Tuesday 17 July 2018

Inside the annual Sunday Independent Living Christmas Party

It was the annual Sunday Independent Living Christmas party. And naturally everyone from man-of-the-moment Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to Joe Duffy, Liam Cunningham, Marty Whelan, Camille O'Sullivan and dozens of others pitched up at the InterContinental hotel, Ballsbridge, to add to the festive cheer. Your host: Barry Egan. Photos: David Conachy and Fergal Phillips

Barry Egan and his guests at the annual Sunday Living Christmas party.
Photo: David Conachy
Barry Egan and his guests at the annual Sunday Living Christmas party. Photo: David Conachy
Lisa Cannon, Trevor White and Susan Jane White. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Camille O'Sullivan, Joe Duffy and Barry Egan. Photo: Fergal Phillips
The Sunday Living Christmas Party. Photo: David Conachy
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

'Twas a night before Christmas, when all thro' the house/Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.'

In fact, a creature was stirring. And all through the grand house, so to speak, of the ultra-swish InterContinental hotel in Ballsbridge, Twink's four-legged creature Teddy created the catchphrase of the night at the Sunday Independent Living magazine Christmas party: "Don't Step On Teddy". Those who trod lightly therefore at the beano of the year included Game of Thrones star Liam Cunningham, chanteuse Camille O'Sullivan - who was jetting out the next morning to Vancouver to meet her beau, movie star and former Game of Thrones star himself, Aidan Gillen - RTE superstars Joe Duffy, Marty Whelan and Brendan O'Connor, former Miss World Rosanna Davison, Twink, and of course,  An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, to name but a very few who rocked up in all their finery to chat merrily about the issues of the year about to end.

Amid all the tinselly cheer of the season in the InterContinental's Presidential Suite, Christmas is also a time of sadness when we reflect upon those no longer with us for varying reasons. Asked what was his low point of 2017, Leo Varadkar was honest enough to wear his heart on his nicely-tailored sleeve when he answered: "The resignation of my friend and colleague Frances Fitzgerald. She is a good woman who has done a lot for this country." Others were equally candid in their low-points of the year. . .

Joe Duffy: "Illness hitting close friends. Treasure your health."

Lisa Cannon, Trevor White and Susan Jane White. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Lisa Cannon, Trevor White and Susan Jane White. Photo: Fergal Phillips

Marty Whelan: "The low point for me was the loss of my dear friend Kevin Linehan, a colleague and friend of mine for 30 years. We went to Eurovisions and everything together and we were great friends. It's a void that won't be filled. He was a good man."

Camille O'Sullivan: "There's been a few low points but mostly missing dear friends who are no longer with us."

Stefanie Preissner: "Putting my rent on Mayo to win the All-Ireland."

Broadcaster Lorraine Keane: "The story of Milly Tuomey really made a big impact on me, because I'm a mother of young girls and because we have close friends affected by teen suicide."

Singer Tommy Fleming (with lovely wife Tina): "Cancelling the Australian tour due to pneumonia. I have never had to cancel a show in the past."

RTE weather presenter Nuala Carey: "Storm Ophelia hitting Ireland and the death of three people."

Camille O'Sullivan, Joe Duffy and Barry Egan. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Camille O'Sullivan, Joe Duffy and Barry Egan. Photo: Fergal Phillips

New Zealand-born TV rugby guru Brent Pope: "Losing the Six Nations coverage [RTE lost it to TV3.] Strange to be in the stands."

TV presenter Lisa Cannon: "It's very personal but let's just say that it was pretty devastating. But I'm stoical about life and I bounced back."

Singer/Senator Frances Black: "My mother-in-law passed away."

Michael Murphy, author of Book of Dreams: "Trump undermining people's reality."

Intercontinental hotel general manager par excellence Nicky Logue made sure the fine wine and the Perrier Jouet Champagne flowed with Niagara Falls-esque verve all evening, along with some fabulous food. Leo seemed to particularly enjoy the mini-burgers, as did Joe Duffy, Marty Whelan and Russian actress Tatiana Ouliankina, formerly of Fair City. I'm not sure whether the star of the night - Teddy - had one too, but you never know. The Intercontinental executive chef Alberto Rossi and his team also prepared a selection of canapes including mini Dublin Bay prawn cocktails, fois gras on brioche and smoked salmon blinis.

Other stars of the party of the year included Stefanie Preissner (author of Why Can't Everything Just Stay the Same? And Other Things I Shout When I Can't Cope), Trevor White (author of Alfie: The Life and Times of Alfie Byrne) and his beautiful wife Susan Jane (author of, among others, The Virtuous Tart: Recipes Free from Wheat, Dairy and Cane Sugar), plus artist Mick Mulcahy and girlfriend Vera Whelan, to say nothing of businesswoman and interior designer Natasha Rocca Devine, plus Tess de Kretser, proprietor of Sri Lankan hotel Olcote in Ceylon, and ex-wife of the late Cathal Ryan; racing legend Rosemary Smith, and PR deities Sharon Bannerton and Avila Lipsett. And of course... An Taoiseach, Camille O'Sullivan, Liam Cunningham, Joe Duffy, Marty Whelan and so many others enjoying themselves like it was - hey - Christmas! It was like a dinner party for 40 people - most of them celebrities, one of them the leader of the country.

The Sunday Living Christmas Party. Photo: David Conachy
The Sunday Living Christmas Party. Photo: David Conachy

As Gabrielle Hamilton wrote in The New York Times magazine recently, "To me it has always been clear that a dinner party is about what is said, not what is eaten. There would always be wine and salad and bread and stew; chocolate and fruit and nuts and sparkling cold duck. But those were just the props - the conduits for funny and real and meaningful conversation; the set-pieces of a lively, engaged, lingering old-school dinner party."

So it proved where a fabulously diverse and indeed old-school mix of people - everyone from author Gavin Lambe-Murphy (Diary of an It Boy) to broadcaster Lorraine Keane to charity queen Debbie Deegan, to the Sunday World's queen herself, Amanda Brunker, to Fine Gael's Mary Mitchell O'Connor - showed that after a while, no matter how diverse a gang, they all seem to either know each other in some way, or would soon get to know each other. It was like they spoke a secret language only they understood, a celebrity code. They were all dressed up to the nines. Jewellery designer Chloe Townsend in a red guna straight off the red carpet. Rosanna Davison mesmerised us all in a dazzling silver outfit, which looked like the most marvellous Christmas sweet wrapper going.

The hotel pulled out all the stops, magnificently decorated trees were everywhere, tinsel and shiny baubles sparkled. There was spirited discussion about everything that happened in the last year - one of the hottest topics: our new Taoiseach. Clearly, that bit of chat happened before He Who Shall Be Obeyed arrived and fortunately, the approval from the guests was utterly unanimous.

Rosanna: "I think Leo has been a really positive influence as Taoiseach so far and a brilliant representative for Ireland abroad. He's young, erudite, modern and feels relatable for my generation."

Frances: "He's done very well with Brexit but he needs to do more on the homelessness issue."

Camille: "I think he's doing very well and particularly in relation to the Brexit talks. I was working in the UK last week when his speech came up on the BBC, and I felt proud of how he represented our country and spoke in regards to the negotiations and relations in the North, with the UK and Europe."

Marty: "I think Leo is doing a really top job, plus he is personable, he is perceptive and all round he just makes me proud. I think he is marvellous."

Joe: "The very 'Good Friday' Brexit agreement on December 8 projected a powerful image worldwide of the Taoiseach and Tanaiste towering over their hapless British counterparts. A good day's work for Ireland. Sock it to them."

Donald Trump - dangerous a**hole or anti-establishment hero of the American working class?

Rosanna: "Dangerous a**hole in my opinion, absolutely. Every day I wonder what he'll threaten to do or actually say next."

Holly: "Dangerous a**hole. I believe the speculation that he's [allegedly] mentally unwell."

Stefanie: "The most dangerous a**hole in the world. And he's so prolific in his a**holery, we're nearly becoming immune to it!"

Twink: "I knew he was going to win. I won a tenner on him. I don't know why people thought he would run America as previous presidents have done. They came from political, legal, military backgrounds. What they got was a hire 'em/fire 'em businessman. I saw a documentary on him recently and from his background you can see he has spent his whole life trying to prove to mom and dad that he could do something. One thing is he has dragged the presidency into the 21st century with his social media. There will be no hiding in the Oval Office again."

Joe: "If we didn't have him for the last 12 months what would we talk about?"

Camille: "I feel a certain fear and wave of depression when he talks. I'm still shocked someone like him was voted the president of the USA, especially when you compare the dignity and humane qualities Obama had."

Marty: "He just generally seems to wake in the morning determined to annoy somebody and proceeds to annoy almost everybody."

What is the funniest rumour our guests have heard about themselves in 2017 that they'd like to deny?

Joe: "That I was going on Dancing with the Stars. I can tango but I'm not a star!"

Rosanna: "I'm always asked if I'm still actually married because Wes doesn't ever really appear in my social media or accompany me to events. They're not his thing and we're happier to keep it like that. He's the Insta-husband behind all of my photos though!"

"What I am denying is that I am going to sing at the Eurovision Song Contest next May, which will be my 20th - it is a rumour and I am quashing it now," says Marty who hosts Winning Streak on RTE 1 every Saturday and Marty in the Morning weekdays on Lyric FM.

Tommy: "That I was doing a duet with Nathan Carter," says he with a mouthful of chic canapes. "I need to lose a stone."

I suggest some bedroom exercise with his gorgeous wife Tina. "That's what is putting the weight on!" Tommy laughs. "We go out for dinner afterwards!"

Apart from their respective partners, who would our guests most like to meet under the mistletoe?

Guggi, who has presumably had a few fruit juices too many: "You, Barry."

Holly: "Jason Momoa from Game of Thrones in full costume is my newest fantasy crush. He's a mountain of a man and I would climb him like a tree."

Tommy: "Michelle Obama. I admire what she stands for - an overall great human being."

Fashion designer Darren Kennedy: "Jon Kortajarena [model]."

Marty: "I have said it before and I will say it again: Cindy Crawford. Firstly because she is the image of my wife, Maria. And secondly, because as you may have noticed from a story that ran in the Irish Independent about two weeks ago, George Clooney gave herself and her husband $1m recently. I thought that was particularly kind and now I have another reason to like her."

Broadcaster Lorraine Keane: "George Clooney, in the hope that he'd bring one of those suitcases of cash he's been handing out!" says she with a sip of bubbles.

Michael Murphy, enjoying a Christmas pudding and brandy sauce dessert, says: "Santa."

Stefanie plumps for the the not- quite-Santa-bearded manager of Liverpool Football Club: "Jurgen Klopp."

Debbie Deegan, who, as always, is working tirelessly for To Children With Love, says Ashton Kutcher, naturally, though for the moment her attention is being held captive by a delicious Lily O'Brien's chocolate.

Brent: "A chance would be a fine thing. They know who they are."

Twink: "I have a bit of a new late-in-life crush on Bradley Walsh. No, not Bradley Cooper," she harrumphs. "You can stuff Bradley Cooper. For me it's Bradley Walsh. He's intelligent and sublimely witty and I'm a bit in love with him," Twink says reeling off The Chase, Law and Order and everything her beloved Brad has ever appeared in.

Rosanna: "I've a massive crush on Chris Martin! It's his talent and natural stage presence. I saw Coldplay in concert in Dublin almost 10 years ago and I think it started back then."

Camille: "Dangerous territory. I'm finding that hard as I would want to be under the mistletoe with my partner... maybe a spirit gathering of Bowie and Cohen just to give hugs and say thank you for all their incredible music and performances."

Nuala: "Gerard Butler. I had to turn down meeting him some time ago but he did send me a video message."

Writer and broadcaster Andrea Hayes: "Joe Duffy!"

Joe: "Meghan Markle, because I'm sure she would have Harry with her. I would love to chat with them - the most fascinating royals since Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson."

Mr Duffy's answer leads me to ask An Taoiseach, who has just arrived, did Prince Harry make the right choice in choosing Meghan?

"Yes," Leo replies. "She's fabulous. And I hope they visit Ireland soon."

Twink: "He looks a bit of a sweetie. I think they'll get on. He's a bon viveur and she's a good time girl."

Stefanie: "Oh he 'chose' her, did he? Well, let's look at that..."

Let's look at the party of the year instead. Some, like Limerick fashionista Celia Holman Lee and her husband Ger, departed with lots of air kisses and their own individual little boxes of Lily O'Brien's choccies (supplied for the evening by Lily O'Brien's with their new Christmas gifting collection - from festive creme brulee and sticky toffee to caramel macchiato). Others - like artists Guggi and Michael Mulcahy - seem to dance out of the Presidential Suite hours later to a tune only they could hear.

So, what were our guests' highlights of the year? Marty Whelan pipes up first. "Two things," he begins. "The first thing is thanks to hairdresser Gary Kavanagh's work. I am naturally grey these days. The other one," he continues, "is the election of somebody who is interesting, and that is Leo Varadkar."

Cometh the hour, cometh the man with his answer. "It was probably," Leo says, "the positive outcome of the first phase in the Brexit negotiations. It was a good result for Ireland but we have more to do in the year ahead to secure it."

"Personally," Joe says of 2017, "it was my daughter graduating as a teacher and getting a job. Publicly it was the work of the Citizens' Assembly: deliberative democracy works - just like Liveline!"

Alison Canavan, LIFE health columnist, says: "Getting accepted into UCLA."

Tommy: "When I was awarded the platinum disc for the 25th album and reaching the number one position with the Stories album - every now and then it's nice to be acknowledged for what I do."

"Getting married to Terry after 33 years," Michael Murphy says of Terry O'Sullivan who is sitting beside him.

Camille: "Two highlights: bringing my little daughter to meet the reindeer at Phoenix Park, when suddenly Santa casually walked through the forest waving - mayhem ensued! It was just beautiful; she and all the kids waving and running towards him, I was there with my parents and I'll never forget it, just lovely. Another highlight was doing gigs around the world and performing for the President and his wife at the Aras."

"It's all about my girls," Twink says referring to Chloe and Naomi. "Chloe is touring America as Nathan Carter's special guest, which is good for both of them. He's great for her in Ireland, she's great for him in America, as Chloe is very well known in America whereas Nathan isn't. And I just got word that Naomi has been offered a job in the US with Buddy Valastro, the Cake Boss."

Holly: "Launching my jewellery line LoveLift was a dream come true."

Lisa: "Getting my own show Box Office - my movie show on TV3 and Virgin Channel.

Brent: "Getting back to New Zealand for the Lions tour."

Rosanna: "A big highlight has been a work opportunity that cropped up at the end of 2016 but was launched in September this year. Last year, I was asked to become the nutrition consultant for Constance Hotels and Resorts, who have seven five-star hotels across the Indian Ocean. I've spent this year working with their team of head chefs to design a series of healthy eating menus and wellness programmes, which have been rolled out across all of the restaurants, spas, gyms and room service menus in their hotels and resorts."

In a distant corner of the Presidential Suite, next to the delicious turkey, prepared by chef Alberto, on the table, I ask Liam Cunningham what his highlight was? Staying alive in the blood-thirsty Game of Thrones perhaps?

"Yes. I have been in this show for the last seven years. My ambition was to get to the last season. And now - typical actor - my ambition, having got to the last season, is to get to the last episode. Whether I do or not remains to be seen," he says of his death-defying character Sir Davos Seaworth.

Guggi: "Seeing U2 in Bogota, Colombia was my highlight. The reason for that was, not only was it one of the great shows, but the people of Colombia didn't expect the biggest act in the world to turn up and they turned up. You could feel it - the appreciation, the love, the vibe, in the audience and it was pretty special."

What could Caitriona Perry have done differently when Trump singled her out for attention in the White House in June?

Leo: "She handled it very well, with poise and dignity."

Marty: "Nothing. In fact she played it so cool in that situation it was: Catriona one, The Donald nil."

Stefanie: "Oh, it's her fault...is it? Not what could Trump have done differently instead of singling Catronia Perry out?"

Do they miss Vincent Browne, who left the airwaves this year?

Guggi: "No."

Leo: "Yes. He's irreplaceable."

Stefanie: "Christ no. Nor do I miss the vb hashtag every morning."

Marty: "Periodically."

Camille: "I must live on another planet. I didn't realise he was gone."

Twink: "I used to hang out with him and Noel Pearson. I love Vincent. He couldn't give a fat rat's arse what anyone thinks of him."

Do they miss former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny?

Holly and Tommy: "No."

Leo: "I still see him. Not as much as I'd like though."

Michael Murphy: "A solid Mayo man."

Twink: "I like Enda. I think he's a very endearing man."

Joe: "History will be kind to him. It looks like he was the right leader at the right time."

Did they feel sorry for Frances Fitzgerald, who resigned as Tanaiste in November following the whistleblower email controversy?

Holly:"No." Joe: "I think she knows it's not the end of the world. She's not jobless or homeless... the people I really feel sorry for this year are our homeless."

Twink: "One prerequisite of showbiz or politics - no glass jaw need apply."

Marty: "Of course one does. Seeing anyone flounder and finding themselves in a difficult situation, and with huge responsibility - yes, you must."

Brent: "I tried to listen to all the arguments but I did feel that she was left with no option."

How can we kiss up to the French now they are to be our nearest European neighbour following Brexit?

Leo: "On both cheeks!"

Marty: "Start putting frogs' legs on the menu of the Trocadero [restaurant in Dublin]."

Joe: "We need to support our nearest EU member by drinking more of their wine and enjoying more of their food."

Guggi: "Ask Thierry Henry."

Twink: "I've never kissed up to the French and I don't intend to start."

Which was better - the Dublin football team winning three times in a row or the Galway hurling team winning the All-Ireland for the first time in 29 years?

Leo: "Dublin men and ladies winning in the same year. Deadly!"

Twink: "I don't do GAA. I loathe any shape of ball, oval or round, big or small. The sight of all those hairy legs is enough to sign me into John of God's."

Stefanie: "I didn't know either of these things happened."

Katie Taylor or Conor McGregor?

Leo: "Katie. Definitely. Great athlete and really down to earth."

Stefanie agrees: "Katie. She's a fantastic role model."

Guggi: "The fighting Irish. I love them both."

Characteristically, Twink feels otherwise. "Neither, another pair I abhor. I love to see women doing all the jobs but I hate to see men and women beating the crap out of each other."

Were the guests naughty or nice for Santa in 2017?

Twink: "I'm a bit of both. I don't change, even for Santa." (Teddy doesn't know where to look.)

"It's a small world. Try to be nice," says Joe. On Christmas Eve morning, Joe is presenting the annual outdoor party on RTE radio from 9am to 11am, ably assisted by Brendan O'Carroll. Indeed, Joe is returning the compliments of the season on the Mrs Brown's Boys special on Christmas night, when Agnes phones Liveline for some advice! On St Stephen's Day morning on RTE radio, Joe is also doing Legacies, looking back at the lives of those who died in the last 12 months, from Martin McGuinness to Glen Campbell.

"Naughty or nice?" laughs Marty Whelan. "That would be telling but nice always wins out."

Stefanie: "100pc nice. I swear."

Was Bono naughty or nice with the Paradise Papers? Discuss.

Stefanie: "Naughty. But show me someone who wouldn't chance it!"

Lorraine: "I can't stand Bono- bashers. Before you knock him, stand up and show us what you've done for charity, show us the good you've done to make a difference to people." Or as Johnny Giles would say, "Show us your medals!"

Marty: "You discuss, I am not fluent in German. Suddeutsche Zeitung!"

Twink: "Artists of that calibre have teams of Sherpas and when it comes to stupefying amounts of money do they even know where it's going. I'm sure he read it in the papers first."

Joe: "Bono and his family are brilliant. He is a global player who cannot be expected to keep track of everything. U2 are heroes."

Camille: "I actually didn't read anything about the Paradise Papers, I'm a U2 fan and have a soft spot for Bono who has always been lovely when I've met him. I think plenty of people with money are doing the same thing and plenty of people with less money are messing with the system in different ways. I wonder what I'd do or others if we were offered the same?"

Where were they when Hurricane Ophelia hit Ireland last October?

Leo: "In the National Emergency Co-ordination Centre on Kildare Street. And later that day, I met Bill Clinton in my office."

Marty: "I was under the duvet in Rome. You are talking to a fella who slept through an earthquake in San Francisco. Nothing affects me when I sleep, I'm gone."

Guggi: "On a plane flying into Dublin. I've experienced a lot worse."

Camille: "I was in New York. I remember face-timing my poor parents in Cork who live by the sea and their beautiful old trees were lying across the garden and the cats looking a little disoriented."

Villain of 2017?

Leo: "Harvey Weinstein."

Holly: "I said this last year but Donald Trump still makes me sick."

Joe: "The best thing Trump did was christen Kim Jong-un Rocket Man. But he's no joke. North Korea has to be stopped and its people liberated from this lunatic."

Favourite book of 2017?

Leo: "Oh My God What a Complete Aisling [by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen]. Because we all know and love at least one Aisling."

Joe: "A toss between the wonderful Atlas of the Irish Revolution and Lisa McInerney's The Glorious Heresies as an audiobook read by Stella Atkinson - stunning."

Marty: "Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign, by Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen. I have a huge interest in politics and like everyone else I thought Hilary Clinton was going to be the first female president of America.

Twink: "My house is like a library I've so many books and I'm an avid reader. I got a present from David [Agnew, her ex-husband] - we're better friends now - of a book of great Irish houses. He knows I sculpt and I'm a bit of an historian and I really like architecture. So I enjoyed that."

What gift would they most like to receive at Christmas?

An Taoiseach's eyes have a sparkle in them as he answers: "A time-extending machine so I had more time to spend with my family and friends." Teddy nearby appears to approve.

The Intercontinental was voted in the Top 10 hotels in Ireland for 2017 by Conde Nast readers. With 197 bedrooms and suites the hotel has undergone a complete refurbishment and is adding a further 20 bedrooms in 2018. The hotel has the largest conference and banqueting facilities of any five-star in Dublin and is part of MHL Collection who have 11 hotels throughout Ireland. Afternoon tea is served daily in the lobby overlooking the gardens, brunch in the Seasons restaurant every Sunday from 1.00pm to 3.30pm. For any enquiries or best room rates please go to www.interContinental.ie or call 01-654000

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