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Miriam Lord: Stephen Donnelly got his fingers badly burned this week. Nothing new in that, some might say

Miriam Lord’s week: Sligo gathering recalls local links of King Charles and Mountbatten

Eight years ago, the future British king made a personal pilgrimage to the tiny seaside village in Sligo where his beloved great uncle was murdered by the IRA.

Lord Mountbatten was lobster fishing off Mullaghmore, in the shadow of his summer residence Classiebawn Castle, when a bomb exploded on his boat.

In early 1979, Charles wrote to his godfather about Classiebawn: “I do wish I could come and see it. I know I would be captivated by it.”

In August 1979, Louis Mountbatten (79), his 14-year-old grandson and King Charles’s godson Nicholas, his paternal grandmother Lady Doreen Brabourne and 15-year-old Enniskillen schoolboy Paul Maxwell were killed in the blast.


“At the time I could not imagine how we would come to terms with the anguish of such a deep loss since, for me, Lord Mountbatten represented the grandfather I never had,” said Charles when he finally got to see the place where his godfather had died 36 years earlier.

“Through this dreadful experience, though, I now understand in a profound way the agonies borne by so many others in these islands, of whatever faith, denomination or political tradition.”

That emotional trip, part of a four-day landmark visit to Ireland by the then prince and his wife, Camilla, was seen as a major step forward in Anglo-Irish relations.

Last Saturday, Caroline Devine invited a small group of guests to a gathering in Classiebawn Castle to toast the imminent coronation of King Charles and mark his strong connection to Mountbatten and, more recently, Mullaghmore

Among those enjoying Caroline’s hospitality was former Fine Gael TD Charlie Flanagan and his wife, Mary, and RTÉ’s former northern editor Tommie Gorman and his wife, Ceara.

Charlie was minister for foreign affairs and played host when the other Charlie visited Sligo and Classiebawn. Tommie Gorman, who met the prince on a number of occasions, covered the aftermath of the explosion as a young reporter with the Western Journal.

The British ambassador, Paul Johnston, and his wife, Nicola, joined in the toast, as did Adrian O’Neill, former Irish ambassador to the UK, and his wife, Aisling.

Many of the staff who worked at Classiebawn when the British aristocracy used to visit are still living in Sligo. Two honoured guests at last Saturday’s private event were brothers Pat and John Barry, whose mother, Philomena, was head housekeeper at the Victorian pile. Pat was a former butler to Lord Mountbatten at his Broadland estate in England.

A number of the guests travelled to Sligo on the previous day to attend the opening of a memorial garden to more than 600 men and women from the county who died in the first World War.

The dedication ceremony at Cleveragh was attended by ambassadors and diplomatic representatives of several of the countries involved in the Great War, including England, Germany, Australia, Canada the United States and France.

Stephen Donnelly got his fingers badly burned this week.

Nothing new in that, some might say. It’s an occupational hazard for Ministers for Health here.

What happened this time?

Did someone in the department not tell him the full story before an important interview? Did he co-found another political party? Did the bold civil servant make him cry when he talked about policy?

Did he compare the risk in leaving an unsupervised sick person on a cushioned hospital trolley to the inherently risky action of Irish mammies who enter the First Communion bouncy castle after a clatter of home-made mojitos?


He got into a fight with a giant hogweed. His left hand is bandaged up now.

We know this because he told the story on Thursday night at the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation’s gala dinner in Killarney.

In fairness, he told it well.

The Minister spent most of his after-dinner remarks treating the INMO delegates like turnips. Shamelessly buttering them up.

He began with a little dig at the mandarins who breezed into the Gleneagle Hotel at a late hour in readiness for their man’s big speech the following morning.

“I’m delighted the Department of Health team made it down exactly as the after-dinner drinks were being distributed,” he snarked. That went down well.

“It is troooly a great honour, it is a great privilege, it is a great joy to be here. And I know that all the invited guests here feel exactly the same.”

That’s why the crowd from his department arrived at the end.

“It is an honour for us to be invited into your inner sanctum; into your delegates’ dinner.”

As Minister, he sees them from the “other side” and so he knows as well as they do that the INMO has “a formidable and quite brilliant team” in general secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha and president Karen McGowan.

And he thanked everyone for putting on such a great evening.

Dr Donnelly’s bedside manner went down a treat.

Nurse! More soft soap, stat!

“Finally, I feel I need to apologise” he began. “Several people have said to me this evening: Stephen, what’s with the dodgy-looking bandage on your hand? I hope it’s something legendary. How does the other guy look?”

And then the big reveal.

“I managed to poison myself in my own garden with something called hogweed.”

Oooooh!” went all the nurses and midwives, wincing.

“So it doesn’t look very nice. This is kind of a vanity bandage,” explained Stephen, holding up the hand in question.

“I was aware as I was kinda wrapping it, one-handed, on the way down in the car that I was coming in with a half-assed bandage to the INMO conference. So, I just want to apologise for the state of it.

“And thank you. I think I’ve had about 50 offers from people saying c’mere, you fecking eejit...”

He had a neat, professional-looking bandage on when the time came to address delegates on Friday.

Our commiserations to the Minister.

Hogweed is an invasive and dangerous plant and should be avoided at all costs. It grows very high in damp ground, has huge leaves and stems topped with broad caps of tiny white flowers. The plant produces a sap that can cause extreme blistering to the skin, particularly in the presence of direct sunlight.

Back in Dublin this week, the British ambassador had more jolly matters on his mind when he hosted a reception in his Glencairn residence on Thursday to mark the Eurovision Song Contest, which kicks off in Liverpool next week.

War-torn Ukraine won last year’s contest. The UK took the runner-up spot and responsibility for hosting this year’s cheesefest, for obvious reasons.

The usual stuffy line-up and formal chit-chat went out the window in favour of an eclectic mix of delighted diplomats, RTÉ types, assorted Eurovision heads and lots of performers. The National Concert Hall’s Robert Reid and Eugene Downes, the Department of Foreign Affairs culture director, were also present, along with man of the moment Marty Whelan, heading up the domestic artistic contingent before he heads off himself for his 25th year in the Eurovision commentary box for RTÉ.

In best Eurovision fashion, the event was something of a co-production between the UK and Ukraine, with speeches from ambassador Johnston and his Ukrainian counterpart, Gerasko Larysa.

And never mind the royalty across the water. Guests in Glencairn were in the presence of our own Eurovision royalty.

Niamh Kavanagh, who won 30 years ago in Cork’s Millstreet, belted out a few numbers on the night while songwriter Phil Coulter played up a storm on the piano. Maryna Odolska and Iholnyk Kiril from Ukraine performed on the night.

There were very few politicians in evidence, but Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was there and in his element. He made an off-the-cuff speech from the bottom of the wooden staircase and it went down very well with the crowd.

“He should throw away the script more often,” said one attendee.

Also spotted was locally-based Fianna Fáil senator Gerry Horkan, while his colleague from Wexford Malcolm Byrne was spotted singing along to the classics.

At one point, the British ambassador produced one of the famous little skirts worn by the Buck’s Fizz women when they won the Eurovision in Dublin in 1981. It was in great demand for photographs.

Paul Johnston later tweeted “The green skirt is a Eurovision holy relic ... NB: no clothes were ripped off in the making of last night’s event.”

It was a busy week on the entertaining front for diplomats and those politicians partial to the occasional canape or five.

The Polish embassy held two events on separate evenings to coincide with Poland’s national day and constitution day.

Ambassador Anna Sochanska was welcomed to the Seanad by Cathaoirleach Jerry Buttimer on Wednesday and he spoke later at the embassy reception.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the opposition in Belarus, was a guest of honour at the ceremonies. The political activist was awarded the Tipperary Peace Prize this week.