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Martina Devlin: It's little surprise Prince Albert exudes such Grace

THE first surprise is that he speaks the cupla focal. The second surprise is that he does so with an American accent.

The third surprise is that he celebrates St Patrick's Day.

But perhaps none of this should be surprising because Albert II of Monaco had an American parent, as well as a royal one, and that US parent prized her Irish identity. She was, of course, the Hollywood star Grace Kelly, and among the lessons she taught the son she called Albie was to prize his Irish roots.

Never underestimate the influence of an Irish mammy. Or an Irish-American one, come to that.

It's hardly a coincidence that Albert should make a state visit to us now, on the 50th anniversary of Grace's triumphant first homecoming -- a trip on which Albert came too, as a three-year-old boy. And it's rather charming that, on his arrival today, he brings with him the woman who is stepping into his mother's shoes: his fiancée Charlene Wittstock.

But back to St Patrick's Day in Monaco. No doubt Grace grew up marking the occasion in Philadelphia, where her father made his fortune in construction (how Irish is that?), and carried the tradition with her after marrying Rainier in 1956.

The first time I encountered Prince Albert he was wearing a tie decorated with shamrocks, and drinking Irish whiskey from a Waterford tumbler. It was St Patrick's Day 2009, and he turned up at a party in the Princess Grace Irish Library, where I was writer-in-residence.

Informally, with just one aide, he strolled downhill from his clifftop palace overlooking the Mediterranean, along picturesque narrow streets, before climbing the steps to the library.

"Happy St Patrick's Day," he called out, mingling with the Irish ex-pats, of whom there is a fair number both in Monaco (the world's second smallest state after the Vatican City) and along the French Riviera coastline. I watched as the prince paid particular attention to wheelchair-bound Irish artist Mary Collins, whose paintings were on private view at the library. He hunkered down beside her to talk, making an effort to communicate rather than simply pass pleasantries.

Later that year I heard him speak a sentence or two in Irish when he gave an address at a gala hosted in his pink palace of more than 200 rooms on 'the Rock' of Monaco, to mark the 25th anniversary of the Princess Grace Irish Library. He was somewhat subdued on that occasion, having just heard about the death of Grace's last surviving sister, Elizabeth Kelly LeVine -- yet another link gone. But he decided to press ahead with the event.

I remember noticing his voice was light, and not dissimilar to his mother's if you take into account the difference in gender.

Anyhow, it was captivating, of course it was, to drink champagne in those grand salons where Princess Grace once walked, to wander an inner courtyard reached by a dramatic marble double staircase, and to listen to an atmospheric piece of music composed for the occasion by the talented Irish musician Tom Cullivan.

Guests included the poet John Montague, and Ireland's honorary consul to Monaco, Michael Smurfit. The latter was wearing a blazer fit for a prince -- then again, the businessman is known for his taste in blazers. And in yachts.

Outside the palace stood a guard of chocolate box soldiers, and later that night the haunting strains of a bugler playing 'The Last Post' could be heard. Nearby was the imposing St Nicholas Cathedral, where Grace and Rainier were married in 1956 and now lie side by side. Albert and Charlene (33), a South African Olympic swimmer who has been his companion for a number of years, will wed there in July.

Let me tell you about the Princess Grace Irish Library, where I was invited to spend a month working on a book. It was set up, after Grace's death, to house her extensive personal library of books of Irish interest, and the collection has been boosted since then.

I guess you could call it a shrine to her interest in Irish cultural matters. Except that implies something petrified -- whereas the library is at the disposal of Irish writers and academics, and has positioned itself as a cultural hub on the Riviera.

Man cannot live by words alone, and when tea was served, it was in a cup and saucer strewn with shamrocks. While I drank it, I'd dip into some of Grace's books -- a number with her signature in rounded schoolgirl handwriting on the flyleaf.

Or I'd amble through rooms containing photographs, paintings and sculptures of the princess. Other treasures included a magnificent 19th Century silver holy water font of the Virgin Mary, given by her as a gift to the de Valeras, which later found its way home to Monaco. My office had a Jack Yeats painting I was loath to leave behind, though I make do with the postcard now. No, it's not the same.

One book sticks in my mind. It was a collection of plays by Grace's uncle, George Kelly, who won a Pulitzer Prize for drama and wrote a play that starred Tallulah Bankhead. He autographed the book for his niece in 1946, dedicating it to "a famous actress" -- an act of faith and affection towards a teenager who had still to make her way.

The principality is known for many things. For the casino in Monte Carlo; for its Grand Prix; for yachts the size of Liberty Hall (I used to stare at one with 24-carat gold portholes, frowning at such ostentation, but disappointed at not being able to disapprove from a deckside position); for a controversial and accommodating tax regime that attracts the super-wealthy; for having more Ferraris per square mile than anywhere else on Earth; and for Grace's marriage to Rainier.

The Monegasques are loyal to her son, whom they regard as a serious man. The prince is also sporty -- hardly surprising, with those Kelly genes -- his grandfather Jack Kelly won triple Olympic gold for rowing. And he is interested in the environment and ecology -- a stone's throw from his palace is a world-famous Oceanographic Museum.

Here in Ireland, we know we must harness international goodwill towards us. The sort of constructive friendship we need is in evidence from Prince Albert's three-day state visit, accompanied by a delegation from Monaco's Chamber of Economic Development.

And it's all thanks to Grace -- who never forgot she was a Kelly, or that her grandfather emigrated from Mayo.

Irish Independent