The Irish have an uncanny ability to immerse themselves at the heart of communities all across the globe. From small rural villages to bustling seaside resorts and large cities in far-flung lands, the green, white and gold is never far from view. In Malaysia - 11,000km from the Emerald Isle - Irish expats are certainly flying the flag and the Irish pride is most definitely alive and well.
My first trip to Malaysia was back in February 2014. It was something of a whirlwind tour, taking in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Penang. My maiden voyage to Southeast Asia coincided with Malaysia's first ever St Patrick's Day parade. Prior to this, Irish heritage and culture had been widely celebrated in Malaysia for several decades by the Penang Irish Association (PIA) and St Patrick's Society of Selangor in Kuala Lumpur, through the organisations' annual Gala Ball and other associated events.
The first parade took place on the stunning island of Penang. It was the brainchild of Maggie Territt of the PIA and Liam Healy of Healy Mac's Irish Bars and Restaurants - an international Irish chain which, incidentally, saw one of its bars in Kuala Lumpur named Best Irish Pub in the World (outside Ireland) in 2015 by The Irish Times and Diageo.
This month, I found myself back in familiar surroundings and among friends in Malaysia and was, once again, lucky enough to toast the shamrock with Irish communities in both Penang and Kuala Lumpur. For the third consecutive year, hundreds lined Straits Quay in Penang for the St Patrick’s Day parade, which formed part of a four-day festival centred around the theme “The Road to 1916”. The annual PIA Ball in the E&O Hotel was, as always, a fantastic event, with Offaly’s Greg Traynor on stage as Elvis and Dublin-based U2 tribute band, The Joshua Tree, keeping the floor filled all night long.
The following weekend, it was back to Kuala Lumpur for the 91st annual St Patrick’s Ball at the Shangri-La Hotel. First hosted in 1925, this year’s event was attended by close to 1,000 guests. The ball is the largest annual society ball in Asia, and the largest annual Irish celebration in the world outside Ireland and the US. Tickets for the St Patrick’s Ball in Kuala Lumpur went on general release in January and, such is the demand for a seat at the event that queues for tickets formed at 4am that morning. The tickets sold out within an hour.
Guinness flowed, champagne bubbled and Jameson glasses were raised for a toast as the expat community in Kuala Lumpur gathered for this year's ball. Irish Ambassador to Malaysia Eamon Hickey, acting British High Commissioner to Malaysia Paul Rennie, and PIA president Maggie Territt joined with other special guests and dignitaries for the event. President Michael D Higgins sent warm wishes to the committee, congratulating Des Morgan (president of the St Patrick's Society) and his fellow committee members for their service and commitment to the diaspora.
As has become tradition, the Healy Mac’s group operated a Shebeen at the St Patrick’s Day Ball, with a competition to see who would pull the best pint of Guinness. The theme for this year was friendship, with the Claddagh Ring as the central symbol.
The St Patrick’s Society has donated more than RM1.5 million (€328,000) to Malaysian charities in recent years, and all surplus proceeds from this year’s ball will also be distributed.
A large troupe of young, locally-trained dancers showed wonderful displays of traditional Irish dancing on the night, while the St John’s Alumni Pipe Band were equally entertaining. A community performance of Irish and English singers, accompanied by an orchestra of music students from the International School, performed a selection of Irish music and, as with the PIA Ball, The Joshua Tree ensured the dancefloor was rocking all night long. Later, traditional Irish musicians, Folksmen DC, kept the crowd entertained until the early hours.
Like Ireland, Malaysia was once subject to the British Empire and eventually achieved independence in 1957. Of course, 2016 is a big year for the Irish, with the Easter Rising centenary being marked worldwide. In Malaysia, the Irish diaspora are no different and as the Malay people prepare to celebrate 60 years of independence in 2017, they can be assured their Irish friends will stand beside them, just as the Malays have been joining the Irish in celebrating their traditions, heritage and culture for the last 100 years.