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Weight of our history just got a lot lighter

THE queen rose to speak. Gone were the interesting hats and colourful coats, and in their place was the serious regalia of the British monarch -- a full-length evening gown and a tiara, necklace and earrings, which pulsed and sparkled and glittered at every movement.

"A hUachtarain agus a chairde," she began in her best Queen's Irish, and everybody applauded. So that's what she sounds like.

She and President McAleese made quite a pair as they entered St Patrick's Hall in Dublin Castle for the state banquet last night -- the queen resplendent in white and the President in a stunning cobalt blue dress.

The guests had gathered in the hall beforehand, circulating and chatting under the giant chandeliers. Three former Taoisigh were there (all at separate tables, just in case), Albert Reynolds and his wife Kathleen, Bertie Ahern with his youngest daughter Cecelia, who looked chic in an off-the-shoulder black dress, and Brian Cowen with his wife Mary.

Brian O'Driscoll walked in with Amy Huberman, who looked gorgeous in pink.

But for once the actress was upstaged, for the photographers went bananas as soon as a slim woman in a figure-hugging, long, emerald green dress walked in. It was the first engagement attended by Iris Robinson, the wife of the North's First Minister Peter Robinson, since she was hit by a series of scandals over a year ago.

And she looked a million dollars, accepting a big hug from Bertie Ahern before having a chat with Joan Burton, who was sporting a fair bit of d├ęcolletage in a cerise frock.

The room, festooned with flags -- including the Tricolour and the Union flag -- looked magnificent, and Ireland hadn't stinted on the food, either. The starter was cured salmon with Burren smoked salmon cream and lemon balm jelly, horseradish and wild watercress and Kilkenny organic, cold-pressed rapeseed oil. The main course was rib of Slaney Valley beef, ox cheek and tongue with smoked champ potato and fried spring cabbage, new season broad beans and carrots with pickled and wild garlic leaf (a dish that surely took as long to read as to eat), and dessert was Carrageen set West Cork cream with Meath strawberries, fresh yoghurt mousse and soda bread sugar biscuits, and apple balsalmic vinegar meringue. And all washed down with Chateau de Fieuzal 2005, Graves Pessace-Leognan, and Chateau Lynch-Bages, 1998 Paulliac.

Last to arrive were the top table, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his wife Fionnuala, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Seamus and Marie Heaney and Cardinal Sean Brady, before -- with a loud fanfare -- the queen and Prince Phillip were escorted in by President McAleese and her husband, Martin.

There was complete silence as first the President rose and spoke. "Though the seas between us have often been stormy, we have chosen to build a solid and enduring bridge of friendship between us and to cross it to a new, a happier, future".

And the queen met her more than halfway across that bridge. She spoke of the weight of history and -- with a nod to her visit to the Garden of Remembrance -- "of being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it".

It was a moving speech, delivered in her clear, cut-crystal voice, and after the toast the room stood and applauded. Not just polite applause but sustained, heartfelt appreciation of the bridge that the queen herself had built.

The queen turned and smiled at the President. She had the look of a woman for whom the weight of history had just got a lot lighter.

Irish Independent