Saturday 16 December 2017

Nicola Anderson: Despite the hassle, and expense, in that one moment it was all worth it

Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

IT was an unmistakable gesture that went far beyond words -- and meant all the more for it. Those waiting for an official apology from Queen Elizabeth in the symbolically spectacular cathedral of Croke Park were always liable to have their hopes dashed by protocol. It simply could not be managed, say those in tune with royal etiquette.

Instead, what we got was something more discreet but arguably more concrete, when the queen took herself to the spot where many leaders of the 1916 Rising were held overnight before being taken to Kilmainham.

The same spot in the old 'Rutland Square' where the Irish Volunteers movement was set up in 1913.

The Garden of Remembrance was dedicated in 1966 by Eamon de Valera to the memory of "all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish freedom".

A peaceful and perhaps somewhat grubby park in the north of Dublin's inner city, it is now the prominent focal point of many Dail-bound marches -- abuse victims, the Love Tara movement, impromptu good-weather picnics, as well as a must-see for school tours from around the country.

As a pit-stop, it was "a standard element of a state visit", officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs insisted yesterday.

And yet it was undeniably unusual -- and even strangely touching -- to see the British head of state yesterday with her head bowed to mark a one-minute silence in tribute to Irish patriots, from the 1798 Rebellion to the War of Independence -- the same patriots once derided as "rebels and hooligans" by her forebears.

A Tricolour fluttered at half-mast as the queen and Prince Philip arrived at the Garden, with the garda helicopter hovering protectively overhead.

No chances were being taken on this one, a well-recognised potential flashpoint for the royal visit.

On rooftops and on the scaffolded spire of Findlater's Church, members of the Emergency Response Unit keenly scanned the horizon with binoculars, guns at their hips.

Aside from a few faces peeking from the windows of the Dublin Writers Museum and the Hugh Lane Gallery, there were no members of the public in sight.

En route, a firm line of hi-viz-clad gardai could be clearly spotted in a human barricade of Parnell Street. The north of the city was in lockdown mode -- practically martial law -- and the authorities were clearly of the view that anything else was a risk not worth taking.

Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett was amongst the first to arrive and then the trilogy of taoisigh -- Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen and Albert Reynolds, Cowen pointing out the ERU men on the roof to Albert.

They assembled with other members of the Council of State -- Mary Davis of Special Olympics Europe; Ronan Keane, former chief justice; Martin Mansergh and Enda Marren, trustee of Fine Gael. Then Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore and Chief Justice Maura Whelan.

At three o'clock, whoops and cheers went up from Parnell Street and members of the British press cocked their heads, wondering -- friends or foes?

The royal Range Rover pulled up at the entrance and the queen and the prince disembarked. She had changed into a new, fancier outfit -- an ivory dress and coat of Swiss wool, interwoven with silver and gold threads, trimmed with olive-green flowers and a matching hat.

President Mary McAleese had followed suit, exchanging her earlier pink for a more sober black dress and coat, trimmed with white piping. She was escorted by Minister Alan Shatter and the Army Chief of Staff, Sean McCann.

Behind, Martin McAleese and the prince chatted happily.

By now, whoops of protest could clearly be heard in the background and the British press nodded grimly -- they had thought so.

Almost alone, it seemed, the queen stood in front of the mournful sculpture of the Children of Lir, looking up as the British national anthem was played out by the combined military band.

Then she took a laurel wreath handed to her by two military police. She adjusted the ribbon and stood back.

Moments later, the same gesture was made by President McAleese, who placed a second wreath on the stand.

A minute's silence was observed, broken only by the constant drone of the helicopter overhead and then the poem written on the walls of the Garden -- Rinneadh Aisling Duinn (We Saw A Vision) was recited by Captain Joe Freeley.

In the darkness of despair we saw a vision. We lit the light of hope and it was not extinguished.

In the desert of discouragement we saw a vision. We planted the tree of valour and it blossomed.

In the winter of bondage we saw a vision. We melted the snow of lethargy and the river of resurrection flowed from it.

We sent our vision aswim like a swan on the river. The vision became a reality.

Winter became summer. Bondage became freedom. And this we left to you as your inheritance.

O generation of freedom, remember us, the generation of the vision.

A fleet of black balloons drifted almost but not quite overhead, released in a gesture by the Irish Anti-War Movement in a silent but highly visible protest.

Then the Tricolour was hoisted aloft to flutter proudly in the breeze and every Irish person in the Garden stood a little straighter as the national anthem sounded gaily out.

If there was one moment to sum up the whole visit, this, surely, was it.

Despite the hassle, the expense and the noses out of joint, it somehow seemed to be worth it.

Stopped on the way out, Bertie Ahern told how he sat next to "her majesty" at a banquet after the Good Friday Agreement and she had told him that she had been everywhere in the world "twice" but that she would "like to set foot in the Republic of Ireland".

That wish fulfilled, no wonder she was beaming.

Irish Independent

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