Friday 13 December 2019

It's not just about picking a royal – we need to have a national conversation on 1916

Would Kate Middleton be the right choice for a royal visit? Picture: DAVID BEBBER
Would Kate Middleton be the right choice for a royal visit? Picture: DAVID BEBBER
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Should a member of the British royal family be invited to attend the centenary commemoration for 1916 in 2016? Several distinguished voices have been raised against the suggestion, led by Professor Diarmaid Ferriter, on the grounds that it is a distortion of what 1916 was all about. Indeed so: George V, the king at the time, was appalled at news of the 1916 Rising.

But then, to be historically accurate, so were many of our own families, especially if they were involved in any way in trade or commerce.

The Irish "shopkeeping class", as they were disparagingly called by those who thought themselves above making money, deplored the events of 1916, as it halted the transport and delivery of all merchandise. So did the Catholic Church. The Church of Ireland was even more outraged, since the cream of Anglo-Irish youth were dying in Flanders.

Trinity College Dublin was literally up in arms against the 1916 rebels. The Dublin tenement dwellers, as Sean O'Casey reminds us, were more interested in looting the shops in O'Connell Street and Henry Street than in the romantic and patriotic scenes at the General Post Office.

Thus the British royals of 1916 were not alone in disapproving of the Easter Rising. Irish Home Rulers were quite dismayed.

But then, commemorations are not about re-enacting an event, but re-inventing it, and that's how the choreography of 2016 might best be planned.

"It's not what you do but the way that you do it": a lot would depend on how exactly the British royal was employed, and what member of the Windsor family selected for the task.

There is some merit in the argument that Prince Charles might not be a suitable candidate, since he is Colonel-in-Chief of the parachute regiment, whose role has been, to say the least, controversial in Northern Ireland.

Although Charles's is a passive and ceremonial position, it does make his situation more awkward in the context. He is also, perhaps, too senior in the monarchical hierarchy – being in line to be the next king – to be a practical choice, as the security around his presence would be a nightmare.

By contrast, for younger Irish people today, the next generation of the royal family are simply not politicised figures: Kate and William are very much part of the international cast of celebrities who adorn the global media.

A new broom sweeps clean, and a new royal comes without political baggage – as Kate and William's recent successful trip to Australia demonstrated.

The Cambridges would be better candidates, and the huge amount of publicity that their presence would generate would be a positive global message for "Brand Ireland".

We can be sure the worldwide media would focus on it as an example of Ireland's sophisticated ease with mixing and matching commemoration with reconciliation.

The disadvantage might be that their presence might be so sensational that it could distract from the main purpose of the event.

It might be a canny move to send Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, on her own: and after all, there is no evidence that her relatively humble ancestors, living in their council house in Southall, had anything disparaging to say about Easter 1916. But again, the celeb mags might go so into overdrive that it could look frivolous – what does a princess wear for an Easter 1916 commemoration becoming the hot topic.

Less central members of the Windsors might make less of a "statement" and yet fulfil a friendly gesture.

Princess Anne, being a rugby fan and horse sportswoman, is a familiar enough visitor and might be a possibility, though she, too, has military links.

Harry would be a bit of a lark, though maybe too much of a lark for the sombreness of the ceremonies – could you depend on him not to be seen enjoying high jinks in some rave Dublin nightclub? He seems to be a good lad at heart, but maybe not quite with the gravitas.

The best candidates for this commemoration – if the planners do decide on involving a British royal – might either be Sophie, Countess of Wessex, who has some Irish connections – her great-grandmother was from Ballina, Mayo – or Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, who accompanied President Higgins and Sabina at the Royal Albert Hall "Ceiliuradh" celebration during the state visit in April.

Michael is a quiet, cultured man – idolised in Russia for his uncanny resemblance to the last Czar, his ancestor – and his wife, Marie-Christine, is a mature beauty with a cosmopolitan background of Hapsburg nobility and Australian education.

The Kents are not senior enough in the family hierarchy to bring political "weight" with their presence: but they are central enough to be significant – George V was also Michael's grandfather.

They are not such big celebs that they would distract from the main events; but they would play their part with tact and grace. (Prince Michael forfeited his rights of succession to the throne to marry Marie-Christine, a Catholic, which showed a certain depth of character.)

The debate is not just about "a British royal" – it should also be about which individual may be appropriate. But before that, we need to have a national conversation about what the 1916 commemoration is all about.

Is it about remembering the past with historical accuracy? If that's the case, we would have a very patchy event indeed. Or is it about re-visiting history with a view to inclusiveness and healing?

If we define the primary purpose then the right answers will follow.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss