No nuts, just drinks: partying with Ireland’s powerful
Haughey? Always interesting. Enda Kenny? A great mimic. Thirty years on, Maureen Cairnduff remembers the soirees she held at her home and the influential directory that sprang from them
Maureen Cairnduff at home in Dublin: ‘I would diversify it: people from the arts, sports, politics, some from business, although those ones were always dull.’ Photograph: Alan Betson
VINCENT BROWNE: ‘A handsome man; workaholic; enjoys jogging and drinking’
TERRY KEANE: ‘An attractive, elegant, witty woman’
BISHOP EAMON CASEY: ‘Both criticised and admired for his socially radical stance; energetic and independent’
COLM TÓIBÍN: ‘A competent editor with an acerbic wit; an approachable, highly entertaining and talented journalist; lists his hobby as “cheap thrills” ’
Thirty years ago, a large hardback book with a provocative title was published to a flurry of attention. The book was Who’s Who in Ireland: The Influential 1,000 . It had been put together by journalist Maureen Cairnduff, who was well-known at the time for the parties she and her husband, Ian, held at their home on Waterloo Road in Dublin.
Cairnduff still lives at the same elegant house. Her husband died some years ago, and she prefers not to go out at night now, let alone entertain on a large scale, but although we’re just having peppermint tea in the kitchen, she can’t help being the natural hostess that she is.
The idea for the book, she explains, came from publisher Kevin Kelly, then owner of Image magazine. “He knew that I met a lot of people, because Ian and I had a drinks party on the first Friday of every month; our First Fridays parties. We held them for 17 years, from the 1970s through the 1980s.”
It was at her urging that the parties began. “In those days, in the 1970s, we all went to dinner parties. I ended up talking to other married women about ovens and nappies and I wasn’t a bit interested. I said to my husband one night, I want to see some men again. So we started the parties.”
Their house was “on everyone’s way home” and people dropped in on their way. “It was strictly from six to eight.” They deliberately didn’t serve food, so that people wouldn’t linger beyond 8pm. “No nuts, no snacks, nothing. Just drinks. And we vanished at 8pm. Usually we went out to dinner. People knew they had to leave then. It worked because we did it every month. When people only have parties once a year, they go on all night, and you never get rid of guests.”
At that time, Ian Cairnduff was the managing director of Gilbeys, the drinks company. “He got, I think, 30 bottles a month. He’d stand at the trolley, and on one side, there’d be gin, whiskey, vodka, brandy. At the other, there’d be a couple of cases of tonic water, and soda water. People drank very little wine then.”
From parties into print
What publisher Kelly wanted Cairnduff to do was replicate in print the mix of people who came to her parties. So who came to them?
“It was a thermometer of whom I had met during the month,” she explains. “Obviously one asked one’s core friends, 20 or so. Not a very large group. I would try and diversify it; some people from the worlds of arts, sports, politics, some from business, although those ones were always a bit dull.”
Charlie Haughey came once. “He’d be turning in his grave if he thought I was saying we were close. We weren’t close at all in our thinking. He was attractive in that he was always interesting to talk to, though. The main thing was that people brought other people. I didn’t want it to be all Irish people. We had the mayor of New York. The man who married Prince Rainer’s sister. In those days, we left the key in the door and people just turned up.”
Why so few women?
In Who’s Who , only 91 of the 1,000 featured people are women. Why so few? “Where would I find them?” says Cairnduff. “There were very few prominent women in any field at that time. I dug deep, but found so few, other than in the theatre. I was very conscious of it.”
Back in those pre-internet days, she posted a questionnaire to all those she wanted to include, and followed up details with phone calls. Additional information for the profiles came from contacts who knew the individuals personally.
The people profiled came from politics, sport, the arts, media, business, the church and education. “The only profession not there is the medical profession,” says Cairnduff. “That was because of the medical ethics of the time. In those days, to be in a book like mine would have been considered advertising.”
Although there are plenty of mentions of hosting skills, “amiable host” was a phrase she was careful to omit. “You couldn’t say that because it meant they were drinkers.”
Sadly, Cairnduff doesn’t have the completed questionnaires – gems of social history – any more. “I only burned the last of them a year ago,” she confesses.
So when she didn’t know someone personally, how did she get her information? How, for instance, did she find out that Enda Kenny, now Taoiseach, is an “excellent mimic”? “A good friend of his would have told me that. That was how all the profiles worked.”
Not everyone was happy when Who’s Who was published. It turned out some people’s ages were incorrect. Between the paperwork, the phone calls and the inputting of information into computers, some dates of birth got lost in translation.
“Michael Fingleton was very cross with me. I think I added two years to him, purely by mistake.”
After 17 years, the Cairnduffs First Fridays came to a natural end. “For at least three months, we had to hide at the back of the house on those Fridays with the lights off. Of course, we put the word out, but it took time to get around.”
It’s easy to see how she acted as a catalyst of connections when she hosted those parties; she is funny, charming, smart, occasionally indiscreet and a compelling storyteller. I leave her home regretting that I turned up more than 20 years too late for one of her legendary First Friday parties.
ALAN SHATTER, TENACIOUS, A LONER . . .
AND OTHER WISE PROFILES
BERTIE AHERN Politician
A poll-topping politician and hard- working constituency man who would appear to be popular with both factions; success is due to his seemingly fair-minded desire for the unification of the party; a good public relations man.
VINCENT BROWNE Editor
His strongly held political opinions tend to make him controversial; inspires either intense loyalty or the reverse; a handsome, some say chauvinistic, man; workaholic; enjoys jogging and drinking.
ELIZABETH BURKE Bloodstock breeder
One of the most successful bloodstock breeders in the country; in Irish equine society she is regarded as being a perfect thoroughbred.
TERRY KEANE Journalist
An attractive, elegant, witty woman; an excellent hostess and a well known figure in Dublin society; enjoys theatre, book collecting, politics and vintage champagne.
GAY BYRNE Broadcaster
A grey-haired man with fox terrier looks; undoubtedly he exerts more influence and controls more power than almost any politician or public figure in the country.
MICHAEL COLGAN Director
A non-drinking vegetarian with an eccentric line in dress; noted for his modesty, has been described as “bashful to a fault”.
MICHAEL FINGLETON Businessman
An astute man with some radical ideas, cultivates a high media profile; a keen golfer.
CHARLES HAUGHEY Politician
A man of sophisticated tastes, a bon viveur and a notable patron of the arts in Ireland; a complex man, enjoys holidays at Inishvickillane, a rousing ballad session and the company of trusted friends to whom he displays a strong sense of loyalty.
ENDA KENNY Politician
A possible future minister; an excellent mimic with a keen sense of humour; appears to enjoy his bachelor status, listing his outside interests as “active participant in many sports”.
MARY McALEESE Academic
A highly articulate, intelligent woman; a down-to-earth, approachable academic, holds strong Catholic viewpoint; a brilliant career is predicted.
CHARLES McCREEV Y Politician
A popular deputy if a bit of an enigma; felt to have become something of a maverick; has an excellent grasp of politics and an independent mind; a keen racegoer and a lively and amusing companion.
RICHARD McGILLYCUDDY Irish chieftain
A handsome young chieftain with a 600-acre estate at the base of the mountains whose name he bears; the family once owned 15,000 acres; yet another Gaelic chieftain who has been subdued by the British.
NORAH OWEN Politician
A housewife with enthusiasm and energy; one of the new breed of Fine Gael women, highly competent, a possible future Minister.
ALAN SHATTER Politician
Essentially a loner in the Dáil; competent, tenacious, ambitious and extremely industrious, a most effective speaker.
COLM T ÓIB ÍN Magazine editor
A competent editor with an acerbic wit; an approachable, highly entertaining and talented journalist; lists his hobby as “cheap thrills”.
IVAN YATES Politician, farmer
The youngest TD in the Dáil and only Protestant; a hard- working constituency man with a sensible and intelligent approach; an attractive and diligent deputy who would appear to be in line for a junior ministry.
BISHOP EAMON CASEY
Both criticised and admired for his socially radical stance; energetic and independent; he has a high media profile and exerts a strong impact on the collective Irish conscience.
Profiles from Who’s Who in Ireland: The Influential 1,000 (1984)