The Jockey Club, Buenos Aires, where the first annual Oxford-Cambridge dinner was held some 90 years ago. Dublin now has its own. Photograph: Dmitri Kessel/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images CHRIS ASHTON
FROM THE IRISH TIMES
IRELAND’S most celebrated Oxford son, Oscar Wilde, famously declared, “The two great turning points of my life were when my father sent me to Oxford and when society sent me to prison.” Of his late return from Greece after the start of term, for which he was punished, he recalled, “I was sent down from Oxford for being the first undergraduate to visit Olympia.” Some 70 to 80 Irish Oxford and Cambridge alumni, black-tied or evening-gowned, will gather in the Kildare Street and University Club on February 27th to pay tribute to Britain’s two oldest universities.
MC of the event, Dublin lawyer Mark Pery-Knox-Gore (Oxon.) will propose the toast to the Irish President; I will do the same for Queen Elizabeth. Minister of State Martin Mansergh (Oxon.) will speak and lead his fellow alumni to toast the Light Blues. Barrister, biographer and London Times obituary writer of Ireland’s good and great, Charles Lysaght, President of the Irish Cambridge Society, will lead the reciprocal toast to the Dark Blues.
Oxford and Cambridge alumni span the world. Cambridge claims 192,000 to Oxford’s 180,000, though in alumni societies, about 180 each, they’re level-pegged. The island of Ireland accounts for some 3,000 Oxbridge alumni, evenly divided between the two universities, although many, attending as post-graduates, owe their primary allegiance to Irish universities.
To make up the numbers, Ireland’s Light and Dark Blue graduates have amicably joined forces to establish the Oxford and Cambridge Society of Ireland, which joins an exotic melange of comparable societies, 40-plus, including five in southern Africa, 13 in Asia (among them China, India, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia), seven in Europe, four in the Middle East and eight in North America, not least New York.
The sole Latin-American country, Argentina, held its first annual Oxford-Cambridge dinner some 90 years ago. Why should Buenos Aires pay tribute to England’s most ancient universities? From the mid-19th century, for 100 years, though their numbers were miniscule, Britain was pivotal to Argentine commerce, industry, banking, railway construction, livestock-breeding and sporting clubs. The dinner is part of that legacy.
Convened in Buenos Aires’ illustrious Jockey Club, its November 1918 genesis, coinciding with the Armistice, perhaps signalled hope of a new dawn for humanity. In 1987, courtesy of the British ambassador, it was held for the first time in the ambassadorial residence, compared with which, no other venue-club, restaurant or hotel-could hope to compete. From the walls of the vast reception room monarchs of the House of Windsor and their consorts, variously stern or benign, gaze upon Oxbridge alumni resplendent in eveningwear below.
Until the 1960s, Anglo- Argentine undergraduates dominated the event.
Nowadays guests are older and more diverse: post-graduates from other Commonwealth countries, the US and Argentina, with women accounting for 20 per cent. In a country now long removed from the British presence, in its attachment to pomp and pageantry, to oratory in the language of Milton and Shakespeare blended with undergraduate mischief and self-mockery, it continues quintessentially Oxbridge. Rightly so.
Here I must declare a personal interest. From 2004, living in Buenos Aires, I attended four consecutive dinners. Two years ago with my Argentine wife, Ana, I moved to Dublin, and later that year attended the annual Oxford University Alumni Weekend, at which I met Lady Nancy Kenny, director of Oxford alumni relations. I sang the praises of the Buenos Aires dinner, prompting her to ask me at once to check out the prospects for a Dublin chapter of Oxford Alumni Society (OAS). To this I cheerfully agreed.
Two Trinity dons, while impressing upon me the enormity of the task ahead, got me started. “I do think you have your work cut out for you,” Joseph O’Gorman replied to my inquiry. “Many Irish graduates simply are not interested in this type of association . . . Oxbridge graduates in Ireland, if Irish, hardly need such a network, and if English, would tend to see Ireland as just ‘next door’ to England.” English-born Dr Gerald Morgan wished me luck while describing the cautionary tale of his own short-lived Dublin OAS and of others which had come to naught.
Joseph O’Gorman commended me to Martin Mansergh who suggested I consider instead the idea of an Oxford-Cambridge Society. The penny suddenly dropped. Why not an Oxbridge dinner à la Buenos Aires? This led me to Charles Lysaght, and to
Mark Pery-Knox-Gore who then enlisted two other Oxford alumni, Deirdre Kinlen, biochemist and GP, and John Carroll, self-confessed ardent angler and salmon conservationist.
With Mark chairing our meetings and attending to most of the detail, the five of us plotted the inaugural Irish Oxford-Cambridge dinner.