Washington DC

The night I met Barack Obama…

Sam Barbee & I were in Cardiff getting ready for a Learning Pool customer event the night President Barack Obama was elected.  Sam Barbee is American and I’ve always wished I was – although being Irish is almost the same thing.  It’s certainly closer to being American than any other nationality.  Our Irish diaspora numbers 45m in the USA.  As a child I listened to the stories my great aunts and uncles in Donegal told us about Amerikay – they’d all been to the US many times although they’d never been to Belfast or Dublin & certainly not to the GB mainland.  At the Northern Ireland Bureau St Patrick’s Day breakfast, Martin McGuinness recited a 2 line poem to illustrate our unique relationship with our cousins across the water – I can’t remember it exactly but it was something like this:

Have you been on your holidays yet this year?

No we’ve just been to America again

The morning of our Cardiff breakfast event, we were a bit tired having been up all night following the election results coming in and watching the President’s wonderful acceptance speech.  Neither of us would have missed it for anything. 

It was therefore with great excitement that I received the invite to the President’s St Patrick’s Night party at the White House along with a few others from the Northern Ireland business community (that’s us in the second photo).  The build up to the big day nearly killed me & it was a relief that I only had a week’s notice.  I had to rush out to the shops to buy something green to wear and thank goodness I did or I would have stuck out like a sore thumb (I’ve never seen as much green clothing in my life as I saw in Washington DC on 17 March).  I had an amusing incident at immigration when I was asked the purpose of my visit – the immigration officer asked to see my invite and after studying it for a long time appeared to be most impressed.  From talking to people around Washington DC it seems that the President isn’t much in evidence locally apart from on the tv – although the First Lady has a significant local presence through the many good works she’s involved in.  So what stays with me from the night itself? – the following highlights:

·         Hearing the President and the Vice President speak & being at the front with such a clear view

·         Watching the way the Vice President & the First Lady never took their eyes off the President when he was addressing the crowd

·         Being in the White House for 3 hours and being able to wander round the rooms and freely take photos of the decor, the view from the windows, the paintings and everything else (my full photo set from the evening is at this link http://bit.ly/h8VK1q)

·         The craic in the crowd whilst we were waiting for the President to appear – especially all of us being able to try on the Rose of Tralee’s tiara (thanks Clare!)

·         The mounting excitement waiting for the President – we were almost hyperventilating by the time 7pm came along

·         The pomp & circumstance of the whole evening – the pipe band, the choir, the banquet, the greenness, the beautifully dressed & polite members of the military dotted about everywhere who offered to take photos & were extremely cordial

·         The lovely people that we met who were also there as guests

·         Rather perversely I enjoyed seeing one woman spill her wine on the furniture

·         Glen Hansard of the Frames being joined by Tim Shriver for a rendition of The Auld Triangle

·         Being spontaneously hugged by Michelle Obama when I held my hand out to shake hers – I still can’t believe that – she didn’t hug anyone else and I’m glad she picked me

·         Meeting the President for a few seconds & telling him how glad I am that it’s him that’s there – Jannine’s photo is a bit of a joke but I promise you that’s the President’s nose!!!  You can tell by my face anyway

·         Realising that the President & the First Lady were as good in real life as I imagined they would be

·         Feeling the warmth from our diaspora first hand – doesn’t matter if you’re 4th or 5th generation guys – you’re still ours!

Thanks again to everyone that made this possible – people I knew already (Martin & Stephen & Alastair) & people I hadn’t even met that were so nice and so good to me (Kamala & Grainne).  The Learning Pool team has me down as a people collector but even with Robert Plant in the portfolio, Barack Obama’s a bit of a prize so I may give it up whilst I’m ahead.


Nature, Nurture or just plain hard graft…

Mary with John O'Conor

At the American Irish Foundation gala dinner in Washington DC last Wednesday night I was lucky enough to be seated next to one of Ireland’s cherished treasures – classical pianist, eternal optimist & the greatest living interpreter of Beethoven’s piano music, John O’Conor.  Sitting on my other side was John Nolan from Dublin’s National Concert Hall.  When he found out that I wasn’t aware of John’s fame (I know – I was excruciatingly embarrassed by my ignorance of classical music and its main players) he described John O’Conor as “being like a god that had stepped down from Olympus to grace us with his presence” – quite a big sell then – no pressure John!

I’d attended an “Unlocking Creativity” event in Derry earlier in March hosted by the magical Sir Ken Robinson and I’d been fascinated by the story that Ken had told us about Bart Conner, the American gymnast, and his journey to becoming a world class athlete and multi Olympic medal winner.  In a nutshell, Bart’s mother had noticed he had a talent for gymnastics when he was a very young boy & had enrolled him in a gym early doors rather than force him to continue with school and academic studies to the exclusion of all else.  That led to Bart being “spotted” by a coach when he was 10 and the rest is history.  This caused me to ask John about his own career journey as to be honest, becoming a world famous concert pianist is pretty unusual.  He told me that he was fortunate enough to have a mother that encouraged John & his sisters to try out many non academic things when they were children – so as a result John had learned tin whistle, elocution, singing, Irish dancing and the viola as well as the piano; his sisters learned the violin, cello and ballet.  Indeed, John O’Conor is quoted as saying the hardest part of achieving his music degree was the academic side – as all he really wanted to do was play his instrument.

This reminded me of another of Sir Ken’s stories when as a student in the 1970s he approached a guy playing keyboards in a pub band in Liverpool one night.  He said to the chap “I’d love to be able to do what you do” and the keyboard player said to him that if he’d love to do it that much, he’d be doing it too.  He went on to explain that he’d started playing when he was 5 years old, practiced 5 hours a day come hell or high water & gigged 6 nights a week.  Sir Ken’s point is that when you’re engaged in something that you love, it isn’t in fact work at all.

All this does of course link back to Malcolm Gladwell’s idea in his book Outliers of the 10,000 hours a person needs to put in before they will be good at something – so when you’re choosing a career, you’d better be careful and pick something that you love or you’ll never be good enough at it.  Harsh but true.  I asked John O’Conor about the difference between good and great pianists and he said it’s practice – not magic or anything secret – it’s simply constant daily practice that makes you truly good at the thing you already love – and if you don’t love it enough, you won’t practice enough – and that’s the bottom line.  John says that the great pianists have never had to be told to practice – they just want to do it – all day every day.

I appreciate that the photo of us is a bit strange.  It’s because I wanted to photograph the great man’s hands…Thanks for your company in Washington John and John!

I confessed to John as the evening went on that my own piano teacher had taken my mother to one side after I’d been attending lessons for about 3 years and said “Mrs McKenna, you’re wasting your money here.  Don’t bring her back any more.”  He was right and it was lovely of him to be that honest with my poor mum who really couldn’t spare the money for the lessons, but wanted her daughters to learn more than academic stuff.

I know this is a topic that generates a lot of discussion so I can’t wait to read your comments.  Keep your stories coming – I love to read them.


From Wall Street to Hollywood – everyone wants to be in Northern Ireland


Last week I was lucky enough to be at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington DC to listen to the great and the good pitching Northern Ireland as a business destination.  I was in Washington as part of the St Patrick’s Day government delegation and my role was to be part of the team promoting and celebrating Northern Ireland’s many treasures for businesses and tourists alike.

The on-the-road double act conducted these days by First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is an impressive effort.  Both Ministers competently and in a single voice extol the benefits of starting or basing business in modern day Northern Ireland listing our young and well educated workforce, the fact that 60% of our population is under the age of 40, our good transport links with the rest of the world, our cost effective operating environment, our focus on the important emergent digital sectors, our high speed connectivity (especially to the US) and our soon to be highly competitive corporation tax rate.

The photo above is of Jay Roewe (Senior VP of Production from Santa Monica based HBO).  Also speaking at the event was Brian Conlon (CEO of highly successful indigenous company the Newry based First Derivatives).  Although Brian’s story is a great one, it’s Jay that I’m going to focus on in this blog – as I thought everyone might be interested in knowing the reasons he gave for selecting Northern Ireland as the place where HBO based and filmed their new series “Game of Thrones”.  Some of his reasons may come as a bit of a surprise to you.

Jay was at pains to point out that HBO is first and foremost a business and that all decisions the company makes are carefully considered in terms of the business benefits they generate.  These were the reasons why HBO selected Northern Ireland ahead of any other location:

  •  Our senior politicians were willing to travel to HBO on the US West Coast to make the case in person and this helped Jay “sell” Northern Ireland to his senior team
  •  The Northern Ireland film industry workforce is young but keen and very willing to learn quickly
  •  Belfast gave HBO easy access to UK & European crew and actors
  •  Belfast is a small city and this made the logistics of moving 200+ people around on any given day very straightforward
  • The cost analysis exercise carried out by HBO showed Northern Ireland provided the best value for money
  • Belfast’s Paint Hall in the Titanic Quarter (where ship components were once painted) is a unique venue with extraordinarily high ceilings.

There were a few more points that to me were less predictable or expected:

·         HBO liked the fact that Belfast has great restaurants and comfortable lodgings for its West Coast staff.

·         Jay also added that the warm spirit of the Northern Ireland people and the warm welcome given to HBO was a positive factor.

I’m sure HBO was also swayed by the availability of Martin McGuinness’s brother as an extra for Game of Thrones.  Martin described his brother as having long grey hair and standing on the back of a cart – we’ll all keep an eye out for him Martin.  I know I for one can’t wait to see Game of Thrones and it makes it even more exciting that it was filmed here.