Sir Terry Wogan, a founder member of the Ireland Fund of Great Britain (IFGB), was the star speaker on Friday night at the celebration at the Reform Club of its 25th anniversary. In the course of a typically self-deprecating and amusing speech, he spoke seriously about "the wonderful idea" of Sir Tony O'Reilly's that was the IFGB, and of its "magnificent" work for Ireland, which had begun during a difficult period when IRA bombs were killing innocent English people.
The extraordinary success of the Worldwide Ireland Funds is inadequately appreciated in Ireland. In 1976, it was the example of worldwide Jewish charities that inspired the then senior Heinz president, Dr Anthony JF O'Reilly, to set up the Ireland Fund in Boston, in partnership with Dan Rooney (president of the Pittsburgh Steelers Football Team and later ambassador to Ireland).
The purpose was to pursue in Ireland, north and south, the three goals of "peace, culture and charity". These days there are Ireland Fund chapters in Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Japan, Monaco, New Zealand and Singapore, which between them have raised more than $450m for 1,200 organisations. Sir Anthony remains chairman of the Worldwide Ireland Funds.
The strategy was to get away from the dreary begging-bowl image of the Irish by appealing to the richest and most successful of the Irish diaspora, so the launch in 1988 of the British arm was a black-tie event at the Dorchester.
Terry Wogan was given the Bird and Bell Award, which goes to outstanding ambassadors for Ireland: recent winners have been the milliner, Philip Tracey and fashion designer Louise Kennedy.
Besides Wogan, founder members were mainly well-known society figures including chairman Josephine Hart (a powerful figure in cultural circles and wife of Maurice – later Lord – Saatchi), Deirdre McSharry (editor of Cosmopolitan), Stephen Quinn (up-market magazine publisher) and Kevin Kelly (founder of World of Interiors).
In the first years of the IFGB, the money raised in glamorous locations at balls, race meetings, cocktail parties, star-studded golf days (Wogan to the fore) and ladies' luncheons would go primarily to peace-and-reconciliation initiatives in Ireland, but gradually the organisation began to focus more on the needs of the Irish in Britain.
In 2007, patron Peter Sutherland and President Mary McAleese launched the Forgotten Irish campaign, which sought to raise money and awareness for the most vulnerable of the elderly Irish. The then co-chairman, banker Basil Geoghegan, raised £100,000 for it by climbing Everest.
On Friday night, Chairman Ruth McCarthy spelled out the contemporary focus of the IFGB on "keeping pace with the weakest" among the 9,000,000 first generation Irish in Britain – the vulnerable elderly or young, the homeless and, particularly, victims of institutional abuse. She was proud of the backing it had given the Magdalene Laundries survivors, and moved by Enda Kenny's heartfelt apology.
Having the strongest help the weakest remains a winning formula.