As Pippa Middleton launches her guide to preparing the perfect party, Margaret Carragher reports on how Irish celebs entertain at home and away
IF YOU’VE partied with Hollywood royalty, been kissed by Al Pacino and rubbed sequinned shoulders with an entire alphabet of A-listers it’s fair to assume you’d be hard to impress. So when TV3 presenter Lisa Cannon admits to being blown away by a party, you want to hear more.
“I was in Rome to interview fashion designer Roberto Cavalli at a party in the Colosseum,” she recalls. “It was like an old Roman film set, candlelit, orgy-themed ... SO decadent. It must have cost two or three million. There was food everywhere — huge hunks of lamb, blocks of cheese, grapes draped all over the place. The models were wandering around in underwear and black masks or stretched out on fur-covered chaises longues. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
As for badly behaved party guests, “I once had somebody get up on a table and do a striptease,” she laughs. “Naming no names, of course.”
For novelist, journalist and former Miss Ireland Amanda Brunker, the secret of a successful party lies in its planning.
“It’s all about the detail,” she says. “Having worked in catering for over 10 years, I’m anal about lighting (I hate a bar too bright), music (not-too-loud and not-too-awful), clean toilets and full drinks in every hand.
“Although I’d like to think I was the star guest at my book launches, I always organise a few celebrity guests to keep everyone talking. Bono and Louis Walsh are normally quite handy in these situations but since not everybody will actually get to chat with them, I tend to book semi-naked male waiting staff and a few gorgeous girlies to hand out drinks to keep everyone smiling.
“After that, a relaxed and happy hostess is all that is required to make the night.”
Darina Allen believes the best parties are family affairs with several generations gathered together playing silly games.
“Most people’s idea of a nightmare!” she laughs, “But we have so much fun when we close Ballymaloe House over Christmas and have a traditional festive feast, after which the real high jinks begin.”
According to Darina, a particularly popular game for Allen children of all ages is ‘the whacker’.
“The whacker game is played with a sellotaped rolled up newspaper. Everyone young and old sits around in a circle and a deep dustbin is put in the centre. One person is nominated to start — they ‘whack’ someone and then need to put the whacker into the bin before the person can pick it up and whack them.
“Many other elements are, of course, important. Invest in something fizzy to get the party rolling. Keep the food simple and interactive. I love lots of candles and when the evenings are chillier, an open fire and lots of flowers.”
For journalist and civil rights activist Nell McCafferty, a party is only as good as its host. A veteran of countless knees-ups, McCafferty recalls her most memorable, a New Year’s Eve bash thrown by fellow scribe Elgy Gillespie which went up — literally — in flames.
“Elgy had managed to squeeze 20 guests into the living room of her tiny cottage for a full, sit-down dinner,” McCafferty relates.
“At the end there was a huge Christmas pudding soaked in alcohol which she duly set alight. The resulting flames set fire to all the Christmas decorations. With typical aplomb, our hostess simply doused the flames and carried on as if nothing had happened.”
A less illustrious bash was one McCafferty threw herself following her departure from The Irish Times. “I’m still not the better of it,” she chuckles. “Nobody came. I haven’t thrown one since.
“Although, what with Pippa Middleton going commando at the royal wedding, and the response to that nude painting of mine [a portrait exhibited in Dublin’s Royal Hibernian Academy which sold for €10,000 in 2008], perhaps I should stage a comeback and throw a nude party. Theme it ‘Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel!’.”
While Nationwide presenter Mary Kennedy loves having people around she’s no big fan of the word “entertaining”.
“I’m not mad about ‘dinner party’ either,” she says. “There’s something a bit formal about that term, and the joy for me of gathering people around the table for dinner is the absolute informality of it all.”
Kennedy’s choice of party food reflects her no-fuss attitude. “Last weekend I had 10 friends around for dinner. I served beef in Guinness and lots of creamy mashed potato. Very simple, very tasty and I wasn’t hopping up and down from the table and missing out on the chat. That’s what it’s about for me. Catching up, having the chat, good company, good fun.
“The starter, by the way, came from an old Hello magazine. Goat’s cheese, beetroot and caramelised hazelnut salad, assembled just before everyone arrived. And for dessert, Neven Maguire’s poached autumn berries with pavlova. No stress, no fuss.”
As for dream guests, Kennedy says she’d love to cook for Nelson Mandela. “That would definitely be prepared in advance. I wouldn’t want to miss a word of his conversation. Agnes Brown (aka Brendan O’Carroll) would be good fun at the dinner table. I’d position myself a bit of a distance away from her, though, in case I got a belt of the tea towel.
“I sat beside Fr Peter McVerry at a charity dinner once and I would love everyone to have that opportunity. His life is made up of love and concern for the most vulnerable and broken of our young people who, as he points out, weren’t born that way. A wonderful man with a message to us all about social responsibility.”
For celebrity lawyer Gerald Kean and his fiancée Lisa Murphy, partying is a serious business. “There’s no doubt whatsoever that the secret of a good dinner party is having the right guests,” says Kean. “We tend to surround ourselves with happy, fun-loving and optimistic people. Good storytellers are a bonus.”
Chief among Gerald and Lisa’s party must-haves are: a warm, happy and open welcome for the guests; good seating arrangements, and lots of good food and drink. A veteran of countless parties, Kean reckons the best he ever attended was his own 50th held in the Ritz Carlton in Wicklow.
“It was an extraordinary evening,” he says. “The theme was Napoleonic French style with entertainment by Ronan Keating, Lloyd Cole and The Commotions, Aslan, Belinda Carlyle and Martin Fry of ABC. We also had members of the Thrills, Simple Minds, Duran Duran and other bands as guests.”
For Murphy, no party could compare with the surprise 40th thrown by Kean in September in their Drayton Manor home.
“I was taking Lisa to a Rape Crisis lunch that day and had to tip the manager and staff to give her no more than two glasses of wine,” Kean explains.
“Every time she asked for more she’d get an apology and a promise that her request would be dealt with immediately. The waiter or manager would then, as per instructions, completely ignore her request.
“The idea of course was to keep Lisa bright and sober for what lay ahead — which predictably went down a treat and lasted into the wee hours.”
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