Where Irish emigrants are outstanding in their fields


There was a time (speaking for myself) when Asia was a faraway place about which we knew little.

The writer Joseph O'Connor once claimed, tongue in cheek, that when asked in a history test to give his views on Red China, he replied, "It's quite pretty if you use a white table-cloth." And on a quiz show on RTE, Larry Gogan once asked a Dublin contestant where the Great Wall was located, and got the answer, "in Crumlin".

But things have changed. There are so many Irish in Asia now that they can stake a claim to be a distinct part of the great Diaspora, along with the American, Australian, British, Canadian and Argentinean Irish. There's hardly a city in Asia now where the annual St Patrick's Day event is not the best-attended expatriate event of the year.

In the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, 1,000 people in tuxedos and evening dress packed the Shangri La Hotel for this year's St Patrick's ball. Three hundred more celebrated in the Four Seasons in Singapore, 500 in the Westin in Tokyo, 650 at the Sheraton Great Wall in Beijing, 600 at the Furama in Hong Kong, 560 at the J W Mariott Hotel in Bangkok. In most cases hundreds more were unable to get tickets.

They are not all Irish, of course. Many are friends of Ireland or members of other branches of the Diaspora who find themselves working in Asian embassies and multinational companies. But everywhere I travel in Asia - in Beijing, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Singapore - I come across interesting Irish people in a variety of occupations.

Some have been here a lifetime, like the dedicated clergy working among the poor in the Philippines. Some came decades ago to colonial outposts like Hong Kong and stayed. Some came for one reason or another and married Asian wives. Some find niches like selling horses in Japan or running a medical clinic in Beijing.

Others I have met were just passing through, working briefly as election monitors in Indonesia, UN personnel in East Timor, or Dublin artists doing up Irish theme pubs. There are Irish bars in every Asia city now; in Tokyo there are no less than four called The Dubliner. And in the last few years, as Ireland has boomed, a new generation of Irish emigrants has come to Asia, not just on a mission or to make a new life, but to excel.

They can be found in all the top professions, in the hotel business, banking, financial services, computer software, telecommunications, electronics, engineering, pharmaceuticals and in multi-national companies. Like Irish farmers, they are all outstanding in their fields.

Many members of this upwardly-mobile Diaspora can be found in Singapore, where I attended the St Patrick's Night Ball on Friday.

There, I was told, the typical new Asia Irish person is 30-35, university educated, well informed about Asia, has terrific connections, is a workaholic, loves travelling at weekends, aspires to membership of the exclusive Tanglin Club, drives a 5series BMW, plays golf in Johor Baru, goes back to Ireland for GAA finals or rugby internationals, has the odd pint in Molly Malone's, Father Flanagan's or Muddy Murphy's, especially when they are showing a rugby international, and calls up The Irish Times every day on the Internet to find out how Eddie Jordan and Darren Clarke are doing.

In Tokyo, too, where members of the royal family always attend the Emerald Ball, I was advised that the new Irish immigrant is generally very well connected to the financial community, aspires to write a book on the Japanese economy (a couple already have), drives sports utility vehicles, goes snow boarding in Hokkiado, travels all over Asia, and schemes to beat Singapore (last year's winners) in the 2000 Asian Gaelic games, when they are held this year in the Thailand resort of Phuket.

These new Irish in Asia can be divided into two distinct sociological groups - those who bought a house in Dublin before the mid-90s property boom started, and those who didn't.

The first group can be found taking out Palm 111 hand sets during coffee breaks to work out how much their house in Ireland has valued in the previous 24 hours. The latter group can be found endlessly wondering aloud how they will ever be able to afford to go back and live in Ireland no matter how well they do here.