Tuesday 27 September 2016

Coronation that was 'banned' in Ireland

Britain's longest reigning monarch is admired here now... but not in the 1950s

Published 13/09/2015 | 02:30

Triumph: Queen meeting President Higgins
Triumph: Queen meeting President Higgins

The Irish are almost always graceful in dealing with death, and after the unexpected death of George VI in London in February 1952, the response in this country was overwhelmingly warm, kind and sympathetic.

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Eamon de Valera, as Taoiseach, Sean T O'Kelly, as President, and all the Fianna Fail government (a number of whom had fought the British in their youth) tendered their heartfelt sympathy, and it was obvious from reports at the time this was sincere.

President O'Kelly had a soft spot for the King, whom he had described previously as "generous and imaginative" and "sensitive".

However, the King's death was one thing: the young Queen's accession to the throne was quite another. When Elizabeth II came to be crowned the following year, official Irish attitudes were austere and aloof - sometimes even hostile. A death is a human grief: a coronation is an affirmation of a political system seen, in the context of Irish history, as enforced domination by an alien creed.

And so, newsreels of Elizabeth's coronation were never shown in the Republic: they weren't formally banned, but republican groups, led by the "Anti-Partition League", threatened to bomb any cinema which ran the Pathé newsreels, or the documentary film of the event at Westminster Abbey. No cinema would take the risk.

Bomb threats were also received by the Irish Times after it showed a news photograph of Elizabeth in its front office window in Cork - the newspaper immediately withdrew the picture.

The coronation movie was seen by private groups, when Protestant church communities around the country arranged screenings behind closed doors, often inviting Catholic neighbours, who were usually delighted to come along. This often underlined a sense of neighbourliness.

But "official Ireland" remained detached: the De Valera newspaper, the Irish Press took the opportunity to upbraid the newly crowned Elizabeth for inheriting royal titles that included "Northern Ireland" in the remit.

More than 63 years and seven months later, we could certainly say that all has changed, if not quite changed utterly. The retrospectives of Elizabeth's long reign - now the longest in British history - have noted that one of her most successful accomplishments was her visit to the Irish Republic in 2011, a triumph for Elizabeth herself, and for the conciliatory, friendly and dignified welcome she was accorded in this country. (Tourist websites for Cork now feature the laughing Elizabeth at the English market in Cork city - where she had more freedom of movement than in security-bound Dublin.)

Obviously, it would be strange if a lot hadn't changed in 63 years: it's a very different world today from the early 1950s. But the surprising thing is that the woman who ascended that throne is still there, providing that sense of continuity which is monarchy's strongest card: she has known 12 British prime ministers, 11 American presidents and six popes.

Not that the narrative of relations between Ireland and the Crown over these years has been unruffled. The 1950s were a cold decade and the retirement of Ireland's superb London envoy John Dulanty, left a networking void. The 1960s began a phase of modernisation - notably when Princess Margaret visited Birr.

Then came the Troubles in the North and the killing of Mountbatten in Sligo. But Irish diplomats and civil servants worked hard to warm formal relations, and Elizabeth herself was always keen to visit this country (not least because most of the Royal Household horses come from Ireland).

And crucially, the royal "brand" itself shifted from being "the Crown" (always a negative image in Irish history - consider the lyrics of "The Fields of Athenry") to something more modern: celebrity. Princess Diana ushered royalty into the modern age of the celeb, and just like other celebs, their marriages, relationships, divorces, babies, and even kitchen designs are part of the fodder of the huge celebrity industry worldwide.

Actually, this suits Irish perceptions quite well: even at the highest point of hostility against "the Crown", there has always been immense personal interest in "the royals", as people, and particularly as a family. Back in 1936, during the Abdication crisis, there was enormous fascination, in Ireland, with the twice-divorced Mrs Simpson who stole away the heart of Edward VIII.

Thus it is that Ireland's relationship with the British monarchy has found a serenity that might never have been foreseen. Charles and Camilla's visit to the "Wild Atlantic Way" earlier this year was witness to this.

The Irish Republic has upheld its status as a republic, while nevertheless being on excellent terms with a neighbouring monarchy: and I'd imagine that most Irish people would have noted the landmark date on Wednesday with a sense of esteem, and even affection, for Elizabeth II. Perhaps God has indeed saved the Queen for all our benefit.

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