President Mary McAleese is on a week-long State visit to New Zealand. Deputy Foreign Editor Anthony Murnane is travelling with the Presidential party.


It is a long, long way from Clare to here. New Zealand is as far away from Ireland you can get before you start to make the return journey. And boy, does it feel like we have travelled half way around the world.

We left Dublin on Friday at 5.30pm and arrived in Wellington at 1.30pm local time on Sunday, a straight 31 hours travelling. Mind you we left behind a torrential downpour and arrived to a blue sky as spring turns to summer in the southern hemisphere.

It all looked very pretty at the old colonial style Governor General's mansion on a windswept Wellington hillside on Monday morning; the city is renowned for its strong winds.

As we waited for President McAleese to arrive for the official welcoming ceremony, a colourful array of brass band, military forces, Maoris in traditional outfits and hundreds of local schoolchildren began to arrive on the front lawn.

When the President made her entrance there was lots of pressing of noses, a traditional greeting called hongi. Then from the other end of the garden, a Maori warrior bearing a fighting staff advanced towards President McAleese and her husband, roaring loudly to determine whether the visitors came in peace or with hostile intent.

When that was all cleared up, the President's party was invited to move closer to the dancing Maori cultural group, ultimately rubbing noses with the now less ferocious Maori warrior. The 550 secondary schoolchildren, who had been given the morning off, then came into their own as they made the ground vibrate with a performance of the Haka.

There was Amhrán na bhFiann, a 21-gun salute and, as the President inspected the Guard of Honour, the band struck up what sounded like On a Clear Day.

This time it was a clear day, but on a similar occasion in the past we were told that the gun firing the salute was at the end of the garden on a particularly windy Wellington day.

Needless to say there is a lot of smoke from these big guns and the wind blew it only to obscure the guard of honour and the visiting dignitary. And what were the band playing ... yes, you have guessed, On a Clear Day.

The big gun has now been moved and fires the salute from a location to the right of the Governor General's house, well away from the visiting dignitaries.

- Anthony Murnane