Seeing the funny side of history: Nelson Mandela stole my glasses

A scene straight from a Specsavers television ad, involving Nelson Mandela, was recalled yesterday by Gerard Collins from the period when he was minister for foreign affairs.

Seeing the funny side of history: Nelson Mandela stole my glasses

Ireland held the presidency of the EU at the time of Mr Mandela’s release from prison and Mr Collins was delegated to travel to South Africa as head of the council of EU foreign ministers to meet him.

Mr Collins recalled: “I was in London when I got word from Brussels that I was to go straight away to South Africa to meet Mr Mandela on behalf of the EU.

“Our ambassador in London, Joe Small, got an embassy official to purchase a copy of The Book of Kells replica as a gift, which I took with me. I met Mr Mandela in government buildings in Lusaka and presented him with the replica Book of Kells.

“He had no glasses so he borrowed mine. Mr Mandela thumbed through the book for about five minutes and to my surprise was very knowledgeable on The Book of Kells and the Four Masters. I was amazed at how much he knew about The Book of Kells.

“He was delighted with the gift, and on placing the book on his desk he put my glasses into his top pocket.

“My glasses were prescription and I had to have them. I politely said to him ‘I think you have my glasses,’ and he said: ‘No, no, they are mine.’

“I then said to him: ‘No, no. I am sure they are my glasses, Mr Mandela,’ and he insisted they were his.

“At the third time of asking he took my glasses from his pocket and handed them back to me. Apparently he had a pair very like mine and he was certain they were his. It was a very delicate situation and required all my diplomatic skills so as not to cause upset. But I had to have my glasses as I had to go through a very important brief on a flight that evening to Saudi Arabia where I was representing the EU at talks with Middle East ministers.

“I had no replacement pair and as they were prescription I could not get a replacement pair at short notice and I had to have them.

“RTÉ were present and I have a picture from RTÉ hanging in my office at my home in Abbeyfeale of Mr Mandela reading the book wearing my glasses.”

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