Prince lets guard down as he goes back to roots
Published 07/04/2011 | 05:00
THIS was the real heart of the visit. The bit that almost threatened to crack the royal reserve, forcing Prince Albert to swallow hard before he could speak about it, acknowledging that it was, indeed, a "very strong and emotional moment" in his first state visit.
Released from the formality of his Dublin engagements, the prince had ring-fenced a few hours yesterday for a homecoming to the green fields and tumbledown cottage of his ancestors at Drimurla, just outside Newport, Co Mayo.
All press were banned and the respectful crowd of around 100 locals allowed up the boreen stayed well back as he strolled among the stonewalls of the old homestead, his fiancee Charlene Wittstock by his side.
Afterwards, the couple stooped to talk to the children who had gathered there.
"A bunch of first cousins from Philly" who were part of the Monaco delegation helped the prince identify various Kelly family members in old photographs shown to them.
Keen-eyed locals, meanwhile, had noted the presence of a local solicitor -- prompting hopes that the prince might refurbish the cottage, in line with the hopes of his mother, Princess Grace, who had instructed an architect to draw up plans for a holiday sanctuary there just three years before her untimely death in 1982.
Much has changed in the picturesque town of Newport since Grace's first visit in 1961. Nobody now goes by a name such as that of the 'Widow Mulchrone', from whom Grace bought the three-roomed cottage on the Leg of Mutton Lake.
Back then, the cottage had been newly thatched and the 'Widow' herself had been up since the crack of dawn to bake griddle cakes for her distinguished guests. Now the cottage is little more than a heap of stones.
Residents yesterday spoke of their hope that the rekindling of the Princess Grace fairytale might give a boost to the town, which draws some tourists for salmon and trout fishing but loses out because of its proximity to the popular Westport.
Later, Prince Albert met up with 17 distant cousins who were invited to the Newport House hotel for afternoon tea and afterwards planned on walking across the bridge for a pint at the Grainne Uaile pub.
But the famous west of Ireland "slanty rain" was back in full force and so the couple were car-bound and ushered inside to the snug candlelit bar where a warm turf fire awaited them and their 25 invited guests.
Among them was Cora Kelly -- who explained that though she is "a genuine Kelly", "we don't know how far we go back".
Pub owner Harry McManamon even arranged a trad music session, with Julie Langan on the fiddle and Jackie Small on the accordian.The royal guests unveiled a brass plaque at the pub, commemorating their visit there before departing for Knock for their flight to Monaco.
An elderly local woman Josephine Crehan recalled how she used to see Grace strolling the streets of Newport on a visit in the 1970s. "She was very good looking and friendly," she said.
Earlier, the couple visited the Marine Institute in Oranmore, Co Galway, at the special request of the prince himself, who shares his family's traditional passion for the sea.
There, he signed a memorandum of understanding drawn up between the institute and its counterpart in Monaco, the Institute Oceanographique, to foster the exchange of ideas.
Afterwards, we heard from Charlene herself for the first time during this visit. Put to her that it was being said she looked much like Princess Grace, she smiled shyly and said she didn't like to comment on that. "But I think it's a huge compliment," she added.
For Peter Murphy, a former American diplomat stationed in Monaco and now ambassador to the Order of Malta, who was among the delegation, it was the prince himself who was "the embodiment of his mother" in terms of temperament.
"She always had time for everyone, no matter what their station," he said.