Tuesday 20 November 2018

Sinn Fein mayor welcomes Queen to Cashel, shakes her hand

Tony Jones and Colm Kelpie

A Sinn Fein mayor made history today by becoming the first member of his party to shake the hand of the Queen.

Michael Browne met the Queen on the final day of the momentous state visit as she toured the majestic Rock of Cashel, imposing ancient ruins perched on a hill on the outskirts of the Co Tipperary town.

Mr Browne, mayor of Cashel, was one of several local dignitaries invited to the event to welcome the Queen.

He claimed it was his civic duty as the town's first citizen to make the gesture.

"I just shook hands with her," he said.

"I just said to her 'welcome to Cashel Your Majesty and I hope you enjoy your stay'. No more, no less."

Mr Browne, in a wheelchair today, said the Queen thanked him for his welcome.

As an invited guest, Buckingham Palace officials would have been aware that the two meeting was a strong possibility.

The handshake follows the Queen's emotive expression of sympathy during the state dinner for those who suffered in centuries of strife between Britain and Ireland.

Asked if he was the first member of Sinn Fein to meet the Queen and shake hands, Mr Browne said: "I would say so, yeah."

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams earlier praised the Queen for her expression of sympathy and claimed he hoped the visit would pave the way for greater co-operation between the two countries.

The Rock of Cashel is surrounded on all sides by rolling pastureland know as the Golden Vale, and the site dominates the landscape.

It was the traditional seat of the kings of Munster for several hundred years before the Norman invasion in the 12th century and is said to be where St Patrick converted one of the monarchs in the 5th century.

The picturesque complex has a unique atmosphere and features an impressive 12th century round tower, 13th century gothic cathedral and 15th century castle.

The Queen created another milestone today, becoming the first reigning monarch to visit the imposing site since her forebear Henry II.

Dr Eugene Keane, of the Historical Properties Division at the Office of Public Works, took the Queen on a tour of the site.

Speaking about the importance of the visit he said: "It's a new history for Cashel and we're hoping it will deliver great benefits afterwards in terms of tourism.

"But historically the last time a monarch was here was in 1171 - Henry II. So it's quite a gap in the meantime but to be here and experience it was just wonderful."

The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh arrived in a royal helicopter that swooped over the site which was the former ecclesiastical capital of Ireland.

The ever-present security operation was in full force and police in their fluorescent green jackets were dotted along hedge rows and stood in fields while dozens of plain clothed security officers were stationed amongst the ancient buildings.

The event was highly anticipated and Cashel's visitor numbers were up 20pc in the last few weeks as tourists, inspired by the royal trip, flocked to see the ancient site.

A green state Bentley had been shipped from the UK for the visit and carried the Queen and Duke from the nearby helicopter landing site to the summit of the outcrop.

Spontaneous applause broke out from a group of invited guests and local dignitaries as the Queen, 85, and Duke, 89, walked into the site's ruined cathedral.

The imposing former place of worship is without a roof and Dr Keane said the Queen immediately recognised some of its features were gothic architecture.

When a choir from Cashel Community School began singing the Gaelic blessing, May The Road Rise To Meet You, their voices rose high up into the north transept were they stood.

The royal couple stepped back in time when they walked into the Hall of the Vicars Choral - a small 15th century building built to house a choir.

With its flagstone floor, whitewashed walls, exposed wooden roof beams and period furniture it felt as if the royals had entered the Middle Ages.

The musician Mary Kelly added to the historical feel as she plucked an Irish harp dressed in a flowing gown in the style of the period.

Elaine Moriarty, the site's chief guide, showed the royal couple two rare artefacts associated with the attraction.

St Patrick's Crozier is a 13th bronze enamelled artefact that would have been mounted on a bishop's staff which was found in a sarcophagus on the site in 1766. It is thought to have belonged to the 12th century Bishop King, Cormac McCarthy.

The group were also shown the ancient Cashel bell, dating from the late 8th or early 9th century, a hand instrument that would have been rung during services.

The Duke made the royal party laugh by asking Ms Moriarty to pick up the heavy looking object and give it a ring but she declined saying it was too precious to use.

Muiris O Suilleabhain, Sinn Fein's South Tipperary spokesman, said the party's position remained that the visit was premature.

"Party members in Tipperary were surprised by Michael Browne's action, especially as he recently signed a statement against the English queen's visit to the Rock of Cashel," Mr O Suilleabhain said.

"Sinn Fein's position on the visit of the English queen to Ireland is that it is premature and we are opposed to it and that its elected members should not attend any of the events related to it."

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