Martina Devlin: Simple gesture was a tribute to those who died for our freedom
Published 18/05/2011 | 05:00
IT IS not a common sight to see a monarch dip their head. Crowned rulers are more accustomed to being on the receiving end of acts of deference.
But it happened yesterday at the Garden of Remembrance when Queen Elizabeth laid a wreath and stepped back, before quite conspicuously bending her neck and upper body. There was no mistaking the gesture -- she was bowing. And not in a half-hearted way either.
I don't know if the men and women who struggled for Irish freedom would have been moved by her salute or surprised by it. But I can't imagine that they would have been indifferent.
That simple gesture was resonant with significance -- it was an acknowledgement of their sacrifice. And its timing was equally meaningful.
This was the queen's first public engagement and she made a point of beginning the tour by paying her respects to the State.
Indeed, the entire ceremony in the Garden of Remembrance was highly symbolic, located a stone's throw from Parnell's statue and the GPO, which she later passed by cavalcade en route to Trinity College.
Watching that armoured black Range Rover, with its fluttering royal standard, cruise down O'Connell Street, I found myself wondering if there was anybody on board who would point out the bullet holes in the GPO's pillars. It's a must for every tour guide on a sightseeing bus. On this occasion, perhaps not.
For someone who is a slice of living history, Elizabeth presented a relatively small figure. She was slightly stooped -- hardly surprising, at the age of 85 and with such a busy schedule -- but she went about her duties in a sprightly fashion, whether handling a spade or inspecting a guard of honour.
It was clear that she was determined to be gracious and to make a success of the visit. In that, she was not alone.
The Irish State was also putting its best foot forward. The aim was to look like an efficient, modern state with an impressive history -- an important message to send out across the world. Because, to be honest, we have looked like messers over the past two or three years. Not yesterday, however. Yesterday, we looked as if we could do the business.
It's been said that when people want to impress someone, they unveil their treasures and that's what happened. The VIPs were escorted to Trinity, founded by Elizabeth's ancestor and namesake, where the Book of Kells was wheeled out.
Nobody knows if the illuminated manuscript dating back to 800AD was written in the Abbey of Kells or on the island of Iona off the coast of Scotland. Prince Philip, mischievous as ever, despite being only weeks away from his 90th birthday, was quick to note that Iona was British.
If members of Eirigi had been in attendance, this might have presented an opportunity to suggest a trade: the Book of Kells in return for the Six Counties.
But "don't mention the war" was the watchword, with both sides determined not to give offence.
By the way, I noticed that Philip prefers to use his own pen. On both occasions when he signed a visitors' book, at Aras an Uachtarain and Trinity, he produced his own. Perhaps he's particular about his handwriting.
Trinity's librarian Robert Adams, who was showing the royal couple this national treasure (not Britain's, even if it may have been written in Iona), told them there were no snakes in Ireland. I smiled as I eavesdropped, thanks to a handily positioned RTE microphone. On the contrary, Mr Adams. Recent history suggests we do have snakes, except ours walk on two legs.
I imagine the queen will be bone-weary of harp music by the end of her four-day visit. She seems to be treated to melodies wherever she goes, including several of Thomas Moore's airs. If he's watching from heaven, the composer will be thrilled -- he "dearly loved a lord" according to his friend Lord Byron.
And he's not alone. The various line-ups at Trinity were bursting to meet the royals. The excitement was palpable. At times, all you could see was a hat brim bobbing along, with so many admirers surrounding the queen.
But it was never difficult to work out where she was in a crowd -- all heads were turned in her direction, all eyes were trained on her. We may be a republic, but majesty has pulling power.
We can't say the past has now categorically been dealt with, as some claim this visit proves. There are people who believe the North of Ireland continues to be unfinished business. But it was certainly a landmark day. Perhaps for the first time, there was a real sense of a relationship based on equality, as opposed to landlord and tenant.
Imagery matters and we had no shortage of it yesterday. There was the sight of the queen and Mary McAleese standing together as diplomatic equals, Elizabeth wearing green as a friendly gesture. It was almost equally powerful to hear the British and Irish national anthems played together at the Aras and again at the Garden.
BUT I do have one caveat. Old black and white footage of previous monarchs' visits -- Victoria came to Ireland a number of times, for example -- shows them being driven past waving crowds. This monarch is visible only to handpicked guests.
There are practical reasons for it, but what a shame that so few ordinary people can share in the cead mile failte. Still, tuning in to the wall-to-wall coverage, most of us learned considerably more about protocol than we'll ever need.
My favourite piece of trivia has nothing to do with curtsies being optional or not speaking to a monarch until being spoken to or never leaving a room ahead of her. It's that Mary McAleese sleeps in the Aras in a bed made for the 1911 visit by the Queen's grandfather George V.
Speaking of the Aras, how lovely to see John Hume there as one of the guests at a lunch for the queen. There would have been no peace process without him -- in which case, no visit by Elizabeth.