Friday 30 September 2016

How the Queen brought history to life during momentous Irish visit

Published 14/05/2016 | 02:30

The Queen lays a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance, accompanied by then President Mary McAleese. Photo: Maxwells/PA Wire
The Queen lays a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance, accompanied by then President Mary McAleese. Photo: Maxwells/PA Wire
The monarch is presented with flowers by Rachel Fox (8) as she arrives in Ireland. Photo: Maxwells

The extraordinary sight of Queen Elizabeth, standing in the Garden of Remembrance with her head bowed in respect for the fallen Irish patriots, caused a palpable shift that reverberated five years on in the recent 1916 Commemorations.

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The wheels of history could almost be felt to crank into action as we witnessed the elderly royal - the descendant of those who had reigned with such harshness upon our ancestors - arrive with such frank and earnest hope in her eyes that she would be welcome here.

"Ireland was fantastic," Prince William recalled in an interview after his grandmother's highly successful State visit in 2011.

"We all wanted it to go smoothly because it was such a big deal," he said.

The British royal family was not alone in wanting it to be a success.

Bertie Ahern told how he sat next to "her majesty" at a banquet after the Good Friday Agreement when she had told him that she had been everywhere in the world "twice" but that she would "like to set foot in the Republic of Ireland".

Following years of careful diplomacy, 12 years after the Good Friday Agreement, the visit of the first British monarch since Independence was finally deemed appropriate.

Amid our confidence in our history since the Rising, we could afford to be magnanimous in welcoming this significant visitor without any fear of the oppressive baggage of history we had long carried between us.

But, in the end, the genuine warmth of our feeling for her came down to the Queen's own efforts in diplomacy - while being simultaneously clad in a white crepe dress adorned with 2,091 hand-embroidered shamrocks.

Protocol could not permit an official apology and "the Queen doesn't do political speeches", journalists were briefed beforehand.

And yet, somehow, the right words were found to strike the correct note, satisfying a mutual desire for something of substance to be said.

The speech was written by Buckingham Palace, the Foreign Office and Downing Street in anxious recognition of its immense significance.

"It is a sad and regrettable reality that through history, our islands have experienced more than their fair share of heartache, turbulence and loss... with the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we wish had been done differently, or not at all," she stressed at the State banquet dinner at Dublin Castle.

The fact that she opened her speech with a flawless "A Uachtaráin agus a chairde" was merely the icing on the cake, as President Mary McAleese gasped: "Wow."

From the outset, as the Queen disembarked somewhat stiffly from her plane at Casement Aerodrome, Co Dublin, it was clear the visit was going to be a success.

At the suggestion of her personal assistant and dresser, Angela Kelly - a Scouse woman with Irish ancestry - she had been dressed in emerald green in a highly symbolic statement.

One of the Queen's first stops was at Áras an Uachtaráin, after President McAleese extended an invitation to the Queen six months previously.

However, the two women had actually first met many years before, at a garden party in Buckingham Palace in the 1980s thrown for students of Queen's University which Mary McAleese attended.

She was invited back to lunch at Buckingham Palace because the Queen was anxious to discuss Northern Ireland at length.

An insider said Queen Elizabeth's visit to the Áras was "not stressful at all", adding: "It's Buckingham Palace, they've been doing this for centuries."

By contrast, Barack Obama's visit a week later was logistically "a nightmare".

"Everybody thinks it's great, the US President is coming, and your heart would sink into your boots," admitted the insider.

In fact, some of the US officials had even asked if they could be present at the Queen's visit to the Áras as a 'dry run'.

"The Americans felt this was really something and said: 'We want ours to look like that'," the insider added.

That moment at the Garden of Remembrance seemed to lie at the very heart of her visit.

But also of major significance was her visit later to Croke Park - where 91 years before on Bloody Sunday, British troops had opened fire on the crowds, killing 14 innocent people.

Her visit to the National Stud the following day came as much-needed light relief.

The keen horsewoman came into her own, visibly relaxed, as she spent a few happy hours sampling the delights of the sport of kings.

Even from under the brim of her hat, the twinkle in the Queen's eye and her beaming smile could not be hidden from view as she arrived at the stud to warm and resounding applause.

The final event was a concert with Westlife, Mary Byrne and 150 guests.

Initially cautious as to how the Queen would be greeted here, the British press suggested that the visit was "probably one of the happiest few weeks of her reign."

Irish Independent

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