Wednesday 13 November 2019

Her head bowed and 'the whole of Ireland missed a heartbeat'

A visit fraught with diplomatic and political landmines was turned into a triumph, writes John McEntee

Growing up in the Sixties in an Irish border town, the oldest of seven children, we had a sweet maid called Rosaleen whose father was obliged to emigrate to London and send money home to support his family.

On the nights she babysat and the BBC TV coverage on our 19-inch Bush television concluded with God Save the Queen and images of the Queen on horseback saluting her troops, she would dash from her seat and switch off the television. "Bloody Queen of England," she would spout to us infants. "I hate her."

When my mother inevitably heard about this, she didn't chastise a valuable asset, merely declaring: "Rosaleen and her family hate the English crown but they do love the half-crown," referring to the sterling currency of the time.

Years later, as a journalist working in London, I drove home to Cavan and pulled up at a filling station I'd known since childhood. The owner came out as I was about to check my tyres, saying: "Why should I allow you to put good, decent Irish air into those English tyres?"

I was offended but said nothing. Now, to paraphrase a famous Irish nationalist poet, WB Yeats: "Everything is changed, changed utterly."

In the last four days, a small, elegant octogenarian woman has singlehandedly transformed Anglo-Irish relations .

With few words and many symbolic gestures, Queen Elizabeth has reconquered Ireland, charmed the populace, reinforced natural affinities and ensured that relations between these closest of neighbours will never be the same again.

How did she do it? A visit fraught with diplomatic and political landmines was turned into a triumph from the moment she landed wearing green at Casement airbase, south of Dublin, at noon on Tuesday.

I was in Dublin at the time. A city of closed streets, high tension and blanket security. No one quite knew what the population felt. With people denied access to her route through Dublin to the Presidential residence, Aras an Uachtarain, in Phoenix Park, there were genuine fears of organised dissent and embarrassing protest.

It was not to be.

While the small number of agitators let off fireworks and launched black balloons behind discreet screens, she walked through the Garden of Remembrance with exquisite dignity and laid a wreath at Oisin Kelly's dramatic sculpture, The Children of Lir.

This was no ordinary shrine but the Mecca of Irish republicanism, a place dedicated to all the rebels from 1798 to 1921 who had died at the hands of Her Majesty's forces in Ireland. Flanked by the Irish President, Mary McAleese, she did something unprecedented, she bowed her head.

As one Irish nationalist said afterwards: "The whole of Ireland missed a heartbeat." From Cork to Donegal, an Irish populace watched in stunned admiration. Here was the Queen of England, the manifestation of British power in Ireland for 800 years, paying quiet, elegant tribute to those who had opposed her and her ancestors.

In that single gesture, the Queen had reconquered Ireland. But there was more. Her

visit to Croke Park on Wednesday, the home of Gaelic games and scene of the original Bloody Sunday, took the breath away.

The image of this small woman standing on the hallowed turf revered by nationalists, and with simple poise and good manners acknowledging its importance in the southern Irish psyche, was extraordinary.

GAA president Christy Coney summed up the national feeling thus: "Your Majesty, your presence does honour to our association, to its special place in Irish life, and to its hundreds of thousands of members. Today will go down in the history of the GAA."

A few hours later she moved an entire nation with her introduction in Irish at a banquet in Dublin Castle, followed by her expression of deep sympathy for all who suffered in Britain's relationship with Ireland, alluding to the murder of her cousin Lord Mountbatten in 1979 thus: "These events have touched many of us personally and are a painful legacy."

The impact of her visit was evident. Take the letters page of this newspaper, for example: "I cried buckets of tears from very deep down. I was born in England to Irish immigrants . . . for me this day signifies not only a new era in Anglo-Irish relations but a validation and a coming together, for me, of both parts of my psyche and my personality.

"It has always been difficult to reconcile the two halves of myself, Irish and English, and for me the Queen travelling over to Ireland and shaking the hand of Mary McAleese is a hugely symbolic gesture of those two parts of myself finally gelling,

"I have wanted to see peace and goodwill between our countries for so long. We owe it to so many who were blown between our two countries for all of their lives and who struggled to find a balance in their hearts.

"Well done to all who made this day happen."

Another correspondent wrote: "What a great day for our country that at last the Queen of England (our old enemy) can be welcomed by our President. I know there are many Republicans who don't welcome this, but I do. I'm a republican who accepts at good face the Queen's gesture at the Garden of Remembrance.

"A lady of 85 years of age has to be admired for even bothering to come to our country to show the ties that bind us and to further good relations while putting her personal safety at risk. I think we must all now row together with our biggest economic partner and leave the past in the past."

Appearing on an RTE Frontline programme on Monday night to talk about the Queen's visit, I was astonished by the audience reaction. I had urged closer ties between the two countries and expected Sinn Fein TD Mary Lou McDonald to demolish me in front of a partisan audience.

The opposite happened. As she complained about the timing of her Majesty's visit, the cross-section of about 100 people at the live show protested vehemently. I was clapped at every mention of the Queen. But then a straw poll indicated why. When the audience was asked how many had close relatives living in Britain, most hands shot skywards.

The Irish and the British have always been close. The Queen has, remarkably, brought us closer.

Sunday Independent

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