Tuesday 25 July 2017

Why the queen has a special place for Ireland in her heart

President Mary McAleese shares a joke with the queen at a luncheon to
celebrate the centenary of Queen’s University, Belfast, in April 2008
President Mary McAleese shares a joke with the queen at a luncheon to celebrate the centenary of Queen’s University, Belfast, in April 2008

More than 600,000 people watched William and Kate's wedding on Irish television at the end of April. And wherever you went, the weekend conversation was about the stunning dress, the balcony kiss, the sexy sister, the hideous hats. . .

The next big royal occasion will be Queen Elizabeth's State visit from Tuesday, May 17, to Friday, May 20, and the Irish Independent letters pages and radio phone-in shows have for weeks been reflecting the nation's mixed feelings about the trip.

But one voice that hasn't been heard is that of the queen herself.

What does this 85-year-old grandmother know about Ireland, and Irish people? What does she want to see? Above all, is it just duty, or is she really looking forward to it?

One thing we do know -- this State visit comes with sad memories, for both hosts and guests.

On August 27, 1979, Lord Louis Mountbatten -- 'Uncle Dickie' to the royal family -- was killed in a Provisional IRA bomb blast in a fishing boat at Mullaghmore, Co Sligo, near to his Irish home, Classiebawn Castle.

His grandson, 14-year-old Nicholas Brabourne, and local boy Paul Maxwell also died immediately. Nicholas's mother, Lady Patricia Brabourne, Mountbatten's elder daughter, was badly injured, as was her husband, Lord Brabourne. Her mother-in-law, the Dowager Lady Brabourne, died later.

The queen was devastated and angered. Lord Louis was her husband's uncle -- the man who had supported and encouraged the romance between Elizabeth and Philip.

Patricia Brabourne was a friend from childhood, and had been her Lady-in-Waiting.

Stoically, the queen kept her feelings and thoughts to herself.

But time heals many wounds, and sources close to Queen Elizabeth say that she has long wanted to come to Ireland. Indeed, she feels that this visit, with its carefully considered timing, will be one of the most significant of her reign.

The queen has for years had close links to Ireland and the Irish through family members, friends and staff, and also her enthusiasm for racing.

Naturally, many of her contacts have been with the Anglo Irish and aristocratic families. However, in more recent years, she has entertained and met Irish people from all walks of life.

She clearly appreciates many of the classic Irish traits -- wit, spirit, good humour, informality, irreverence and the ability to fit in at all levels.

So, just who makes up the Irish connection for the queen?

MADAM PRESIDENT

History was made in 1996, when former president Mary Robinson had tea with the queen at Buckingham Palace.

She became the first Irish Head of State to meet a British monarch on an official visit.

She prepared the ground, but President McAleese has been the powerful force behind this visit. Over several years, she has built up a good relationship with the queen, whom she admires, and has called the State visit "historic".

The two first met during Mary McAleese's term as Pro-Vice Chancellor at Queen's University, Belfast, which started in 1994. In November 1998, the president had her first public meeting with Queen Elizabeth at Ypres, during a Remembrance Service for Irishmen who died in the two World Wars.

President and queen clearly get on well, and have met privately and publicly on several occasions since then.

FAMILY

There is Irish blood at the heart of the British monarchy -- including the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and Sarah, Duchess of York (the former wife of Prince Andrew, better known as Fergie).

Sarah's mother, born Susie Wright, was connected to the Wingfield family, of Powerscourt, Co Wicklow. As granddaughter of the Eighth Viscount Powerscourt, Sarah's mother spent long periods of her childhood there.

She learned to love riding out over the magnificent estate, an experience also enjoyed by Fergie when she came here for holidays.

Susie was described as having "a touch of the Irish", which attracted polo player Ronald Ferguson.

After their marriage, he became Prince Philip's polo manager, and he and his wife became friends with the queen and duke.

Andrew and Fergie played together as children and married in 1986.

The marriage lasted 10 years and produced hundreds of headlines -- including the most famous in 1992. A newspaper ran a topless poolside picture of her having her toe sucked by an American financier friend.

The incident effectively ended her close relationship with the royals -- and the couple announced they were divorcing in 1996.

Fergie's mother Susie remained on good terms with the royal family, up to her tragic death in a car crash, shortly after the death of Diana.

One of Susie's girlhood friends was another beauty, the young Frances Roche, described by a contemporary as having "a certain Irish appeal".

That allure led to marriage to Diana's father, the future Earl Spencer, and also to a life filled with drama as well as tragedy. Frances was twice divorced, lost custody of her children and suffered the death of two children, one of whom was Diana, Princess of Wales. A son John died within 10 hours of his birth on January 12, 1960.

In 1967, Frances left Diana's father for Peter Shand Kydd, an heir to a wallpaper fortune.

Diana's Irish connection was with the rich and powerful Burke Roche family, with its splendid Co Cork estates. The family was known for its strong, independent-minded women.

This bloodline was passed to Diana through her maternal grandparents, the Fourth Baron Fermoy and Ruth, Lady Fermoy. The latter was a Lady-in-Waiting to the Queen Mother. Whether true or not, it would become popular legend that this pair encouraged the relationship between the Prince of Wales and the young Diana.

The Roches were prominent in Cork for almost three centuries. Dominick Roche was mayor in 1609 and MP for Cork County in 1639. Following a Catholic rebellion in 1641, they were expelled, along with other Irish Catholic inhabitants of the city.

Other seats of the Roches include Trabolgan in east Cork and Dunderrow, near Kinsale, and Kilpatrick near Ringabella. In 1856 the Right Hon Edmund Burke-Roche of Trabolgan, east Cork, became Baron Fermoy.

One of the most popular and least stuffy members of the Royal Family was Anthony Armstrong-Jones, the photographer who married the queen's sister, Princess Margaret, in 1960 and became Lord Snowdon.

The couple were famous for their riotous parties and bohemian lifestyle and it was said that he learned his wild ways as a youth in Ireland.

Anthony's mother, after divorcing his father, married Michael Parsons, the Sixth Earl of Rosse, whose seat was Birr Castle, Co Offaly.

Anthony spent many childhood summers at the castle and developed his love of photography there.

In 1993, Tony and Margaret's son, Viscount Linley, married another Irish beauty -- Serena Harrington, daughter of the then Viscount Petersham, Charles Petersham. Serena spent much of her childhood in Ireland.

Her grandfather was the Co Limerick bloodstock magnate, the 11th Earl of Harrington -- 'Bill' Harrington.

Serena's mother, Virginia Freeman Jackson, came from Co Cork, and after her parents' divorce, Serena divided her time between Limerick, London and Monaco.

RACING

It may be the Sport of Kings, yet this queen is a major player. Racing has given her a chance to develop a worldwide network through one of her close personal interests.

Over 6ft tall, the elegant and diplomatic Sir Cecil Boyd Rochfort, whose family home was Middleton Park, Co Westmeath, was the queen's first racing trainer. Boyd Rochfort was Royal trainer from 1943, based at Newmarket, to the queen's father, King George VI. He continued working with the queen until retirement in 1968, when he handed his horses over to his stepson, Henry Cecil. The newly knighted Boyd Rochfort settled in Ireland until his death in 1983, aged 97.

Over her long reign, the queen has owned and raced hundreds of famous racehorses. She is well informed about, and has long wanted to visit, the Magniers and O'Briens at Coolmore Stud. Queen Elizabeth also wants to see Gilltown Stud, where the Aga Khan's horses are stabled, and is expected to make private visits. If security wasn't an issue, she would very likely follow family example and cheer at an Irish race meeting.

THE ACHIEVERS

Over the past decades, the queen has had the opportunity to learn about and meet a wide variety of contemporary Irish achievers.

In 1986, Bob Geldof, dressed in a formal morning suit, received an honorary knighthood.

As she pinned on his medal, the queen remarked: "This is a small token for work done.'' Legend has it that Geldof promptly replied that "It was harder work getting into the suit!''

Sir Anthony O'Reilly was knighted in 2001. He became a knight bachelor, for services to Ireland in connection with his work with The Ireland Funds, and for 25 years of work towards peace in Northern Ireland.

When Terry Wogan received his knighthood in 2005, the queen told him she had heard his breakfast show earlier that morning. Wogan was invited to dinner at Windsor Castle, shortly before he left the show in 2009. At her request, he was seated by the queen, and recalled remarking "Ma'am, you're eating nothing'' -- to which she replied "Not like you, then!''

Princess Margaret was often escorted by Ned Ryan. The Tipperary-born developer was invited to the Royal Box at Ascot and Wimbledon, and to social gatherings such as Cartier International Polo. The Countess of Wessex represented the royal family at his funeral last year.

Over the past century, virtually all royal visits to Ireland have provoked complaints, criticism and comments about the political aspects, security costs, and the all too often "parlous economic state of our country".

Royal visits were often preceded by forecasts of embarrassing failure and lack of popular interest. Yet each time, the people responded with a warm welcome -- one Irish tradition Her Majesty can hope will continue.

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