Subscriber OnlyAbroad

Laura Kennedy: In Australia, my heart is broken for want of a spice bag

The essence of this delicacy will not be found in Foxrock, but in true multiculturalism — enterprising Chinese restaurant owners

I presume that the Irish Embassy in Australia, located here in its capital, Canberra, is kept busy. They’re duty-bound to help you (probably – I’m not sure so don’t read that as legal advice of any kind). If your son is visiting and is arrested outside Aldi (yes, we do have Aldi here) for brandishing a traffic cone while running down a public thoroughfare in his underpants screaming, “Up Mayo!” because he lost a bet with his friend Dodgy Brian, you’d go straight to the only consecrated Irish soil in Canberra, I’m guessing.

Whether or not your son deserves help, you’ll probably need advice to prevent deportation and intergenerational shame falling upon the entire county of Mayo.

And yet, here I find myself in the eye of a diplomatic incident almost as serious as the traffic cone thing. The ripple effect could damage trade relations. The Irish Times has journalists the world over. They gather reports as events unfold. They are expected to deliver sophisticated geopolitical analysis, and I’m no different. It’s tough, highly skilled work. It’s risky, but it’s for the good of the country. Someone has to muster the grit to get it done. To be in the room. Ask the tough questions. Doggedly pursue truth at any cost. We do it in the name of good, honest journalism, and we do it for Ireland.

So when my editor emailed me urgently in the middle of the night (every email from home is in the middle of the night in Australia but I’m enjoying the drama) and asked, ‘can you find a spice bag in your local area?’, I heeded the call to serve. He had, after all, requested in writing. That constitutes a legal contract, probably.


I thought of my beloved family, safe in their beds at home in Limerick. I thought of how shaky things have been since Leo’s resignation. I thought about the spice mix restaurants put on the chips and the crispy chicken, the onions and peppers and the whole business, and I thought, “I’m a patriot. I’m a journalist. I’m not technically The Irish Times’s Australia correspondent, but after this, I surely will be.”

“Yeah, okay, sure I’ll have a go,” I replied casually because I didn’t want to intimidate my editor or make him feel guilty about the potential safety implications of dispatching me on such a critical mission. Spice bag diplomacy – it sounds like a pejorative term coined to describe the mandate of the Department of Foreign Affairs under former taoiseach Charles Haughey.

The Canberra Irish Club is the Hibernian hub here and a crucial resource for people who enjoy mashed potatoes with gravy in the local community

Here’s the crisis – I cannot find one. Not in my local area, anyway. Here in the heart of Australia’s verdant capital city, people have apparently not yet discovered the spice bag and my heart is broken for want of one. The Irish in Australia are industrious. A quick glance at Reddit (because of research) reveals that my editor and I are not the first to speak truth to power and ask the hard questions.

On the Reddit Sydney thread, someone seeks advice on where they can find this Irish delicacy. They go on to clarify, “I’m talking the real greasy, cholesterol-raising good sh*t”, presumably alluding to the concerning rise in some Dublin gastropubs trying to gentrify the spice bag, serving it in artisanal recycled wax paper, sprinkling it with peanut rayu, fiddling with the sacred spice mix, or committing other heresies.

The root of the spice bag lies not in Foxrock, but in true multiculturalism – in enterprising Chinese restaurant owners realising that if you put chips in it (it being whatever you have to hand to experiment with, like breaded chicken, peppers and other bits around the kitchen), Irish people will eat it. We need the inclusion of potato to feel safe. Dip it all in curry sauce but know you may become overwhelmed and fall spontaneously to your knees.

Those brave innovators understood this and a beautiful fusion cuisine was born.

The Reddit questioner is promptly directed to BIG Dave’s Irish Chipper (I’ve kept the capitalisation in to accurately report Dave’s name as he spells it himself because I’m a respectable journalist). It’s apparently open every day ‘till 8pm and you can sit in if you’re feeling elegant. I’ll be heading in on my next trip to Sydney in the name of research and forwarding the bill to The Irish Times. The accounts people may ask unreasonable questions, such as: “Why does this receipt have $300 in curry chips on it?” and “We don’t have to put up with this sort of thing from you, you’re not Fintan O’Toole”. (I either fever-dreamed or read somewhere that Fintan has to be forcibly extracted from a plate of curry chips, Orwell Prize or not).

You can’t just wander the streets of an Australian city asking strangers if they know where to find a spice bag. You might be cautioned for soliciting, or someone could misunderstand and try to sell you synthetic marijuana.

So I start knocking on doors.

That is to say, I consult the Canberra Irish Club menu to look for spice bags. I do this because the Irish Ambassador very concerningly refused to give me an official quote on the scandal, arguably based at least partially on the fact that I felt too embarrassed to request one. Another veteran journalist (maybe Fintan O’Toole or possibly Miriam Lord) might demand that the ambassador either personally account for this gaping hole in the Irish cultural outreach agenda or promptly resign, but I don’t have that sort of integrity.

The Canberra Irish Club is the Hibernian hub here and a crucial resource for people who enjoy mashed potatoes with gravy in the local community (also Irish culture and whatnot). No spice bag was found, but they do make a lamb curry in McDonnell’s curry sauce which sounds as intriguing as it does unwise. They also offer a plethora of potato wedge options, which is a real comfort at this stressful time. Journalists aren’t supposed to engage in overt activism so I’ve consulted The Irish Times’ lawyers as to whether I’m allowed to petition the club to add spice bags to the menu.

In the meantime, I’ll be picketing the Embassy and eating nothing but dry chips (like a common goat) until the spice bag arrives in Canberra – meet me out the front to sign my petition if you’re around.

More as it happens.