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3rd Annual Dinner of the Oxford and Cambridge Society of Ireland
On 31 March 2012 the Oxford and Cambridge Society held their 3rd Annual Dinner. the Master of Ceremonies for the evening was Charles Lysaght (Christ's), Honorary President of the Oxford and Cambridge Society of Ireland.
Chris Ashton reported on the evening:-
Ireland Honours England's Two Oldest Universities
Surely only in Ireland ... .
Of the forty-plus joint Oxford & Cambridge Societies worldwide, from Asia, and southern Africa to the Middle East, South Pacific and the Americas, North and South,I imagine all host annual dinners with guest speakers leading toasts to England's two oldest universities. But none, surely, could compare in their guest speakers with this year's Irish event on Saturday 31st March.
Guests heard Thomas Pakenham, 78, an eminent historian and arborist, cheerfully declare that his undergraduate years reading classics at Magdalene College, Oxford, were distinguished only by his alcohol-fueled follies.
His Cambridge counterpart, Adrian Gahan, 32, offered in response an impassioned appeal to support his generation to halt and reverse the threat to Planet Earth in the rising demand for food, water and energy for a population forecast to rise to nine billion in the next thirty years.
Outside the British Isles, surely nowhere else but Dublin could offer a dining hall more appropriate to honouring England's two oldest universities than the King's Inns, the Irish equivalent of London's Inns of Court, founded by King Henry V111 in 1542, and housed since the early 19th century in a building designed by London-born James, Gandon with his trademark attachment to domed cupolas, triumphal arches, Doric columns and neo-classical statues.
The Oxford & Cambridge Society of Ireland secured approval to host the dinner in its dining hall thanks to its honorary president, Charles Lysaght, barrister, law lecturer, biographer, historian and honorary "bencher" of the King's Inns. Before the dinner he led guests round its many portraits dating from the late 18th century on, his tour enlivened by his love of tittle-tattle.
Since the inaugural dinner three years ago, this one attracted its largest attendance yet, 145 alumni including many from Northern Ireland, with Oxford accounting for 80, and 65 from Cambridge, and with more recent graduates attending than in previous years.
The first guest speaker was Thomas Pakenham. Following graduation, he became a journalist for British quality broadsheets, then a historian, author of The Boer War (1979), The Scramble for Africa (1991), and The History of the Great Irish Rebellion of 1798 (1993), all of which enjoyed critical acclaim. He then turned to writing books about trees. The first, Meetings With Remarkable Trees (1996) sold a staggering 200,000 copies. Alternating between homes in London and Tullynally Castle in Co. Westmeath, he is Chairman of the Irish Tree Society.
Eighteen months ago the Cambridge speaker, Adrian Gahan, was appointed MD of Sancroft International, a London consultancy advising corporations like Tesco and Coca-Cola on how to improve their performance in social, ethical and environmental issues. Following degrees from University College Dublin and Peterhouse, Cambridge, as an apprenticeship for his current role he was employed successfully by the European Union Ambassador to Washington, former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton; by British Petroleum as an alternative energy analyst, and for three years by the Tory Party in opposition as an energy and climate-change policy adviser and speech-writer.
Meeting one another for the first time before the dinner, Pakenham begged Gahan to say something substantial because, he explained, he himself had "nothing to say except utter frivolity”. Gahan promised substance. Both were true to their word.
Confessing his typed speech mislaid, Pakenham announced he would speak from memory. Honoured as he was to lead the toast to Cambridge, he compared it in his case to toasting a beautiful, unknown woman. In his youth and early manhood, Cambridge was terra incognita while Oxford had been central to his very being. He was born in Banbury in 1933. His father, Frank Pakenham, 7th Earl of Longford, was then a Christ Church don who, following conversion from conservatism to socialism. had resettled the family in Cowley to affirm solidarity with the working-class, a brief trial from where they soon relocated, to Thomas Pakenham's relief, to Oxford's leafy northern suburbs.
Following school at Ampleforth, in 1951 he matriculated to Magdalene. Space permits mention here of just two of his undergraduate misadventures. One was in consequence of an invitation to a Tory dining club in Christ Church. By his own account Pakenham drank himself legless, crawled under the table and bit the ankles of the most obnoxious guest-speakers. When a Tory minister rose to propose a toast to Queen and country, Pakenham shouted, "Your Queen, my country!"
The other involved CS Lewis, a Magdalene teaching fellow in English. Having read his books as a child, Pakenham revered him, but didn't dare tell him so. It was not then the "done thing" for undergraduates to speak to dons of other faculties. He recalled a Magdalene College literary club dinner whose members habitually drank brandy by the tumbler. To recover his sobriety, he excused himself to run round the College Deer Park. When he fell to his knees in exhaustion, C.S. Lewis suddenly appeared waving a walking stick and demanding an explanation. "An intruder!" he shouted, "A fugitive! A fugitive from justice!" Pakenham scuttled into the bushes, his only meeting with his childhood hero.
From Gahan's opening words, no one doubted that here was a man with a mission. Of the chasm between nature's bounty and the food, water and energy to sustain nine billion people in 2050, he declared, "It's not a problem for the future, it's a problem for today. Three quarters of the world's fishing resources are already exhausted but a billion people depend on the oceans as their primary source of protein. Global forests have been depleted by 3 million hectares (that's the size of India) in the last 20 years. Why does that matter to us? It matters because the forests are our air-conditioner. They regulate our rainfall and clear our air. We're pumping over 50 billion tons of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere that destabilize our climate. This has a knock-on impact on food production.
"We depend upon these free services from nature for our survival, and frankly, we're pushing them to the point where they look as if they're going to go bust … . I'm not trying to save the planet, I'm trying to save ourselves and our way of life. "
He invoked Edmund Burke, surely Ireland's greatest philosopher-statesman: "He wrote of an inter-generational sense of responsibility, of a social contract from the present which extended beyond our own times. We don't have a responsibility only to ourselves or to the people in this room. It extends to previous generations of whom we are the heirs, and we have a responsibility to generations yet unborn. The planet is not ours to trash in the brief time we're here."
"My second point is that trashing our environment can take many forms, like running up an ecological debt by consuming more than our fair share in our lifetime. Leaving it to future generations to pay off is not very different to running up a financial debt. I like to think that my generation, knowing what it is to have enormous debts dumped on us, will not do the same to those who come after us, whether financial or ecological.
"The good news is that it's not too late. As to the recent bankruptcy of Irish political and economic institutions, there was a culture of apathy towards risk, that 'it'll all be fine and not to worry'. We can to learn from this experience. That is why I remain positive in the face of these challenges."
His spoke finally of trees as monuments to generational responsibility
"… planted by people who knew they would never live to see them in their full glory, and as Thomas makes clear in his books, we owe to those trees to look after them and not to destroy them, so that our children can enjoy them…"
He promised to return to Ireland in autumn to present Pakenham with one conker each from the Peterhouse and Magdalene College gardens, to plant on his Co. Westmeath estate, dedicating them to the Oxford & Cambridge Society of Ireland and "in honour of our two great universities and our two great countries."
Surely only in Ireland?
Chris Ashton (Trinity College, Oxford, 1965) a founder member of the Oxford &Cambridge Society of Ireland in 2009.
Picture caption: Master of Ceremonies and Honorary President of the Oxford &
Cambridge Society of Ireland, Charles Lysaght (Christ's, Cambridge).
Picture by Richie Stokes, Dublin.
Added: 1 May 2012
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