The World Food Prize Foundation

Quinn: It's official, I'm Irish, even though my memories of St. Patrick's Day are not


Column by Amb. Kenneth M. Quinn
Published in The Des Moines Register
March 17, 2015

My DNA analysis results arrived last week, with the scientific profile designating me as 83 percent Irish, with 12 percent British and 2 percent Scandinavian. Since I always considered myself 100 percent Irish, this was a bit disconcerting. However, my family usually referred to my Dad as Scots Irish, which makes it OK.

Some of my most poignant memories of drinking green beer and singing "Danny Boy" came in unusual places.

One of my most intense St. Patrick's Day memories came on March 16, 1977, while sitting in the lobby of a rundown hotel in Hanoi. I was there on the first-ever post-Vietnam War mission sent by President Jimmy Carter to begin the search for and the return of the remains of missing American servicemen. The mission was led by Ambassador Leonard Woodcock, the former president of the United Auto Workers who would go on to head the U.S.-Liaison Office in Beijing.

I was a mid-level Foreign Service Officer, then serving as special assistant to Richard Holbrooke, who was heading the East Asia Bureau of the State Department. I was there in significant part to serve as an interpreter during some of the talks. Another Iowan on the trip was Paul Mather, an Air Force captain whose Vietnamese fiancee was trapped in Saigon at the end of the war.

After the leaders of the U.S. delegation had gone to bed, a few of us staff members relaxed with a Hanoi beer before turning in. As our drinks were being poured in the dimly lit hotel lobby, we noticed that the beer had a distinctly green tint. For a moment, we thought that maybe the North Vietnamese knew it was Saint Patrick's Day and had done this as a special treat for us. The more logical explanation, however, was that there was so much formaldehyde in the beer to preserve it.

Still, there was something to feel good about. The Vietnamese government had informed us that they were going to return to us 10 sets of remains, which our plane would then carry onward to America, so that their families could give them an appropriate burial. In addition, Ambassador Woodcock, following my private suggestion, had and told the Vietnamese negotiators about Paul Mather's fiancee. The luck of the Irish was with us, as two months later she was released and allowed to come to the United States so they could be married.

The other enduring memory I have of a special Irish moment came in December 2001, when I accompanied Norman Borlaug to the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. It was an extraordinary aggregation of great achievement. The event included Bishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and Lech Walesa, the leader of the labor resistance movement that undermined communist rule in Poland.

Also present were two Northern Ireland leaders who helped broker an end to sectarian violence in that troubled part of the Irish isle ruled by Great Britain. They were David Trimble, a straight-laced Protestant politician from County Down, and John Hume, a gregarious Catholic from Derry.

After the formal evening banquet, a group gathered for drinks and conversation, during which Hume offered heartfelt comments about the importance of finding fellowship with those different from each other in faith and culture. After enjoying several Norwegian beers, he was moved to convey the depths of his feeling by singing a chorus of "Danny Boy." I joined in. At just that moment, Sir Paul McCartney, who was to perform the next evening at the Nobel concert, walked by. Hume grabbed him and pulled him into the room as we finished the song. This rendition of "Danny Boy" still resonates with me every Saint Patrick's Day or whenever I think about that Nobel anniversary.

We have endeavored to build the World Food Prize into an award that provides the same type of inspiration and recognition as that which emanated from Oslo by these two Irish laureates. So this St. Patrick's Day, consider stopping by our Hall of Laureates on the Principal Riverwalk. We are open free of charge to the public from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. There will not any green beer, but there will be plenty of inspiration for you to drink in.


© 2024 The World Food Prize Foundation. All Rights Reserved.