It’s thirsty work for Ted Nealon’s guests, and someone has to pay

State Papers 1985: Accounts dilemma as guests exceed wine quota at arts reception

Ted Nealon pours tea for actors Marie Mullen, Siobhán McKenna and Mary McEvoy. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

A gathering of the country’s top journalists drank more wine than was budgeted for at a reception in 1984, leading to a squabble between the taoiseach’s department and Finance over how the excess should be paid for.

The journalists were invited to a reception in the National Gallery, hosted by taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and minister for arts Ted Nealon to announce the allocation of funding to the arts.

Nealon had suggested holding the reception to mark the consolidation of the arts and culture division within the taoiseach’s department.

In his memo to the taoiseach, Nealon said the purpose of the reception would be to demonstrate that things were beginning to happen in the area of the arts and culture, and FitzGerald’s concept of bringing together the main cultural institutions in one strong central department had been realised.


It would also enable journalists to meet the various heads of the institutions concerned in an informal atmosphere.

The invitation list read like a who's who of journalism at the time. It included Mike Burns, Sean Duignan, Donal Kelly and John Bowman of RTÉ, Geraldine Kennedy of the Sunday Press, Sean O'Rourke of the Irish Press, Chris Glennon of the Irish Independent and Dick Walsh of The Irish Times.

“The journalists would expect some significant announcement,” said Nealon in his memo.

“I would suggest you announce in general terms the allocation by the Government of £600,000 from the Funds of Suitors for a capital programme for the arts.”

He added that the use of the funds had been cleared with the minister for justice and the chief justice.

Nealon also had suggestions about how awkward questions could be avoided at the reception, which took place at noon on February 27th, 1984.

“Format of the reception would be informal, no seating, so that we could avoid questions on the specifics of the disposal of the money (we will announce that piecemeal later for maximum publicity in the areas of benefit) and also questions on museum etc. on which we have only started work,” said Nealon.

He suggested red and white wine and soft drinks be served at the reception, along with a lunch of beef stroganoff and savoury rice, fresh fruit salad and tea and coffee.

Nealon gave an estimated cost per head of £5.50, inclusive of VAT, based on the assumption of an average two to three glasses of wine per person.

However, he warned the cost might rise to £6 per head if wine consumption was greater.

The 73 people at the reception ended up drinking three litres of wine more than had been budgeted for, and an extra £19.50 was added to the £401.50 bill, bringing the total to £420.

Problems arose about who would pay the excess, with the Department of Finance refusing to accept that the cost should be met from the State entertainment budget.

It was eventually paid out of the Department of the Taoiseach’s budget, but not out of the standard entertainment allowance.

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins is a columnist with and former political editor of The Irish Times