By: Verne Maree
All diplomats need to have a touch of the blarney, and it’s only right that His Excellency the Irish Ambassador Dr Richard O’Brien should be blessed with plenty of it, as Verne Maree finds out.
The ambassadorial residence is a spacious California-style house on Chatsworth Road, with plenty of room for photographer Karen and me to park our little run-arounds at a respectful distance from the sleek new BMW with its tiny green, white and orange flag.
We’re a bit early, but Bernadette O’Brien trips down the stairs in immaculate white linen trousers and a gorgeous print top, fragrant with J’Adore and assuring us in her lovely, lilting accent that Richard will be with us in a minute. And so he is.
Knowing that she is about to be photographed, she is worrying about her freshly blow-dried hair. “Singapore and my hair do not go together,” she declares. “When we arrive at a dinner party and it’s outside, I go ‘Oh, no!’” Anyone with curly or wavy hair knows exactly what she means.
And anyone – that’s most of us – who has been inconvenienced by Singapore’s ongoing construction works may be comforted to know that even ambassadors are not immune to it. “For our first three weeks here, we had a gorgeous and unspoilt view of greenery,” sighs Bernadette. “Then they chopped the trees down and they’ve been building ever since.
“But we’d already signed the two-year lease, and we’ve moved so many times in our lives that we decided to just stay put.”
They are the third Irish ambassadorial couple to live in this property. Richard explains that though the main furniture came with the house, all the paintings, objets d’art and knick-knacks are their own. That includes the huge collection of Irish Waterford crystal that twinkles from every flat surface. I’d guess that most of it was received as gifts; what else would you give the Irish ambassadorial couple?
But there’s also blue Polish glass – “We were in Poland for five years” – and some beautiful glassware from Egypt, their most recent diplomatic posting before Singapore. They clearly have a genuine passion for the stuff.
The magnificent fish sculpture in the lobby, however, belongs to the house. It’s a piece by the late Brother Joseph McNally, a beloved member of the LaSalle Order, outstanding artist and icon of the Irish community in Singapore
The ground level of the house is its public face, with a welcoming lobby, 24-seater dining room, huge reception areas and lovely, big courtyard. It’s ideal for entertaining. The O’Briens do a lot of that; for example, they recently hosted a book launch for Irishwoman Rosemary Lim’s absorbing Irish Guide to Singapore.
Generally, whether it’s for a formal dinner or a more casual buffet, the Hyatt Hotel does the catering, and it does an outstanding job. It can’t be complete coincidence that the hotel’s head chef, Brian Cleere, is Irish, as is the executive manager Chris Conway. Once in a while Bernadette calls in the M Hotel, or, for a typically Irish function, Molly Malone’s.
The O’Briens have two full-time house staff members, and hire extra help when they host functions. But Bernadette has done more than her share of self-catering over the years, sometimes single-handedly. “In Washington, where Richard was First Secretary, I did all the catering for a reception for between 300 and 400 people. The biggest sit-down dinner I’ve cooked for was 18 – that was tough!
“In Australia, I did all the cooking for official functions. I’d spend all day in the kitchen, and leave the food hot and ready for the housekeeper to serve, then quickly get bathed, dressed and ready to host the party. That was because we had inherited the staff from the previous ambassador. You’re allowed only two staff members, and he had chosen to employ a nanny instead of a chef!”
Today, the dining table has been laid for a dinner in honour of Kingsley Aitken, CEO of the Ireland Fund, explains Richard. The Fund was launched in the US in the 1980s and has since spread internationally to Britain, France, Monaco, Italy and Germany, and Richard was a board member of its Australian branch during his term of office in Canberra; he hopes to start a branch here in Singapore. Initially focused on peace efforts, the Fund shifted its emphasis to cultural and charitable projects as progress was made in Northern Ireland.
The table is crisp with formal white linen, gleams with phalanxes of cutlery and sparkles with Waterford crystal wine glasses, as is only right and proper. The long wall displays Egyptian artwork, including a number of David Roberts prints, and a Jordanian oil depicting camel-riders.
Around the corner is a more casual breakfast room, whose walls are hung with religious icons from Lithuania and Poland, unexpectedly juxtaposed with an Australian Aboriginal dot painting. Do they spend much time in this room? Apparently not; the upstairs area is where they hang out.
“What do you want to see?” asks Bernadette. “As much as you’re prepared to show us,” Karen and I answer truthfully. And disarmingly, the Ambassador hurries ahead up the stairs to tidy their private living area.
Against one wall of the upstairs living room is stacked a pile of artwork, and Bernadette shows me a few lovely pencil drawings that she has made of her children and grandchildren. “See how good my teacher is!” she exclaims, far too modestly.
A legacy of their having spent seven years in Australia, from 1995 to 2002, is that the children – Michelle (34), Vanessa (32), Rory (28) and Shanna (25) – all live in that country. The elder two are both in Canberra. Michelle’s ten-year-old daughter Meghan is the light of her granny’s life, and Vanessa has a baby on the way, so it’s no surprise that Bernadette makes regular trips back to the home that she and Richard have kept in Canberra, where they also plan to retire when the time comes.
Apart from their children having adopted foreign nationalities, how has the diplomatic life affected the couple as parents? “Most people’s kids leave them step by step,” declares Bernadette, “but it was we who left ours – all at once!” “Sending the younger ones to boarding school when we moved from Australia to Egypt was hard,” Richard chimes in, “and Cairo was our first posting without kids.”
Back downstairs, I ask them which of their diplomatic postings – London, Washington, Warsaw, Canberra, Cairo and now Singapore – was their favourite. I could almost swear that his wife is about to give me a frank and perhaps less-than-diplomatic answer, but as a true ambassador, Richard swiftly intervenes.
“They all have their own charms, and it’s up to us to make the most of each place. In the end, it’s not the country, it’s the people.
“In 1990 we opened the embassy in Poland and witnessed the country’s transformation. For me, professionally, it was fascinating, and even the children appreciated that we were seeing history in the making.”
What Makes a Diplomat?
Asked what drew him to the diplomatic service, Richard is surprisingly candid. “Economic necessity, in one sense,” he replies. “I wanted a job, and Ireland in the early 1970s did not offer huge opportunities for a philosopher! The foreign service opened up to me the world of international relations and global ideas, and held the promise of cultural diversity to be explored.
“The Irish are great travellers. Every Irish family has relations around the world; I had some in the UK, and distant ones in the US. I was 27 and Bernadette was 21, when we were sent to London in 1974. It was very exciting – I had grown up with the Beatles, Carnaby Street and all that, and London was a vital diplomatic posting for the Irish foreign service.”
“I was seven months pregnant when we got to London,” Bernadette remembers. “We had to entertain, and I couldn’t cook, because I had an Irish mum who would shoo me out of the kitchen.” How did she manage? By dint of a lot of trial and error, it seems.
“Some countries have diplomatic schools, but we learnt on the ground from our colleagues. I used to marvel at how ambassadors’ wives seemed to cope so effortlessly, but when the time came, I managed, and it’s second nature to me now.”
Singapore and Ireland
Richard explains that as Ireland is a small country with limited resources, it makes sense for it to establish embassies in places that are strategically important and where there is already a strong relationship. That is very much the case in Singapore, which is the country in Southeast Asia with the strongest Irish connections. Even to one unfamiliar with Singaporean colonial history, the range of street names from Coleman, Maxwell, Oldham and Oxley to Connaught, Dublin, Cavenagh and Killiney, hints at the huge contribution that the Irish have made to this country’s development. [To find out more, read Rosemary Lim’s Irish Guide to Singapore.]
“There’s a good diplomatic community here,” says Richard, “especially the European contingent. It may be smaller than in other places we’ve lived in, but it’s very supportive and professionally adept.
“Also, working in Singapore is rewarding. You can see things happening. You may not always get what you want, but Singaporeans are remarkably open to a serious presentation: they will listen to your ideas and are very responsive, especially with regard to industry.”
His role here is a regional one. Though based in Singapore, he is also responsible for Brunei, Indonesia, East Timor and the Philippines, which means a lot of travelling for him. I’m interested to know, especially as regular flights from Singapore to Dili were recently launched: is it safe to visit East Timor? He confirms that it is, saying that it could be “another Bali”, and believes that it is gradually moving forward with plans to have its truly fantastic scenery and natural resources for diving and trekking matched with world-class accommodation and other infrastructure.
Each of their postings has had a completely different flavour and focus, says Richard. In Australia, their role was largely community-oriented; in Poland (from 1990 to 1995), they were breaking new ground; their work in the Middle East was mainly political; and here it is mostly business-focused.
They agree that Singapore is an extraordinarily easy and comfortable place to live in, and have found Singaporeans hospitable and charming. The Irish community, too, has been very open and welcoming. “Even though the people tend to come and go,” says Richard, “there is a stable base of between 2,500 and 3,000 Irish expats here, working mainly in the financial, pharmaceutical, high-tech and hospitality industries. A large number of them feel so comfortable here that they make Singapore their home. And don’t forget our seven pubs!”
Richard is clearly proud to have opened the most recent additions to the family – Durty Nelly’s at Marina Square and The Toucan at Duxton Hill – as well as a number of O’Brien’s (no relation) Irish Sandwich Bars that are popping up everywhere.
Singapore is home to about 60 Irish-owned companies. Institutions such as the Irish Business Association flourish, as does the Irish Graduates’ Association, which is “a great network of Singaporeans who have studied in Ireland, particularly, but not only, at Dublin’s Royal College of Surgeons,” according to Richard.
The St Patrick’s Association is, of course, the cultural cornerstone of the community. “March is Paddy’s month,” says Bernadette. “There’s the Irish Ball, our own reception, and the St Patrick’s Day parade – the only one in Southeast Asia.
“Apart from the humidity, the main problem with Singapore is the food. It’s just too good. When we arrived, I put on 10 kilograms in no time at all! But I don’t bother resisting it. We only come this way once.”
Richard says he likes St Julien’s for fine dining or business lunches, and his favourite meal is the black pepper crab at Long Beach seafood restaurant.
“The Pacific Room at the American Club is fabulous, the main dining room at the Cricket Club is superb and has great views, and we love Sunday brunch at the Shangri-La.
“But we eat out so often at other people’s homes that we do enjoy spending a quiet evening at home,” Bernadette adds. “We’re great readers, too. I start to panic if I don’t have at least a couple of books lined up – crime, history, romance, I read them all.” It emerges that she has just finished reading the latest by David Baldacci, and loves Maeve Binchy and Marianne Keyes.
As for Richard, he alternates between serious and escapist books. “I’ve just read a novel by the English author Robert Goddard, but I tend to read a lot of political works, especially on countries I’m about to visit, and I read all I can of John Banville, Colm Toibin and Patrick O’Connor.
“In this job,” he continues, “you need time to study, think and reflect. Contrary to how it may appear, the ambassadorial role is very operational: it is to convey to our government an intuitive, focused interpretation of the news and events in the country or region where we are based.
“Though we haven’t had much time for leisure travelling in the region, we have managed to see more of the Philippines, Indonesia, East Timor and Brunei than the ordinary tourist would see. Each time we visit them, it’s with a specific issue or objective in mind.”
“We’re here for another 18 months to two years, but this is our swan song before retirement. There’s something very relaxing about having decided that,” muses Bernadette. “I’m less frantic than I used to be, and I’ve made time to develop some hobbies such as tennis, mahjong and art.”
Why Australia? “We have very little family left in Ireland, and Canberra is where our ties, our bonds and our children are. After so many exciting, fulfilling but frenetic years, we yearn for a normal life, to have lunch with the family on a Sunday.” They’ve certainly earned at least that. And there’s no doubt that the wine will be served in Waterford crystal glasses.
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