Monday 22 October 2018

Quiet moment helps lay ghost of our difficult shared history

The Very Reverend Dr. John Hall, Dean of Westminster , The Reverend Canon Professor Vernon White, President Michael D Higgins and Sabina Higgins pause at the grave of the Earl and Countess Mountbatten of Burma during the Presiden'ts visit to Westminster Abbey, where he laid a wreath on the grave of the Unknown Warrior. Picture Malcolm McNally.
The Very Reverend Dr. John Hall, Dean of Westminster , The Reverend Canon Professor Vernon White, President Michael D Higgins and Sabina Higgins pause at the grave of the Earl and Countess Mountbatten of Burma during the Presiden'ts visit to Westminster Abbey, where he laid a wreath on the grave of the Unknown Warrior. Picture Malcolm McNally.
President Higgins is applauded by his wife Sabina Coyne and John Bercow following his speech at the Houses of Parliament in London
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

IT was a quieter moment, with less of the drama than when Queen Elizabeth stood in the Garden of Remembrance – but its impact was equally powerful and every bit as important.

As President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina stood at Westminster Abbey with their heads gently bowed at a plaque dedicated to Louis, the Earl of Mountbatten, it completed the chapter in the history in Anglo-Irish relations titled "Reconciliation".

It almost seemed personal as the President and Mrs Higgins stood in thought for a long and lingering pause at the plaque dedicated to the memory of the Queen's favourite cousin, as though they were standing, steeped in memories, at the graveside of a dear friend.

But of course it was personal.

Always a strenuous opponent of the atrocities carried out during the Troubles, the President was, no doubt, searingly aware that this, among countless other incidents, was carried out in the name of the Irish people – if without our consent.

The conflict was never a one-way street and for true reconciliation, we also had to atone for our share.

The very first encounter between an Irish President and a member of the British Royal family involved the very same Lord Mountbatten – who met President Erskine Childers in August 27, 1974, at Summerhill College in Co Sligo.

Exactly five years later to the day, he would be assassinated by the IRA, who blew up the fishing boat in which he had been a passenger. Nicholas (14), one of Lord Mountbatten's twin grandsons, and local teenager Paul Maxwell (15) also died in the explosion. The Dowager Lady Brabourne (83) died later from her injuries.

By his presence at the Mountbatten memorial, President Higgins completed another of those uncanny circles of history.

And though well accustomed to levels of pomp and ceremony that grab the attention of the world, the clergy of Westminster Abbey were clearly delighted by this particular state visit.

"I have many Irish friends; closer relations between our countries seems a natural and desirable thing to happen," said Anglican nun Sr Annalice, who is a chaplain at Westminster Abbey, who had come as a "praying presence" during the President's visit.

The soaring Abbey was quiet and hushed in a most unusual way, with hordes of tourists waiting patiently outside for the visit to end so that they could pay their £17 entry fee and do some sight-seeing.

As the President and his party arrived, with Mrs Higgins in a coat and hat of a pretty berry hue, they were greeted with a very competent "Cead Mile Failte" by the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr John Hall at the Great West Door.

The President was delighted, his face wreathed in smiles.

The visiting party included the Tanaiste and his wife, Carol Hanney, and Irish ambassador to Britain Dan Mulhall and his wife, Grace.

They were led straight to the tomb of the Unknown Warrior where the President placed a laurel wreath bearing a tricolour ribbon and the inscription: "Leagtha ag Uachtarain na hEireann Michael D Higgins de Mairt 8u Aibrean." (Laid by the President of Ireland).

This, too, lay the ghost of another difficult episode in our joint history, due to the lack of support for Irishmen who chose to fight on Britain's side.

Prayers were said for the people and Government of Ireland and of the UK and then the President and his party were conducted on a tour of the historic Abbey, taking in the beautiful Lady Chapel, with the President enjoying a detailed conversation with the Dean involving gothic architecture.

Admiring the stained-glass windows, he met with artist Hughey O'Donoghue who is of Irish descent and who created the special Jubilee Windows in the Abbey – and then the President spent a pleasant time in Poet's Corner, which he clearly enjoyed.

In a fresh chapter in Anglo-Irish relations, it is the personal that matters and not the age-old grievances.

Irish Independent

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