"And what part of Ireland do you come from?" asked Ambassador Sean Donlon, standing in the foyer of the Irish Embassy and shaking the hand of an arriving guest.

"Finland," said the visitor, who was very tall and very blond.

"Ah, yes," said the ambassador. "One of our offshore islands."

Fifteen days before March 17 (when parties will be impossible, because everyone will be busy standing in line outside of Matt Kane's or The Dubliner), the Irish ambassador gave what will undoubtedly be the least formal embassy party of the season "to greet the month of St. Patrick."

Asked about his guest list, the ambassador said it included "the Irish and those who wish they were -- I think that covers everyone."

There was not an engraved invitation in sight, and the only visible black ties were worn by those who served the buffet in one room and the liquor (tending heavily toward Irish whiskey but including such exotica as vodka for those who knew no better) in another.

Invited guests, all warmly greeted at the door, seemed to include everyone who knew the party was happening and could find their way to the embassy -- a total of perhaps 200 persons, including Ethel Kennedy, Abigail McCarthy and a gaggle of congressmen.

The agenda, according to Ambassador Donlon, was "food and drink, talk and music," and it was followed meticulously, with a heavy emphasis on the music.

It began smoothly with traditional Irish jigs and reels, provided by a group called Silver Spear that specializes in this music and includes one player, violinist Dennis Botzer, whose ancestry is approximately 50 percent Irish.

"I'm Jewish," said drummer Myron brotholz, who used to do a program of Irish music on the late, lamented WGTB-FM, "but we're playing Irish music tonight and we could go on forever. There is an almost unlimited number of jigs and reels, and people keep writing new ones all the time." He added that guitarist Irene Wellington, who also sang in a clear. Irish-sounding soprano, was mostly Russian in ancestry, and recorderplayer Frank Clady said he was Irish "by instruction but not by ancestry."

Clady earned at least an honorary Irish citizenship, however, when the ambassador's young son, Brendan, brought him an obviously brand-new toy wooden flute, and he improvised jigs and reels on it for more than five minutes -- undoubtedly making it sound better than it will ever sound again. Brendan listened wide-eyed for awhile, then went over to his mother and dragged her into the circle of listeners to hear his flute.

Among the numerous non-Irish guests present was Rep. John Brademas (D-Ind.), who looked somewhat surprised when the guests gathered in a circle around him and gave a rather ragged rendition of "Happy Birthday to You."

To establish his credentials for an Irish party, he said he represented "the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame" (who live within his district), and, asked to lead the crowd in an Irish song, he could only come up with the Notre Dame Fight Song. It was even more ragged, unfortunately, because at least everyone knows all the words to "Happy Birthday."

"I have been to Ireland once," said Brademas, recalling a stopover at Shannon airport on his way home from Brussels, back in the days when airliners stopped automatically at Shannon on their way to Gander, Newfoundland. "I went to the post office at the airport to mail a postcard, and the postmaster treated me to a 15minute talk on the evils of partition, so I guess I can say I have been exposed to Irish politics."

As deadline approached, the party (obviously destined to go until dawn) was coming along nicely. While Silver Spear took a break, the ambassador sat down at the piano and gave eloquent renditions of "Danny Boy," "Galaway Boy," "The Irish Washerwoman," and seemed to be just warming up.

It may be that some of the guests will be looking a bit green this morning -- but that is surely appropriate.