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For one Maryland toastmaster, the luck of the Irish means a $50,000 prize from Guinness

5 min

Making a toast before drinking is like saying grace before eating. It’s not strictly necessary, but it imbues the occasion with a certain gravitas. And gravitas pairs nicely with that silky brown nectar of Ireland: Guinness.

Fifty-thousand dollars goes down pretty sweetly, too.

That’s how much Tom Ponton won from the beer maker. Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, the Columbia, Md., resident was a winner in the Guinness Great Reunion Toast contest. Americans of drinking age were invited to videotape themselves proclaiming what the competition rules describe as “your original, earnest, (perhaps humorous) and sincere toast showing your gratitude and/or commemorating someone or something important to you and that embodies the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day.”

Tom credits his insomnia for learning about the toast-off. He woke up in the middle of the night, picked up his cellphone and saw a tweet about the contest.

“Maybe it was a sign from the heavens,” Tom said.

The Irish believe in such portents. Also: leprechauns.

A week and a half after Tom recorded himself orating, he got a voice mail saying he was a winner. And then last Sunday a film crew showed up in front of Tom’s house. They had brought a bagpiper, an oversized check and a man named Ryan Wagner, who is the “ambassador” from the Guinness factory in Baltimore.

Tom, 61, is the director of advancement at DeMatha, the Hyattsville Catholic school he attended. He also writes songs occasionally.

“The songs never really quite see the light of day,” he said.

But what is a toast but a song without music? He recast one song — about the hyperbole that seems to attend Irish funerals — into a toast.

The toast gently poked fun at exaggeration, before ending on a sweet note:

For it’s not a long stay. We’ll take what life gives.

Let’s have a big glass for my friend Billy Hibbs.

“Someone came up to me and said, ‘Who wrote that?’ I said, ‘I did,’” Tom said. “Since that time I have been using that toast.”

He just changes the last two lines so they rhyme with the name of whoever is being honored.

Said Tom: “It’s well-ingrained in my head.”

What makes a good toast?

“That's a good question,” Tom said. “I'm not sure it can be completely answered. It should have a nice sentiment to it. A little sense of humor might be helpful. Sometimes a little twist or irony can help.”

The Irish like the little twist. For example, Tom still isn’t sure he’s actually won. He has the massive, poster board check, but he’s awaiting one he can deposit.

“I thought maybe somebody was pulling a fast one on me,” he said. “Being Irish, you know in your moment of great joy that tragedy lies right around the corner.” (Guinness confirmed to me that he has won.)

The Irish are also great ones for knocking you down a peg. Not long ago I discovered a delightful Twitter thread wherein various Irish people recounted the comments they had received after making the mistake of dressing a little oddly or fancily.

A man with the Twitter name @MrWeir wrote: “I once wore a silver jacket to college, turned up late for class, said ‘sorry I’m late’, lecturer said, ‘that’s ok’ then waited til I was halfway across the front of the full class before following up with ‘trouble with the spaceship again was it?’”

Twitter user @eoinjoneill was wearing a vintage Nike jacket when he was in line for drinks at a boxing match. A “Belfast lad” behind him cursed and said, “This is taking forever. Your man has been here since the ’80s.”

And @damiensreenan once wore a camouflage T-shirt to a pub. The response from the crowd: “Oooooh, it’s a floating head.”

Tom does most of his drinking at home or at the Galway Bay, an Irish restaurant in Annapolis where his folk-singing buddy Pat Garvey sometimes performs. Years ago, Tom and Pat were habitues of Matt Kane’s Bit O’Ireland, a famed pub at 13th and K streets NW.

“It was a beer-soaked tavern, attracting a combination of Irish, Marines and the curious,” Tom said. His older sister — musician Cathy Ponton King — used to perform there.

Fights were not uncommon.

“Pat Garvey can tell a great Matt Kane’s story about a guy dressed as Santa Claus who was harassing women there. Pat decked him. He decked Santa Claus and [Santa] fell out onto 13th Street.”

Tom said he’ll donate some of his Guinness winnings to the Trinitarians, the priestly order that runs DeMatha and whose outpost in Poland is aiding refugees from Ukraine.

And, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, here is Tom’s winning toast:

When you’re old and gray and doze by the fire

And you have one last glass before you retire

It’s not about wealth but the seeds that you’ve sown

To the people you've loved and the friends that you've known.

So let’s raise a glass to our family and friends

and to those who oppose us, well, let's make amends

For there's no use in cryin', it's not a long stay

I’m not one for me lyin’ — Happy St. Patrick’s Day!