Amid all the pomp and royal splendour were two neighbours making up for all that lost time
QUEEN Elizabeth and President Michael D Higgins stood side by side as the sound of 'Amhran na bhFiann' rose into the blue sky over Windsor Castle.
The melody of the Irish national anthem floated above the royal residence which the queen calls home – the heart of the British monarchy, where a long succession of rulers have lived and died since the original castle was built almost one thousand years ago.
It was the second airing of the anthem in as many minutes. It had first been played by scarlet-uniformed members of the Irish Guard band as a procession of royal carriages – two ornate coaches and three landaus – snaked around the impeccable lawn in the castle quadrangle, accompanied by a cavalcade of mounted cavalry.
It was very clear from the start of this historic state visit that the queen was determined to push the royal boat out in terms of pomp and pageantry – and nobody does ceremonial occasions with more impressive bells-and-whistles than this family.
The President and Sabina had been escorted to the town of Windsor earlier in the day by Prince Charles and Camilla, who had met them at the Irish embassy in London.
By noon they were emerging from their cars in the middle of Windsor town to the deafening boom of a 21-gun salute. And waiting for them were the queen and Prince Philip for the official welcome before the procession of carriages clattered off through the immaculately swept main street which was lined with an estimated 6,000 people, many of whom were waving small Irish and British pennants. And the route was lined with flagpoles, where union flags and Tricolours flapped in the breeze.
Once the national anthems had played in the Castle Quadrangle, the Queen and Sabina remained chatting on the viewing dais, while the President and the Duke of Edinburgh inspected the two rows of Grenadier Guards who act as the monarch's personal bodyguards.
The Irish Guards would have been the troops to be inspected on this visit, but most of them are deployed in Cyprus at present. But some of them were present, including Colour Sergeant Frankie Whelan, originally from Rathcoole in Co Wicklow. He described the occasion as a very special one.
"I've been in the Irish Guards for 19 years and this is a very proud day for all of us," he said.
At the end of the second row of Guards, Prince Philip and President Higgins paused to pat the shaggy head of the mascot of the 1st Battalion Irish Guards, 20-month-old Irish wolfhound Domhnall of Shantamon, and Michael D had even brought him along the present of a new ceremonial coat.
"He had a bath this morning in preparation," one of the guards confided.
Afterwards, the cavalcade departed and the quiet quadrangle was suddenly a vibrant, vivid display of Household Cavalry in an array of uniforms, helmets and gleaming silver breast-plates, rumbling gun-carts pulled by 275 snorting, trotting horses, all snaking around the square.
And every horse on parade was Irish-bred. In among the lavish spectacle, smaller thoughtful touches abounded.
To greet her Irish guests, the queen wore a sky-blue cashmere coat and paisley-patterned, moss-green and dove-grey dress by Stewart Pavin. Pinned to her coat was her orchid brooch, made of 66 diamonds and hand-cut glass flowers by Waterford Crystal.
Inside the castle's beautiful Green Room, where a display of Irish artefacts from the royal collection had been set out, stood two beautiful flower arrangements, a discreet but definite melange of green, white and orange-coloured blossoms.
After a private lunch following the ceremonial arrival, the queen escorted the President into the stunning jewel-green room and the pair took a leisurely tour of the items, each one explained by the castle's librarian, Oliver Urquhart Irvine.
There were all sorts of items on show, including a bit of glitz in the shape of a gold box made from the unlikely materials of bog oak, gold and diamonds, which is thought to have been presented to King George IV during his state visit to Ireland in 1821, also a diamond-encrusted Order of St Patrick ribbon that was worn by the king during that trip.
"He liked a bit of bling," explained one official.
And it was a jolly party who toured the tables. The queen and Michael D got on famously, heads together in animated discussions about items. The President was sporting a mile-wide smile and even got a hearty laugh out of his companion as they inspected a white fan made from Youghal lace which was given to Princess Mary – later Queen Mary – as a wedding present in 1893.
Irish and British milled about together in a relaxed fashion; Sabina, elegant in pale-pink Louise Kennedy coat and dress and Philip Treacy hat, chatted to Prince Philip, while Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore was shown around the room by Prince Charles and his wife Carol toured the artefacts with Camilla.
It was a normal scene, a group of people at ease together. Given the tangled web of history which brought everyone to this place, how utterly strange it seemed, and how perfectly wonderful.