Dan Mulhall: the ambassador who defied categorisation

London Letter: Praise as Mulhall moves from Brexit Britain to Trump’s America

Shortly after Patrick Hillery became minister for external affairs in 1969, a friend in Co Clare asked him how he was getting along with "that crowd in Iveagh House". Most of them were alright, Hillery said, although he got the impression that some of them looked in the mirror when they got up every day and said, "Good morning, my Excellency."

Only a handful of Irish ambassadors are so self-regarding these days, and few would now compare their minister to “a bungalow, with nothing on top”, as one distinguished figure did many years ago, only for a loyal colleague to repeat it back. Today’s diplomats are less boozy too and none now follows the routine of a long-departed ambassador who had a drink delivered to his desk every morning. It was gin and tonic with ice but no lemon because, he said, the fruit soaked up too much of the gin.

Iveagh House still produces the occasional eccentric, along with diplomats who are painfully shy or who would prefer to be at home, sharing Uncle Matthew's view in Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love that "abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends". Some overcompensate in the opposite direction, becoming so enamoured of their host nation that they become advocates for it rather than emissaries to it.

Postmistresses and punters

The late Alan Watkins famously divided British prime ministers into bishops and bookmakers, placing the po-faced Anthony Eden in the former category and Harold Wilson in the latter. A similar exercise for Irish ambassadors might divide them into postmistresses and punters, with diplomats of both sexes eligible for either category.


Guided by the iron principle that, if it's a minute past five and the grille is down, you can't buy a stamp, postmistresses excel in multilateral institutions such as the European Union and the United Nations. Their meticulous attention to detail and unswerving commitment to the letter of the law makes them excellent drafters of resolutions, conclusions and declarations, where the placing of a comma can make the difference between success and failure.

More like a high-class hooley than a diplomatic reception, it was an evening of poetry and song, performed by the guests themselves

Punters are more outgoing, more flexible and often more at ease with the social dimension of diplomacy, acutely aware of the power of personal relationships and more comfortable with bold action and taking risks. If you want a clause inserted into an EU resolution, you need a postmistress, but if you are taken hostage or jailed in a dangerous place, send for a punter.

Dan Mulhall, who is leaving London in a few weeks after four years as ambassador, defies categorisation, as did a farewell event at the embassy this week. More like a high-class hooley than a diplomatic reception, it was an evening of poetry and song, performed by the guests themselves.

Mulhall's posting to London started with the sweet harmony of the President's visit to Britain but it has been dominated by a succession of political ruptures

Labour MP Conor McGinn sang The Band Played Waltzing Matilda in honour of Mulhall's Australian-born wife Greta, who has made as lasting an impression in London as the ambassador. Community activist Sally Mulready, a member of President Higgins's Council of State, sang Raglan Road. There were readings from Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy and poem after poem by Yeats, as Mulhall roamed the floor, chivvying the great and good into singing for their supper.

Mulhall’s posting to London started with the sweet harmony of the President’s visit to Britain but it has been dominated by a succession of political ruptures, starting with the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 and climaxing in Britain’s decision to leave the EU last year. He brought a depth of historical knowledge and insight to the commemorations of the first World War and the 1916 Rising and great passion to Yeats’s 150th anniversary year in 2015, tweeting a line from the poet every day.

The success of a large embassy like London or Washington depends not only on the ambassador but on the legacy they inherit and the team around them. But the ambassador sets the direction, the tone and the pace and Mulhall has been focused, judicious and relentless. Like many departing ambassadors before him, his ears are ringing with praise and with promises that he will never be forgotten and that no one will ever be able to replace him.

The praise is sincere and well deserved but as he prepares to move from Brexit Britain to Trump's America, Mulhall is about to start the cycle that will leave the same words ringing in Washington a few years from now. During the party, before he rounded up other performers, the ambassador read Seamus Heaney's poem Postscript, which ends:

“You are neither here nor there,

A hurry through which known and strange things pass As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”