an award in Washington, while New York summoned Gabriel Byrne to shoot his latest film, "Beacon’s Hill," opposite Arnold Schwartzeneggar. All in all, a wonderful evening.