Sunday 28 December 2014

Queen Elizabeth 'wants to make return visit to Ireland'

Enda plans to put best foot forward in Riverdance

Published 11/04/2014 | 02:30

President Michael D Higgins, his wife Sabina and Prince attend a Celebration of British and Irish Culture in the Royal Albert Hall. Inset: Queen Elizabeth during the event. Photos: Fennell / Reuters
President Michael D Higgins, his wife Sabina and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent (far right) attend a Celebration of British and Irish Culture in the Royal Albert Hall. Photo: Chris Bellew/Fennell
Michael D Higgins and wife Sabina with vet Ruth Clements during a visit to a farm in Oxford yesterday. Photo: Fennell Photography
Michael D Higgins and wife Sabina with vet Ruth Clements during a visit to
Pictured is President of Ireland Michael D Higgins and his Wife Sabina at a Celebration of British and Irish Culture Concert in the Royal Albert Hall in London
It was another significant gesture during a state visit that meant so much – in the Great Hall at Windsor Castle, the North's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness warmly shook the hand of Britain's Queen Elizabeth, watched by First Minister Peter Robinson and President Michael D Higgins. Photo: PA
Queen Elizabeth and President Michael D Higgins attend a Northern Ireland-themed reception at Windsor Castle at Windsor. The event was organised as part of Higgins' four-day state visit. Reuters
Former British Prime Minister John Major and Taoiseach Enda Kenny with a Celebration of British and Irish Culture Concert in the Royal Albert Hall in London on the third official day of the Presidents 5 day State Visit to the United Kingdom. Photo: Fennell Photography

'She said she wants to come back," said the Taoiseach, and Fionnuala nodded in confirmation.

Enda and Fionnuala Kenny were reminiscing over the extraordinary State banquet in Windsor Castle on Monday night, and how they had chatted to the Queen in the receiving line. And she definitely expressed a desire to make a return visit to the Republic.

The Taoiseach was very taken by the warmth of the British monarch at the banquet. "There's respect and understanding in every part of this State visit," he said, adding that he was struck at the equal parity given to the Tricolour and the Union flag on the trip.

"It would be great progress if this respect could take place in Northern Ireland too," he added in a reference to the ongoing difficulties in resolving the flags issue.

The Kennys had a great night at the do on Tuesday, but much to their chagrin, the Taoiseach had to return to Ireland for the day job and so couldn't stay overnight in the room allocated to them in the castle.

They were in the Royal Retiring Room in the Royal Albert Hall, along with the President and Sabina Higgins and the Tanaiste and his wife Carol, awaiting the Prince and Princess of Kent for a concert of Irish song, dance and prose, featuring a host of stars such as Imelda May, Elvis Costello and The Gloaming.

As the word went out that the Kents were on the way, the Irish all lined up. "We're going to do 'Riverdance'," joked Enda.

And lo and behold, when the willowy Princess Michael began to shake hands with the welcome party, the first words she uttered to the Taoiseach were: "I've been complaining to the President that there's no 'Riverdance' tonight," she said, adding that she had first seen the show in Limerick.

Enda stifled a grin.

There was a sense of relaxation in the room, a feeling that everything had gone smoothly on this historic State visit. Sabina had just arrived from the reception in Windsor Castle hosted by the Queen where for the second time she shook hands with Martin McGuinness, with a wide smile on her face.

"There was a wonderful atmosphere there," she said. "Everyone expressed their happiness and delight that it all gone so well".

Earlier there had been other guests in the room, including Niall Horan from One Direction who had a brief chat with the President. Afterwards he turned to his pal: "He told me that he's seen our film," he exclaimed, clearly impressed at the hipness of Michael D.

Also in the room were Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan who unashamedly posed for a photo with himself and Niall, and Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald who restrained herself, also Lady Antonia Fraser, author and widow of playwright Harold Pinter.

After a few minutes of conversation, they all walked across into the royal box and were greeted with a roof-rattling cheer from the sell-out 5,000 audience – 2,500 of whom were guests, with the rest forking out a modest £10 for a ticket.

It was a long day for the President and Sabina, so it must have been quite refreshing for them to take a breather from the formalities and posh palaces of the past few days, and make a jaunt into the English countryside where every patch of grass wasn't manicured to within an inch of its life, and the horses didn't have a chap with a sword and a silver breastplate on its back.

Instead of another platter of roast lamb, there were real lambs to play with at a sustainable farm in Oxford, and Sabina was beside herself with delight after they started their tour of the farm viewing two breeds of sheep and their lambs, some of which were only four days old.

Ruth Clements, who is a vet on the farm, held one of the lambs for the President and Mrs Higgins. "Oh, how lovely!" cooed Sabina, as she gave the baa-lamb a hug and nuzzled its cute face.

And she was equally taken with an enclosure of pigs, and enthused to her hosts who included Brigadier Nigel Mogg and the CEO of An Bord Bia, Aidan Cotter, about a book she had read called 'The Pig', adding "I must send it to you, it's about this wonderful creature."

Sabina explained how pigs forage their food, saying "they remember their ground, rooting it out, it's in their genes", which sounds remarkably like the behaviour of one set of humans, ie politicians.

This part of the third day's programme of the State visit was to highlight Ireland's agri-food industry – the UK is the country's largest export market for food and drink.

Equally important is the bloodstock industry – about 14,000 are employed in the thoroughbred business which is worth around €1.1bn annually.

And so after the FAI Farms visit (nothing to do with Irish football, alas), the President travelled to Newbury in Hampshire for a tour of Park House Stables in Kingsclere which is owned by trainer Andrew Balding. After a private lunch with a mixture of trainers and jockeys – among them champion flat jockey Richard Hughes and leading trainer Richard Fahey and Kerry-born Oisin Murphy. The fresh-faced Oisin is the 18-year-old champion-elect apprentice jockey this year and is the nephew of racing legend Jim Culloty, three-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winning jockey.

After lunch they took a tour of the stables complex, including the tack room where the jockeys' silks are stored. They were shown the Queen's colours (a suitably regal purple and scarlet) and also the silks of owners such as Alex Ferguson (red with white stars, obviously).

The President presented the Baldings with a framed display of the President's silks – a top and a tasseled cap in St Patrick's Blue which will be worn by President Higgins' filly Aimhirgin Lass, being trained by John Oxx.

"These are the colours that will be carried by Aimhirgin Lass very shortly. Her first run hasn't been declared yet," the President told Andrew.

The delegation then went to the Flying Fox yard to look at two of the Queen's horses, Enliven and Micras, both chestnut fillies. The queen usually visits the stables twice a year to check on her horses, and Andrew explained that Enliven is running in Newbury this weekend. "Good luck," said Sabina

They all then watched a horse called Fortrose Academy do a few laps of the equine swimming pool. Inevitably, the President met an Irishman – farrier Eugene Cullen from Clonroche, Co Wexford, who moved to England in 1979, first working as a jockey before qualifying as a farrier.

But then it was back off to Windsor Castle for a last night under the royal roof – no doubt much to the secret envy of Enda.

Irish Independent

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