Tuesday 12 November 2019

No head of state equals her, no monarch comes near . . .

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II waves during her Golden Jubilee celebrations
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II waves during her Golden Jubilee celebrations

I STOOD in the pouring rain on the corner of St James's Street and Piccadilly in front of the Ritz Hotel.

It was the late afternoon of June 2, 1953, and the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was in procession back from her coronation in Westminster Abbey.

Both the rain and the procession seemed endless.

A popular figure, applauded as she passed, was Queen Salote of Tonga. She was cheered for her courage in riding in an open carriage, the rain falling on her radiant features and her inspiring smile.

We had been at our chosen station since six in the morning having spent the night at a college in London linked to the school I was a pupil in and we watched and absorbed every detail.

The pageant was splendid and seemed endless.

The revelry continued into the night, with us joining the crowds in the Mall and in front of Buckingham Palace, closely embraced in a collective expression of loyalty and affection that reflected the simplicity and splendour of the event.

Not then, nor till much later, did we absorb the solemnity of the occasion -- if indeed all of us ever did -- that had taken place.

Only now, with Queen Elizabeth in the 59th year of her reign, and coming to visit us -- welcomed, I believe, by the vast majority of Irish men and women -- does the full achievement of her reign stand out.

Within the pageantry was the solemn sacrament in which the church of the English people, acting for all the peoples of kingdom and Commonwealth, consecrated her to their lifelong service.

At its heart it is a compact between the queen and the people. Whatever view may have been taken of this by the people of the United Kingdom and the wider Commonwealth, her own interpretation of her oath in the coronation service was an act of faith and firmness to which she has held unswervingly ever since.

It is a remarkable achievement. The changes she has lived through have been enormous.

Yet such is the staying power of the institution of monarchy on our neighbouring island, and such has been her own personal integrity, based on that solemn and moving starting-point, that when her grandson recently married, the same kind of pageantry inspired the same kind of reactions I experienced and felt all those years ago.

I did so proud of my own ancestry and of belonging to that country and its people, and the pride has never left me.

Much as I love the people I live among now and the country in which I have spent almost all of those years of her reign, I retain the same feelings I had then about her and what she stood for.

She has been a great head of state and a great monarch.

She has conformed to all the democratic requirements of an ancient yet developing civilisation while at the same time retaining the separateness that is inescapably part of being the queen of a people.

This was set out in one of the greatest and rarest Anglican services which goes through a sequence of recognition, acknowledgement and dedication, perhaps three or four times in a century.

It starts when the monarch to be crowned is brought before the people by the archbishop, at that time Geoffrey Fisher, with the lord chancellor, the lord great chamberlain, the lord high constable and the earl marshal, all figures out of history.

She is greeted, acclaimed and makes the solemn oath to govern in accordance with law and custom, meaning the unwritten constitution of the state over which she has direct rule, and the respective laws of the membership of the Commonwealth that has replaced the British Empire.

Vast numbers of Irish people, of every persuasion and background, had served that empire and what it became, in the British armed forces during two world wars, in the colonial service, in the defence of Britain's shores and skies under wartime bombardment, in physically building the country and its towns and cities over centuries, in shaping its literature, its theatre and entertainment, its science, engineering and devel- opment. They had reason to wish her well and believe that she would prevail.

The poet laureate at the time was John Masefield, youthful friend of Jack Yeats -- both men were still alive at that time, representative of a generation that had lived through a good part of the earlier Queen Victoria's reign -- and Masefield, in his 'Lines on the Coronation of Our Gracious Sovereign', wrote of her youth, the springtime of her birth.

He wished: "May the fair Spring of her beginning,

"Ripen to all things worth the winning."

The oath is a lengthy promise, not just to serve, but to see that the Law and Justice are administered in Mercy and to uphold Christian belief.

They are at the beginning, not at the heart of the ceremony, which is in the middle of the Eucharist, itself the heart of the service. She is anointed there, as monarchs back to Solomon have been anointed with sanctified oil consecrating her with God's 'free and princely Spirit'.

As with Solomon, that oil is put on her hands, her breast and the crown of her head.

Christian belief up to that time in Britain, and indeed later, subscribed to the two-fold acknowledgement of her oath to the people and her submission to God, that dual purpose of her lengthy reign, the class of it, in world terms, quite unmatched. No head of state equals her. No monarch comes near.

Whatever happens during her visit, one can be sure she will not put a foot wrong.

The burden of it remains a heavy responsibility made slightly heavier by the old and mindless controversies about the relationship between our two islands.

At the time of her coronation, watching it for the privileged who had television sets was a nightmare of white snowflakes if there was reception at all, and there was added guilt attached with cinemas prevented from showing film of it and the only real coverage being BBC radio and the newspapers. They did her and the occasion proud.

She comes at a difficult time for us, politically, with the country agonising over its debt. We are increasingly questioning, and with ever-growing fury, the soured relationship with Europe. We are suffering at the hands of the EU, the ECB and the more powerful states, notably Germany and France.

Their punitive actions against this State for the better protection of fiscal affairs in other, larger European countries is part of the deprivation of our sovereignty, something that Britain has stood reasonably firmly against during the crisis.

Nothing that Britain has done -- certainly since the 1850s -- has had the deliberate, punitive character of what Europe is now doing to us. Britain, politically, has been an exception, giving us financial help as a modest endorsement of the age-old ties between the two countries. It is worth celebrating this and celebrating it in earnest during the coming visit of Queen Elizabeth II.

Irish Independent

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

Don't Miss