Tuesday 22 October 2019

Aunt Dorothy's eyes sparkled on the day she sneaked off to see the Queen

In an exclusive extract from her new book, Mary Kenny says our complex relationship with the British monarchy was laid bare during Queen Elizabeth's coronation

It was the summer of 1953 and I was nine. I was living with my uncle and aunt in Sandymount, that pleasing Dublin suburb which seemed to feature as many Protestants as Catholics, genially neighbourly. On this particular evening in mid-summer my uncle and aunt were preparing to go out to some special event.

My aunt Dorothy was one of those sensible women who didn't primp much before a mirror: she preferred horses and dogs to haute couture. But now she was applying lipstick and arranging her hair neatly.

"Where are you going?" I asked.

"Curiosity killed the cat!" was her reply. There was an air of mystery and excitement. I persisted.

"Oh please tell . . ."

"It's a secret. You'll only blab to everyone."

"I won't . . . I promise!"

But I wasn't informed of the purpose of their soirée: instead, I was taken off to a neighbour's house to spend the evening under child-minding arrangements. My uncle and aunt were careful organisers. Some time later, my aunt took me aside and confided the secret: It was a little like a discreet lesson in sex education. Well!

They had gone to a private gathering at the Methodist Hall in Sandymount village, where, behind closed doors, they had watched the film of the coronation of the Queen of England, Elizabeth II. It had been shown to a select band of Sandymount Protestants, who had brought along a handful of trusted Catholic friends. I think Aunty Dorothy was pleased that her Protestant neighbours had thought to include her.

"You're not to tell anyone!" she warned. "You know it's not approved of in this country."

I understood perfectly well, because children soak up the values around them by a process of osmosis. What my uncle and aunt did was not illegal -- but it was certainly not politically correct in an Ireland that had recently been declared a republic.

Moreover, my uncle was a senior civil servant with Customs and Excise. He was respected, in his job, for his command of the Irish language, and could deal with complex trade documents in Irish.

In such a milieu, in de Valera's Ireland, republicanism was a virtue to be aspired to: fawning on royalty was the mark of the lickspittle with the "slave mind" -- rather well described by that weaselly Irish word, shoneen. There was also the occasionally disparaging reference to 'Castle Catholics' -- those well-to-do Catholics who accepted British rule, as symbolised by Dublin Castle. But by the 1950s that concept was already archaic.

Protestants were, of course, given something of a dispensation. Their historical attachment to the Crown was to some extent allowed for. But the rules were broadly those of Westerners in dry Arab states imbibing liquor: the practice was to be kept private and discreet, and not paraded in the public realm.

My uncle and aunt greatly enjoyed their evening in the Sandymount Methodist Hall. Aunty Dorothy's brown eyes sparkled as she described the dazzling performance: the splendour, the pageantry, the ceremony, the frocks, the tiaras, the orb and sceptre, the exquisite Irish state coach, the beautiful horses in livery, the fabulous Household Cavalry, and then the radiant young woman on whose head the crown was so magnificently placed.

It was like being present at a great event in history, she said, for the ceremony dated back to before William the Conqueror in 1066.

I kept my word and did not allude to my aunt and uncle's secret tryst for many years: not, indeed, in their lifetime.

Although viewing a film of Elizabeth's coronation was not illegal, it might have been thought risky. Because, while the coronation film was not technically banned, Dublin cinemas had withdrawn plans to show it after bomb threats from the Irish Anti-Partition League, which campaigned against the existence of the border between the six counties of Northern Ireland and the 26 counties of the Republic.

While the Irish Independent called the Anti-Partition League's stance "an attack on liberty" (but added that the anti-partitionists' "motives were sincere"), as far as I know the gardai were not asked to protect the public from violent threats and to uphold the rule of law. However fawning and shoneen-ish it was (and, from this distance, the 1953 coronation movies I have since seen were certainly adoring, and the Anna Neagle documentary decidedly awestruck), the production did not come under any legal prohibition and could therefore have been shown publicly.

Thus a working compromise somehow emerged: certain Anglican and Non-conformist Protestant church halls around the country were offered a film of the coronation and agreed to a screening, on the basis of a private, rather than commercial, contract (although sums of money were voluntarily collected at said church halls to pay the distributors' fees).

And under this dispensation of private viewing, the documentary was duly seen, not just by Irish Protestants, but also by their many Catholic friends and neighbours.

I have since heard many accounts, from all over Ireland, of the excitement and secrecy of queueing up outside Protestant halls to be shown a screening of the coronation of Elizabeth II. Correspondents remember screenings -- always discreetly carried out -- at Zion Parish Hall in Rathgar; at Leopardstown Military Hospital (thanks to the British Legion); at Knox Hall in Monkstown; at a Protestant school hall in Clyde Road, Ballsbridge; and at the Methodist Hall in Lower Abbey Street, among others.

Maeve O'Connor, who was on the clerical staff of the Irish Times, remembers the Abbey Street showing: "The (coronation) made little or no news here on radio or newspapers, but the film was shown in the Protestant Hall in Lower Abbey Street and many people attended. It seemed to be hush-hush, there were no public notices . . . it was a splendid display such as only English royalty can show. I loved it all."

Father Jim Duffy, now parish priest in a London suburb, remembers seeing the coronation documentary "at a private showing in the garda depot in the Phoenix Park. It was billed as the showing of a film in connection with 'crowd control' for gardai, but every mother and child that wanted to go got in."

Subsequently, he recalls, there was a letter of protest in the Dublin Evening Mail that the garda depot should be used in such a manner. There were also letters in the Irish Times protesting that it could not be screened in public commercial cinemas.

In Raphoe, Co Donegal, a village that was half Protestant and half Catholic, a comical Little World of Don Camillo episode occurred. The local cinema had plans to show a 60-minute documentary of the coronation compiled by Pathé. Noel Gault, who grew up in Raphoe, recalls: "We naturally assumed that it would be shown, as newsreels were an integral part of the (cinema) entertainment. It then emerged that the owners had been 'advised' that the feelings of some people in the town would be offended if the feature was screened, and that it, and indeed future films, might be boycotted.

"It was never clear who proffered this advice or latent threat, but as Raphoe had its share of armchair republicans, there were a number of candidates. This caused a lot of resentment, but, in common with other southern Irish Protestants at the time, most of us kept our heads down and said nothing in public."

However, a redoubtable Yorkshirewoman in the nearby village of Convoy was not so easily cowed. She hired a bus and organised a trip to Strabane, over the border, where it was being shown to packed houses. She filled the bus in record time and men, women and children went off to Strabane, including a number of non-Protestants from both Convoy and Raphoe."

The expedition was a great success and Noel Gault estimates that "75pc of the audience" were from the Nationalist community. Some intense Loyalists in the cinema audience insisted on standing up each time a band was heard to play a strain from God Save the Queen: about 20 bands in all did so during the screen event. The result was hilarious.

For a few months after that, Noel Gault recalls, there was "some coolness" between the communities in Raphoe because of the coronation film episode. This, however, was unusual. A more usual outcome of the coronation experience was an increased sense of cordiality between Irish Catholics and their Protestant neighbours.

Catholics recall being invited into the homes of Protestant neighbours they had never previously visited and new friendships emerged.

A few people did have television. Some groups from Dublin and Cork also travelled to Belfast for a viewing -- the British Legion organised at least one such charabanc.

Others heard it on the radio, broadcast by the BBC. Radios were even switched on in certain hospitals. Eileen Moloney of Monaghan, whose husband was a surgeon, says that he was "quite republican in his views and was greatly annoyed when in an operating theatre in a Dublin hospital he heard the radio blaring a report on the coronation from a ward nearby".

Despite the involvement of the British Legion and the Protestant churches in the screening of coronation films and the organising of TV trips, for most people the coronation event was not political. One man recalls his mother abandoning him, aged six, to the care of relations because she was so determined to take the boat to England to experience the coronation, "and she was a lifelong Fianna Fail and de Valera supporter!"

Eileen Moloney recalls how much her aunt in Limerick loved "the royals and their doings and on the rare occasion that she bought a book it was invariably to do with the queen and her family. This book was in due course passed on to my mother. Both of them were ardent admirers of Michael Collins, but they saw no contradiction".

Indeed, what did Michael Collins and the queen have in common? Eileen Moloney says "glamour", and also suggests that: "Because the 1950s were so lacking in excitement, a royal coronation with all the jewels, beautiful gowns etc was irresistible. Remember, the war with all the scarcity of food, clothes and all kinds of luxuries wasn't long over.

"The only other colour/spectacle in people's lives in this country was in Church with all the beautiful vestments the priests wore and the incense, gold chalices and ciboriums etc, and the elaborate eucharistic processions."

I do not seek to advocate or disparage either a monarchy or a republic as an ideal constitutional framework. I simply note that the disappearance of a monarchy from the 26 counties of Ireland after independence left a certain gap in the country's public life of ceremony, pageantry and ritual.

For 50 or 60 years after the foundation of the Irish State, the Catholic Church filled that ceremonial gap: indeed, it already played a role as a 'parallel monarchy' even before Irish independence.

It is especially evident from the photographic records of the Irish State from the 1920s onwards: wherever there is a national ritual to be performed, a prince of the Church is wheeled on to perform it, adorned with the full ecclesiastical regalia.

Until well into the 1960s, politicians -- including Eamon de Valera, a proud and lofty man -- are pictured sinking to their knees to kiss the ring of 'His Grace the Archbishop', or 'His Lordship the Cardinal'.

This deference for ecclesiastics is now as despised and disparaged in contemporary Ireland as monarchical trappings are despised and disparaged by progressive thinkers and Guardian readers in Britain.

The ceremonial and pageantry once represented by throne and altar are increasingly now carried out by the celebrity culture and by mass-marketed sporting events. Perhaps this is neither better nor worse, only different: but ceremony and ritual there must be.

There has been so much change over the past half century in so many spheres, and most emphatically, in British-Irish relations.

The only aspect of life that hasn't changed since 1953 is that Elizabeth II still reigns. And in the very continuity of that reign lies one of the most reassuring aspects of monarchy: an enduring fixture in an ever-shifting universe.

Extracted from Crown and Shamrock: Love and Hate between Ireland and the British Monarchy, by Mary Kenny, which is published this weekend by New Island at €19.99.

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