Held in the posh environs of the New York Athletic Club, the dinner is always one of the most enjoyable nights of the year, and not just because it’s a good place for celebrity spotting. (Oh, OK, the celebrities don’t hurt . . .) Channeling our inner Liza Minelli, we donned a shimmering two-piece outfit with extravagant feather cuffs and slits up the legs (actually, maybe we were channeling our inner RuPaul), grabbed a breathtakingly tiny, useless evening bag and headed off to the IAC.
The elevator ride upstairs to the 11th floor was a downright chummy affair. With “In the Name of the Father” screenwriter Terry George making conversation as the car stopped at practically every floor on the way up.
“What great odds,” he said gallantly as the doors closed on our little group of four women and three men. “It’s not often that we are outnumbered by lovely ladies.”
The other guys nodded in agreement.
Flatterer, we thought. But keep it coming.
Just then, the elevator stopped and three more men got on.
“God, now the odds are back to normal,” groaned George, with exaggerated dramatic emphasis. The newcomers looked a bit confused as the rest of us snickered.
The cocktail hour was winding down when we arrived at the ninth floor, so we went straight upstairs to where dinner was being served. Since we couldn’t find our table, and the IAC staffers — all looking very glamorous in red gowns and headsets — were flitting about like exotic butterflies, we passed the time browsing through the silent auction items.
This year’s centerpiece item was a bit gory and totally groovy: a (fake) blood-spattered tuxedo worn by Gabriel Byrne in the appropriately named movie “Trigger Happy.” The item description skipped the usual laundering and fabric care instructions, but did point out that the suit came “complete with bullet holes.” We noticed one man running his hands all over the material, presumably checking to see if it could be mended. (Some people are so picky about their formal wear.)
The auction items ran the gamut from signed TV and movie scripts (from the likes of “Sex and the City” and “Michael Collins”) to nights on the town, to our favorite, a 2,500-year-old bronze celtic armband. (Hey, the ancient Celts might have been a warrior race, but they also knew how to accessorize.) We attempted to slip it on, just to see how it felt, but it wouldn’t fit over our knuckles. Hmmm . . . the Celts must have had hands like supermodels.
Dinner commenced, and there were brief speeches by the IAC’s executive director, Pauline Turley, and artistic director, Neil Jones. Emcee Eddie Brill kept things moving along briskly, introducing a video clip of the center’s interactive Famine education show, “The Big Potato.” Honoree Diarmuid Hogan, chairman of Global Excess Partners and director of the Beaumont Hospital Foundation and Boys and Girls Hope, accepted his Irish Spirit Award with a short speech of thanks, reminding the audience of the need to support our cultural institutions, particularly the IAC.
Following Hogan would be no easy task, but sexy Hollywood star Ellen Barkin was up to the challenge. The blonde stunner paid tribute to the evening’s other honoree, film star Gabriel Byrne, in a speech that was alternately hilarious and touching. She spoke about his longstanding and steadfast refusal to drop his Irish accent to gain film roles.
“He wanted people to see him as an Irish man first, and as an actor second,” she said. “That did not make things easy for him, especially in the early days. But it was vitally important to him.”
Barkin also revealed that it was Byrne’s behind-the-scenes determination and support that made the film “In the Name of the Father” a reality.
“He approached Terry George and asked him how long it would take to write the script,” she said.
“Terry said, ‘One year.’ So Gabriel asked him how much money it would take to support his family for that year,” Barkin said.
George thought about it, and said that $30,000 would cover it.
“Gabriel said, ‘fine,’ and went to the Bank of Ireland,” recalled Barkin. “He took out $30,000 — money he didn’t have, and set Terry working on the script.”
With the script in progress, Byrne got Irish director Jim Sheridan on board. The rest is history.
After the speech, there was thunderous applause as Barkin handed Byrne his Irish Spirit statue.
“I never thought I’d be getting an award from my ex-wife,” he joked.
“This is a great honor for me,” he said. “But the people who deserve to be honored are the people at the Irish Arts Center, for keeping our culture alive here in New York.”
Byrne reminded the audience that the IAC desperately needed funding to continue their mission.
“They operate on a shoestring,” he said. “I don’t know how they do it, but they get it done. And we, the Irish in New York, should give them as much financial support as possible.
“They are preserving our culture,” he said. “They are passing on the old stories, and telling the new ones. They are a vital link in the chain.”
After the speeches, the band started up. As we navigated the dance floor, we spied Irish actor James Nesbitt — even better looking in person than on film — at a nearby table. Determined to inquire about his bare-arsed Ash commercial, we made our way over.
Well, halfway over.
Just then, Ellen Barkin and Gabriel Byrne stepped into our path (you know how celebrities are), heads together, chatting quietly. (You know, the usual: “Do you think that’s her?” “Should we say hello?” We get that all the time.) By the time we edged past them, Nesbitt had gone off into that good night. (Damn!) On the up side, however, we wound up chatting with Gabriel.
“I’m going to make it my busines to get you some new pictures for your page,” he said sternly.
“Huh?” we replied cleverly, supressing the urge to giggle like a ninny.
“If I see the same bleedin’ pictures of Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn or Pierce Brosnan, I’ll go mad,” he said. “And that one of me you’ve been using I’ve seen a million times.” He started to laugh, and all of a sudden, we could see the movie star smile that melts the hearts of female moviegoers everywhere. We promised to keep an eye on the mail.
“See you do,” he said.
The funniest moment of the night came when Terry George got up to make a short speech. George announced that he had been given the honor of presenting a special award.
Standing in the back room, George’s pal, contractor Cel Donaghy, tried to shush the crowd.
“Let the man speak,” Donaghy admonished nearby tables. “Shhhhh!”
As the chatter died down, Donaghy turned back towards the podium — in time to hear his buddy say, “Please give a hand to Irish Arts Center benefactor Celestine Donaghy.”
“I was so embarassed,” Donaghy told us later. “Here I was, telling everyone to be quiet, to pay attention. And it turns out, it’s for me. I was mortified”
Hey, as George had noted at the beginning of the night, what were the odds?