Wednesday 20 November 2019

Queen Mother was set on Horse Show

The British royal's tenacious attempts to visit Dublin were to no avail, writes Bryce Evans

WHEN the Taoiseach met British Prime Minister David Cameron recently, he warned his British counterpart that the queen's visit could result in a public backlash from some sectors of Irish society.

As if to underscore his point, last week a Real IRA spokesman urged "all self-respecting Irish men and women to resist the upcoming insult that is the visit of a British monarch to Irish soil".

The queen's trip promises both a historic moment in Anglo-Irish relations and a massive security headache.

But while the queen is aware of the current security threat, her late mother was less concerned by dissident republicans.

Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, better known as the Queen Mother, married the stuttering future King George VI in 1923 and became queen consort when her husband's brother, Edward VIII, abdicated in 1936. Two years later, in 1938, an Irish delegation visited London for talks leading up to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Trade Agreement.

While in London two senior members of the Irish team -- Minister for Industry and Commerce Sean Lemass and Minister for Agriculture Dr Jim Ryan, both veterans of the Easter Rising -- secretly paid a cheeky visit to Buckingham Palace, signing the visitors' book while there.

During the subsequent Second World War, the Queen Mother was allegedly dubbed "the most dangerous woman in Europe" by none other than Adolf Hitler because she was so good for British morale; post-war, she assumed her lengthy role as family matriarch when her eldest daughter Elizabeth became Queen in 1952.

Meanwhile, Lemass and Ryan maintained their ministerial positions under Eamon de Valera and between 1959 and 1966, when Lemass became Taoiseach, Ryan remained at his side as Finance Minister.

So far, so unremarkable. But comments made by Ryan in retirement in 1968 suggest that he and Lemass may have shared some of Hitler's frustration with the redoubtable royal who was renowned for her love of horse-racing. In comments which resonate with current security concerns, Ryan revealed that during Lemass's premiership, the Queen Mother was always fishing for a trip to Dublin, especially for the Horse Show.

She once threatened our ambassador in London she would arrange for her plane to break down on a Belfast trip and we'd have to let her.

Ryan was speaking to a young John Horgan, the current Press Ombudsman, who kindly allowed me access to his personal archive while I was researching my new biography on Lemass. In this excerpt, the insensitivity of the Queen Mother is as striking as her determination to get down to the RDS.

The IRA's border campaign had fizzled out by 1962 and this was long before Louis Mountbatten was murdered by the Provos. Nonetheless, public hostility and a security threat would have surrounded such an impromptu royal visit. And as for the Queen Mother's similarly strident (and similarly gin-soaked) younger daughter Margaret, who had a number of private visits to Ireland, including Birr Castle where she stayed with Lord Ross, Ryan recalled, "Princess Margaret was just a headache: we could hardly prevent her without a formal thing of some kind."

To Ryan and Lemass's great relief, an official royal visit to the Republic never materialised in those years -- despite the Queen Mother's threat to down her jet as a pretext. Ryan died in 1970 and Lemass a year later. The Queen Mother and Margaret both died in 2002.

Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore will undoubtedly face public dissent when Elizabeth II visits. But they should count their blessings; not merely for time's healing, but also for the fact that they are dealing with a softer and wiser Windsor clan than their predecessors.

Dr Bryce Evans works at the School of History and Archives and Humanities Institute of Ireland, UCD

Sunday Independent

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