Saturday 24 February 2018

A pint of Guinness and a bag of cheese and onion arrived at the next table. Little did I know they were for Bill Clinton

Unusual snack was ordered for the ex-president by Bono as a joke, Niamh Horan discovered when she got the chance to ask the political great about Jay Leno's 'drunken moron' jibe

When a packet of cheese-and-onion crisps and a pint of Guinness lands at the table next to you in one of Dublin's top restaurants you can't help but inwardly groan at the thought of who'll be pulling up a chair nearby.

But on Wednesday evening as I sat in the Unicorn restaurant on Merrion Row -- favourite of the great and the good over the years -- something told me this wasn't going to be your average diner.

For starters, his 'date' -- who had arrived extra early and who was sitting looking slightly apprehensive in the corner of the restaurant -- was multi-millionaire Denis O'Brien. And then suddenly, well-built secret-service agents in sharp black suits and crisp white shirts swept through the place to secure the area before placing themselves in watch-posts around the bistro.

Wires crept up the backs of their thick necks, to inform the men when their precious protectee was en route.

And then in walked former US President Bill Clinton, wearing a check shirt, beige jacket and slacks, looking slightly frail and weathered in contrast to his years in the Oval Office but in buoyant form none the less.

After being greeted by Mr O'Brien, Mr Clinton took his place at the centre of the grand table, which was complete with two towering silver candelabras and fine china.

Mr O'Brien looked almost relieved to be settling into the informal mood of the dinner, and swiftly removed his neck-tie, tucking it into his pocket, before sitting at the right-hand side of the two-term US president.

Plates of antipasti of parma ham and mozzarella were whisked to the table and the group of 20, including Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, John Fitzpatrick, the hotelier and golfing buddy of Mr Clinton, and Doug Band, an aide and counsellor to the former president, tucked into the buffet.

Mr Clinton no longer eats dairy products, resulting in his newly slimmed-down appearance, and so the rest of the well-mannered group were said to have avoided dairy where possible.

For dinner, the group had a choice of fillet of beef or black dover sole, and although they mainly topped their glasses with water, around seven or eight bottles of wine -- red Montepulciano Riserva at €41 a bottle and a white Nautilus wine from New Zealand at €39 a bottle -- were delivered to the table.

Throughout the night, Mr Clinton and Mr O'Brien had each other's ear in cosy conversation, and for a long while Mr Clinton even put his arm around his friend's shoulder as they chatted familiarly.

A tray of desserts of strawberries and cream pavlova arrived and, afterwards, Mr O'Brien got up to settle the bill, which is believed to have come close to €2,000.

Before they left I asked for a moment of the former president's time, "sure stay there", he said in his thick southern drawl, and smiling. "I'll come round," he said signalling to my side of the table. He signed a card for Gerry Adams before joining me.

He still had the famous glint in his eye. He told me he was enjoying his time in Ireland and I asked if he thought Jay Leno had sunk to a new low in media by berating the Taoiseach of our country on his American TV chat show and using the term "drunken morons". (In sharp contrast, of course, to what was described as a previous new low in journalism when I merely wrote about Mr Cowen dunking his biscuit into a cup of tea).

"Aw. . . I didn't see that one actually," he laughed. A very PC answer from one of the political greats, what else was to be expected? I thought better of asking him where he summers, said a polite goodbye and left.

Incidentally, the packet of crisps and pint of Guinness from earlier in the night were ordered by none other than Bono. The U2 rocker phoned ahead and requested that the snack be put in place prior to Mr Clinton's arrival as part of a running joke between the pair.

The group left along with the whirlwind of secret-service staff and unmarked garda cars, which were parked along the street outside the restaurant and quiet descended once more on the establishment.

It seems that even in the height of the recession, you never know what bit of sparkle will arrive through the door on a cold, dark night in Dublin's city centre.

That same night, at 11pm, Mr Clinton met former British prime minister Tony Blair, who was also in Dublin at a speaking engagement at the Shelbourne Hotel, which was in complete lockdown for the former heads of state. Mr Clinton was said to be staying in the Princess Grace Suite, the hotel's elite presidential suite.

Sunday Independent

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