Tuesday 26 September 2017

The queen and us...

As Queen Elizabeth II celebrates turning 90, Mary Kenny looks back on the unique relationship between the Irish people and the monarch we can't help but admire

Cork fishmonger Pat O'Connell shows the Queen his finest catches during her State visit in 2011.
Cork fishmonger Pat O'Connell shows the Queen his finest catches during her State visit in 2011.
Kate Middleton and Queen Elizabeth share a laugh in 2012.
Queen Elizabeth II (C) posing with her two grandchildren, James, Viscount Severn (L) and Lady Louise (2L) and her five great-grandchildren Mia Tindall (holding handbag), Savannah Philipps (3R), Isla Phillips (R), Prince George (2R) and Princess Charlotte (C) in the Green Drawing room at Windsor Castle in Windsor. Picture: ANNIE LEIBOVITZ/AFP/Getty Images
Queen Elizabeth delivering her speech, watched by Mary McAleese during the State dinner at Dublin Castle.
The Queen, Prince Philip, Princess Anne, and Prince Charles play with baby Andrew at Balmoral in 1960.
The Queen with her five great-grandchildren and her two youngest grandchildren in a new photo released by the Palace. The children are: James, (left), 8, and Louise (second left), 12, the children of Edward and Sophie Wessex; Mia Tindall (holding the Queen’s handbag), the two-year-old-daughter of Zara and Mike Tindall; Savannah (third right), 5, and Isla Phillips (right), 3, daughters of the Queen’s eldest grandson Peter Phillips and his wife Autumn; Prince George (second right), 2, and in the Queen’s arms, 11-month-old Princess Charlotte
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

For a younger generation of Irish people, at ease with perusing fashion pictures of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge on tour, or reading about Prince Harry's latest japes (or even his most recent charity gig), the notion that such pictures of the British royal family might be prohibited is absurd.

But things were a little like that at the beginning of Queen Elizabeth's reign in 1952. There wasn't exactly an official censorship of royal images, but there was disapproval.

Citizens of the Irish Republic were not expected to "fawn" over royal glamour. My mother had friends who lived in Banbridge, Co Down, and a memorable aspect of their visits to us in Dublin was the stash of glittering photographic publications they'd bring along, showing Queen Elizabeth and her arguably prettier (and naughtier) sister, Princess Margaret Rose.

Political correctness, in one form or another, has always existed, and the political correctness which prevailed, in those early days of Elizabeth's reign, was that the Republic of Ireland stood aloof from all royalist fol-de-rol. Correct protocol was, of course, observed and when a British monarch died, proper messages of condolence were sent.

But other royal events were little reported, officially ignored, or treated with marked reserve. For the political class, Partition remained too sensitive an issue, and the "English Queen's Coronation Oath, with its claim to Sovereignty over the Six Counties", as De Valera's Irish Press put it, clouded all issues which touched the Crown.

What was not really grasped at the time, but which, I think, is better understood now, is that the symbol of "the Crown", and the actual people involved - especially Elizabeth herself, celebrating her 90th birthday today - are two different things.

"The Crown" has generally been negatively represented in Irish history - even that lovely ballad The Fields of Athenry, identifies "the Famine and the Crown" as two curses on Ireland; but the institution is not the same as the person. (Just as, for many Irish people, the institution of the Catholic church is not the same as the local priest they might think serves the community well.)

In the course of Elizabeth II's reign, naturally, much has changed with the passage of time, but the arm's length, somewhat cold, relationship with the Republic of Ireland which once prevailed, has altered more dramatically than almost any other element in the jigsaw.

And it has been a two-way process. In the early years of Elizabeth's reign, British (and particularly Ulster Unionist) attitudes to the royal family could be almost sickeningly deferential.

When I was commissioned to prepare an obituary of the Queen Mother, reading the biographies and sorting through the vast collection of newspaper cuttings was like swimming through treacle. Any Irish republican - or any republican at all - could be forgiven for feeling that this was a fawn-fest which was at odds with modern democracy.

But then, problems arose with Elizabeth's family - three of her four offspring had failed marriages; there was Diana's tragic death; and the fire at Windsor Castle added up to the Queen's "annus horribilis" of 1992.

Some regard the royals as an ongoing soap opera, and indeed there are many elements of a regular storyline. The British, Continental and American media became more intrusive into royal family affairs - unsurprising when a paparazzo's snap of Diana could fetch $100,000 - but by the same token, it also humanised them.

Elizabeth and her family may be the living symbol of "the Crown", but they are also a family, with the stresses, tensions, and difficulties in relationships that occur in most families.

Paradoxically, I believe that the murder of Lord Mountbatten, wrong as any murder must be, played a pivotal role in reconciling much of Ireland. The reaction to that event, carried out by the IRA, was one of such heartfelt regret, by so many ordinary people, that it eventually served as an aspect of reconciliation.

This was vividlly underlined by Charles and Camilla's recent tour of Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way, when they made a point of visiting those places associated with Mountbatten and meeting people of the area.

It wasn't the first time, either, that Charles had made a gesture towards peace - he had visited the peace centre at Glencree previously, and spoken about the Troubles that Ireland had endured over the centuries.

Elizabeth herself, in her well-phrased speech, in her 2011 visit, had made a similar allusion to a wish that things had been done differently.

The 2011 State visit was crucial in the healing of Anglo-Irish relations, but it took years of plotting and planning between diplomats and civil servants behind the scenes. Elizabeth herself first indicated a wish to visit the Irish Republic in 1956, when the Irish Ambassador Con Cremin presented his credentials (I suspect she wanted to see the horses): but a lot had to happen before that was possible.

When her sister, Margaret, came to Birr in 1965, there were Republican protests, trees were cut down and arrests for disturbing the peace.

It was concluded that Irish society wasn't yet ready for "the royals", although Lord Snowdon, Margaret's former husband, told me that ordinary Irish people "couldn't have been more welcoming", and he received many messages to "come back soon - and bring the Queen".

We know how successful the 2011 State visit was, as was the reciprocal visit of An Uactaran to Windsor in 2014. But perhaps it all only happened in the nick of time.

With her 90th birthday looming, Elizabeth's programme of events has been diminishing: she won't abdicate, but a new generation is taking over the reins, and though Charles, Prince of Wales, must succeed - providing his mother dies first - we can see that William and Kate are gradually moving centre-stage in the performance of those ceremonial duties which a constitutional monarch carries out. (There are public complaints that William doesn't do enough, indeed - he's been called "work-shy": he protests that he's got a young family, and a pilot's job.)

It's piquant, all the same, at this point of Elizabeth's 90th birthday, that a subtle form of role-reversal has occurred in Anglo-Irish relations.

At the beginning of her reign, the Irish state was keen to separate itself and distance itself, at all costs, from Britain. Anglophobia remained a strong streak in Irish culture, and songs and ballads still anathemised the hated "Mother England". Today, by contrast, Ireland is almost equally desperate to join in the hug-a-Brit campaign, and to love-bomb England in the face of the "Brexit" threat.

The welcome given to Elizabeth (especially in Cork, with that iconic picture of Pat O'Connell, the merry fishmonger) certainly puts some credit in the bank of Anglo-Irish relations. Had Elizabeth never come to the Republic, and never been welcomed, it would surely have weakened Ireland's position in the dialogue.

Another interesting reversal has taken place too. From what I can gather, many Irish people like and respect Elizabeth for her sense of duty, and for the steadfast way she has upheld her Christian principles, and her commitment to her Christian faith.

She has repeatedly spoken of her Christian faith: and has said, in a Christmas broadcast, that she would have found it difficult to get through life without it.

By contrast, our own President, Michael D, has rather pointedly omitted any reference to faith in his seasonal broadcasts: and in his speeches commemorating 1916, has referred rather disparagingly to the "religiosity" which characterised the Irish Free State from the 1920s onwards.

At the start of her reign, Ireland was known throughout the world as a deeply religious society, whereas many thought England was somewhat "pagan". But now, Ireland seems keen on moving towards secularism, whereas Elizabeth - and no doubt, her heirs and successors - hold fast to their Christianity.

Nobody's life is all sweetness and light, and on her 90th birthday Queen Elizabeth is aware that her country is at a crucial point in its history, in facing into a referendum which will decide whether it remains part of the European Union, or not.

Whatever happens, there will be turbulence - and it is at tempestuous times that calm and continuity matter in a nation. There's little doubt that the majority of the British people trust Queen Elizabeth to provide that continuity.

Will younger people - in Britain, or elsewhere, including Ireland - feel that a monarchy is an archaic institution, with no democratic mandate, and thus, after Elizabeth's lifetime, should be abolished?

It's possible that many younger people do think this, in theory: but when we get down to what people do, rather than what they say, it's amazing how the ongoing saga of Charles and Camilla, Wills and Kate, Harry, Fergie, Beatrice and Eugenie still fill the celeb magazines, and still bring out a cheering crowd whenever there's a national occasion.

Queen Elizabeth has her critics - hasn't everyone? - but she has striven her best to carry out the role that was conferred on her by tradition, and is surely entitled to celebrate that on her 90th birthday.

Irish Independent

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