HE was the man of the moment but some people didn't want to be seen going to his party.
It may have been an intensely personal birthday for Bertie Ahern, but several of his lifelong friends still ducked their heads in the back of a black Range Rover that whisked them into the car park. Between 7 and 8.30pm, the same black Range Rover and a black Mercedes made several round trips to the venue, avoiding the public glare of the front entrance.
One passenger could clearly be seen sandwiching his head between his legs and wrapping his arms around the top of his head in an absurd effort to guard his identity. Who was this strangely aloof guest?
But then, maybe it just wouldn't be a Bertie moment without some element of intrigue. Bertie's girls, Georgina and Cecelia, had themed a top secret menu around moments of significance in their family's lives. The dinner consisted of three courses: a self-service starters buffet, a main course choice of seabass and steak, and for dessert, well, birthday cake. “We’ve travelled the world and I’d say that was the nicest cake I ever had,” saidfamily friends Rose and Alex Clarke as they left the party.
“There are load of blue balloons and lots of pictures of Bertie as a young man on the walls,” said another party-goer. “It's like any party that you’ve been to; like any family it's just a private party.” Each of the tables was given the name of one of Bertie's favourite places, amongst them Old Trafford, Hill 16, Moore Street and the Dail.
“I would say it (the celebration) is far more normal than extravagant,” the partygoer said. “It's tastefully done: it's not ridiculous by any means.” Although Nicky Byrne from Westlife was among the guests and sang a couple of songs for the birthday boy, the main music was provided by a local band. Among the songs which got the revellers onto the dancefloor were classics such as ‘Daydream Believer', ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love', and ‘All Shook Up.'.
Private parties and functions are common at Croke Park – they usually host over 20 birthdays in any year, as well as a lesser number of wedding receptions and anniversaries. The venue offers event coordinators to assist although last night it looked like Cecelia and Georgina had everything under control. “We've been trying to organise a party like this for years, but he hates this kind of thing and he's blaming us for all this now,” laughed Cecelia. “You have to give something back to your parents when you love them. So he's being a dutiful dad and turning up,” added Georgina.
They insisted that this was to be no star-studded hooley but was “just his close friends and family. There's no razzmatazz,” explained Cecelia. “We just wanted to theme it around things he loves, and this place [Croke Park] is his major hobby, and we both spent all our childhood coming in and out of here with him.” Operating under regular licensing laws, the revellers at last night's 60th would have been served until 12.30 before bringing the political birthday bash of the year to an end.
At one stage at the front entrance, which was used by the majority of guests, there were five security guards and one guard. At the back entrance, where the high-speed Range Rover deliveries were ushered, there was one solitary security guard and a patrolling guard. At one stage, a patrol car idled in and around the car park, seemingly curious at the unusual nighttime activity in the area. Staff were not made aware of the individual guests and it is believed that a list wasn't even submitted to event organisers, although this would not be unusual.
As mystery continued to surround the whereabouts and even the when-abouts of the guest of honour, who hadn't been spotted by 9.30pm, one thing was for sure – if he had managed to slip in through one of the stadium’s multiple entrances, then nobody on the outside would ever know. Even the shutters at the front of the stadium creaked open and closed as the guests trickled in.
Welcome to Bertie's birthday – more impregnable protection would not even have surrounded him at the height of his political life. Brushing past reporters, photographers and protestors, the party goers kept their tickets in their pockets. Designed to look like match tickets, the invites were sent out a fortnight ago. They were sent to the party faithful shortly before it was revealed that the former Teflon Taoiseach has managed to claim €270,000 in expenses since leaving office, more than any other Taoiseach. The planned birthday bash, details of his expenses, and comments from his former partner Celia Larkin ensured that Bertie has stayed in the headlines recently.
It was the second big bash in as many months for the Ahern family with Cecelia celebrating her 30th birthday last month in Il Segreto restaurant on Merrion Row. Some of the same guests attended both parties – including Yvonne Keating – but without the same level of press scrutiny at Cecilia's party. Last night they partied into the wee hours to celebrate Bertie’s milestone.