For Vincent Keaveny, a Dubliner in London, today is anything but an average Saturday. Having just moved into one of the city's most famous addresses, he will put on his breeches, stockings, robes and an oversized hat before climbing into a gold, horse-drawn carriage and setting off to become the 693rd lord mayor of the City of London.
Keaveny, now 56, and his wife Amanda, (from Loughrea, Co Galway) have taken up residence in the Mansion House, right in the heart of the City of London. He is the latest in a line of lord mayors – all but two of them men – stretching back to 1189, and the first Irishman to take up the role.
For the next year, this former St Michael’s College student, who grew up on nearby Merrion Road in Ballsbridge, will step out of his day job as a commercial lawyer to represent the City of London around the world.
When he was recently fitted for his lavish costume, he put some photos of himself on the family WhatsApp group, and while he won’t reveal exactly how his two brothers in Dublin and the US responded, he chuckles: “I had a number of comments. I have to put up with a fair bit of stick.”
The glittering ceremony which is the Lord Mayor’s Show goes back to the early 13th century, and it returns this year after Covid forced its cancellation in 2020. The latest version includes full-size model elephants, a horse-drawn bus, as well as the lord layor’s splendid state coach, the oldest ceremonial vehicle in the world still in use. The parade winds its way past St Paul’s Cathedral and other famous sites.
Looking on will be his parents, Vincent snr and mum Phyl, visiting from Dublin. Lord mayors were traditionally drawn from London’s merchant classes, and now the chains of office pass to a son of south Dublin. Keaveny believes that some of his predecessors could have had Irish links back in the mists of time, but says he is honoured to be the first Irish national in the role.
Home for the next 12 months for Vincent and Amanda will be a private apartment in one of the last great, surviving Georgian houses in the City of London. And while his best-known predecessor, Dick Whittington, was famed for his cat, the Irish couple will be joined by their beloved 10-year-old black Labrador, India.
Ahead of the pomp and ceremony, it seems Keaveny is finding it slightly hard to take in: “It’s like stepping out of your real life for a year and doing something that’s both incredibly impactful and has also got all these amazing historical associations. You are very conscious that you are being handed something very precious.”
Keaveny studied law at UCD and his eventual plan was to go to the Bar in Dublin. First though, he fancied a trip to London to spend some time getting commercial experience in the City. He crossed the Irish Sea in January 1989 and moved into a flat with a friend in Earls Court: “I wanted to spend a couple of years there. The plan was to return. Here I am 32 years later.” He has lived in West London ever since – until now.
“I probably broke my mother’s heart in the mid-1990s when it became apparent that I was not moving back to Dublin after a spell in London. But,” he adds, “she is very proud now.”
His father was a surgeon in Dublin before retiring, and his mother a physiotherapist. Vincent qualified as an English solicitor in 1992, the year before he and Amanda were married.
Amanda became an intensive care nurse and ran the High Dependency Unit at London Bridge Hospital until 10 years ago. She now supports a homelessness charity in West London called Glass Door.
Away from the finery and ancient pageantry, the post of lord mayor has a steelier purpose, and Keaveny is keen to stress that the costumes and traditions will account for a small percentage of the year. The lord mayor of the City of London, the so-called square mile, is an international ambassador for the economic powerhouse which is the UK’s financial and professional services sector.
The role is distinct from that of mayor of London, currently occupied by Labour politician Sadiq Khan, who won a second term this year, although the two will work closely together. Keaveny became one of the 25 aldermen of the City of London in 2013, and was elected for the top job from that group.
He hopes to make an early work trip back to his birthplace. After all, he stresses, the UK exported more than £14 billion of financial and professional services to Ireland in the past year, while Ireland sent just under £4 billion worth of services in the opposite direction.
How does he view the current state of the relationship between his homeland and his adopted city? “The politics have become more challenging and we’re all aware of the issues around the Northern Ireland protocol and the complications of the political situation which that is causing. But I see a wider context: those family links, those social links, sporting, cultural links that have been there throughout all of this and in some ways are stronger than ever.”
Dick Whittington held the office four times between 1397 and 1419. His latest successor is relishing being able to travel again in the role. The one-year terms of his two predecessors were both blighted by Covid, which kept them largely based in London and doomed to Zoom.
Their ill-fortune is nothing compared to that suffered by Sir Thomas Bludworth in the 17th century. As lord mayor from 1665 to 1666, Sir Thomas's tenure was hit by the double whammy of the Great Plague, which killed thousands of Londoners, and then the Great Fire of London the following year.
The hapless Bludworth horribly underestimated the fire's severity. The diarist Samuel Pepys wrote that when the Great Fire broke out, Bludworth dismissed it, saying: "Pish, a woman might piss it out." His own house burned to cinders.
To take office, Keaveny is required to swear an oath to the queen and I ask how, as an Irishman, that will feel: “I think recognising the closeness of the relationship between us is really important and that will require, I would suggest, an element of compromise in thinking on the part of everyone on both sides of the Irish Sea.”
He reels off his priorities and agenda for the year ahead, including a focus on social mobility in the financial services sector, helping to bring in and then promote people from poorer backgrounds. And after spending two days at Cop26 in Glasgow last week, he wants to urgently start on what he calls “the Cop26 legacy work” and the part which the sector must now play in fighting climate change.
As for “greening” the role in a different way, he says he will celebrate strong bonds, “whether it’s getting some Irish dancing into the Mansion House, or around the England-Ireland game at Twickenham, to emphasise those enduring, positive links between our two countries”.