Curtain falls after a star performance
ALL the world was a stage for Michael D Higgins this week, and this man played his part with admirable aplomb.
It was the final morning of a four-day state visit that had been packed with more action than a Shakespearian sword-fight, yet despite having made an early start after a late night hanging out with royals and musicians in the Royal Albert Hall the previous evening, the President looked as happy as Falstaff in The Boar's Head Tavern as he arrived in Stratford-Upon-Avon yesterday morning.
Chances are that for such a lifelong devotee of the arts, even the sumptuous State Banquet in Windsor Castle ran a close second to this pilgrimage into Shakespeare Country. But his ebullience was surely also due to the fact that he and Sabina could now completely relax and take a bow as the curtain prepared to fall on what has been a hugely successful week.
Having made their final farewells to their royal hosts, all that remained was the visit to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and William Shakespeare's birthplace in the town, and lastly a visit to Coventry's Cathedral and Guildhall.
After a tour of the theatre, they went into the auditorium for a short show by the actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which consisted of readings of excerpts from Yeats, Wilde and Shaw, and a performance of the tavern scene from 'Henry IV' Part I, with Sir Antony Sher as Falstaff, before the President took to the boards himself.
He told his attentive audience of thespians that unlike the English language, there is no single word meaning 'no' in the Irish language. "If I frame the question, in English, 'was the audience composed of intelligent, good-looking people', the answer in English might be 'no' – not, of course, in this present instance," he added to the amusement of all. "If I were to ask in Irish, the curmudgeonly answer might well be 'ni raibh siad', which you might translate as 'they were not' or 'they were neither' perhaps with an implied 'alas'," he quipped with perfect timing, earning himself applause and laughter.
There were many surprising aspects to this memorable week, and one of them was just how frequently laughter permeated through even the more formal events – and much of it involving the queen. When she visited the Republic three years ago, Irish people were struck by the contrast between what was the widely held idea of a stiff, humourless monarch, and the warm, engaging woman who stepped off the plane wearing a mile-wide smile.
And the past week proved that the positive vibes of May 2011 weren't a once-off. The smile and the laughter were in evidence again, and it was also abundantly clear that a lot of thought had gone into the royal part of the programme in particular.
From the moment that the President and Sabina alighted from the cars in Windsor for the first greeting with the Queen and Prince Philip, it became clear that she had hung out her brightest colours for this historic occasion.
Tricolours and Union flags fluttered on flagpoles along the main street as the ornate carriages passed by after a 21-gun salute and travelled into Windsor Castle, the residence that the Queen calls home, and where her guests would stay for three nights.
It's an impressive edifice, the history of almost 1,000 years woven into its towers and walls and keeps.
And it was really something to hear the Irish national anthem echo around the immaculate quadrangle of this heart of the British monarchy, played by band of the Irish Guards as Queen Elizabeth and President Higgins stood side-by-side on a dais.
And something else again was the parade that followed; it was a powerful pageant of troops on foot and on horseback – the Household Cavalry and the Royal Horse Artillery, the Sovereign's Escort, and the Guard of Honour, the air filled with trumpets and the rumble of gun-carriages and snorting, stamping horses.
It was a welcome that sent an unequivocal message – this was to be the full red-carpet treatment for Ireland's Head of State. Mi Castle su Castle, so to speak.
Yet informality kept creeping through. There is a sense of ease and humour in the way that the Irish – and the President and his wife – do business, both home and abroad. And it seems to bring out the same in the Queen.
This was illustrated perfectly by one guest at the State Banquet that evening. This was jaw-dropping in terms of pomp and splendour, and the evening began with a receiving line of guests to be greeted by the Queen and Prince Philip.
One guest was "literally rattling" – as he described it – as his turn for the royal handshake came ever closer, until he overheard the exchange taking place ahead of him. Various Irish CEOs had already passed through, Aer Lingus chief executive Christoph Muller among them, when another of the airline's executives introduced himself to his host.
The Queen looked at him, as this was a matter of interest – Windsor Castle is right in the flight-path to Heathrow and the palatial peace is frequently shattered by jets roaring overheard. "The Queen asked this guy 'Are those all your planes up there?'" said the guest, "and he first apologised and then told her, 'No, only some of them are – but it's a noisy business, keeping our two countries connected'. It was such a funny exchange that I was miles more relaxed by the time I reached her. Fair play to both of them," the guest laughed.
There was warmth in the formal addresses too. In her speech at the banquet, the Queen pledged to "stand alongside" the President and the Irish Government during centenary commemorations including those for the 1916 Rising. Likewise in his address to the joint Houses of Parliament in Westminster, President Higgins declared "the ties between us are now strong and resolute". There were many moments that were remarkable for myriad reasons; 700-plus people bearing witness to the North's Deputy First Minister and former IRA Commander Martin McGuinness standing for 'God Save the Queen' and the formal toast to Her Majesty's health – ahead of the event he said he would observe "all protocols and civilities"; in response, a smiling Queen shook his hand at a reception in Windsor Castle the following evening for the second time.
The guests at the Guildhall also saw McGuinness's huge amusement when the President announced in his speech that he intended to cheer for the England football team in this summer's World Cup Finals – a declaration that prompted much cheering and applause.
It seems that building historic bridges is easier when both parties start from either side and meet in the middle.
There were heart-warming vignettes among the momentous moments, such as a delighted Sabina nuzzling a lamb on a farm in Oxford or being overcome by emotion as she spoke during a visit to RADA.
And she too didn't put a foot wrong. Aided by costume designer Joan Bergin as her stylist, she looked stunning at every event, particularly in the specially commissioned evening gown that she wore to the Guildhall dinner. Decorated with pale Tudor roses, it was an elegant sartorial response to the white shamrock gown worn by the queen to the State Banquet in Dublin Castle.
The Ceiliuradh celebration of Irish music and culture at the Royal Albert Hall, featuring the likes of Elvis Costello, Glen Hansard and Imelda May, was an exuberant affair. In the Royal Box, the informal Michael D and Sabina and the posh Prince and Princess Michael of Kent got on famously.
Afterwards, backstage was a happy bunfight of British and Irish and hugs and craic. The Kents showed no inclination to leave, and stayed until after midnight, and so did the President and Sabina. It was as it should be, just a set of friends enjoying each other's company in a din of music and chat.
As the man said, it's a noisy business, keeping our two countries connected.