Tuesday 16 July 2019

Of night, light and the half light

John Waters was in Sligo last Wednesday when the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall came to call

Prince Charles looking out to sea from Mullaghmore Harbour during his Irish visit
Prince Charles looking out to sea from Mullaghmore Harbour during his Irish visit

John Waters

A mountain is a dangerous choice of image to dominate the greeting of a royal from the former imperial "mainland". It risks undertones of sleeveenism, which lie sneakily in wait for the unconscious disquiet that may go with sucking up to people who just happened to be born into the nobility of long-dead empires.

But Ben Bulben is more majestic than any flesh-and-blood royal, so the effect of its iconography as a backdrop to the official reception for Charles and Camilla at The Model Arts Centre in Sligo on Wednesday was more in the way of an ironic reminder of the true facts of life. Is there anything in nature more beautiful? Sligo is a town without a heart: no matter where you are in it, you think the centre must be someplace else. There is no core space that suggests itself as the nucleus or hub. It's a town as though coming apart, as though disintegrated by the magnetic pull of the stunning beauty of the surrounding countryside.

We were there to greet the visitors with friendship and respect. But not to grovel. This, after all, was not Dublin. This was the proud west: wild; awake; wind from the; to Hell or to.

The West is a different country whose inhabitants don't find it easy to avoid the surreal aspects of treating a man in a suit as though he were someone special by virtue of his relationship to someone else who acquired status in the same way. Yet we are nosey so 'n' sos, and not averse to a good gawk. Down (t)here we are good at imitating the deference and obsequiousness we observe in others, but don't allow our hearts to buy into it.

I've always "liked" Charles - to the extent that you can like people you don't know, because of what you see and hear of them in the public domain. I've long been impressed by his refusal of trendiness or political correctness. He speaks his mind, which seems not inconsiderable, espouses what are deemed "eccentric" opinions on issues like ecology and architecture, and always stands his ground.

His speech at Black Box Theatre in The Model on Wednesday moved many people, me included. Mangling Irish phrases must be obligatory following Queen Elizabeth's cupla focail in 2011, but there was something right about the way Charles played with the conventions of plamasing the natives with a few words of the language his ancestors had exterminated. It sounded clumsy, but his self-deprecating delivery killed off the cringe factor and made us laugh with him.

In his remarks, he avoided the "shared history" narrative of Irish-English relations, instead talking about the commonality of pain and grief, with which he is in a position to empathise. Friendship, he said, should not be based on pretending the past did not happen.

Our engagement with these questions is fraught with contradiction. From Desperate Dan to Dennis Potter, John Peel to Paxman, we are steeped in the culture of the neighbouring island. In many respects, our superficial cultures are indistinguishable and indivisible. And yet we are separate and different, and in the West possibly the "opposite" of whatever "English" is.

Charles seems to get this and doesn't cross the lines into condescension or over-familiarity. His tone was subtly different from that of his mother here four years ago, when she succeeded in presenting 800 years of radical interference as akin to a prang at the traffic lights, after which the slightly shaken parties agreed to sort out their own repairs. "Ocras" was one word she never managed to get her tongue around.

Bedevilled by our undiagnosed post-colonial self-hatred, we have a tendency to buy into such hogwash. But Prince Charles hit a different note: that of protagonist and participant, a living embodiment of the contradictions. After the murder of Mountbatten, he said, it had "seemed as if the foundations of all that we held dear in life had been torn apart irreparably." It was not the statement of a politician, but of a wounded man, making it entirely credible for him to add: "I am only too deeply aware of the long history of suffering which Ireland has endured, not just in recent decades but over the course of its history."

Michael Rooney's short symphony in three parts, written for the occasion, exceeded in eloquence even that speech. If the first part evocation to the 2011 visit of Queen Elizabeth suggested an odd choice of theme, the nod to Yeats in the second threatened to burst every Sligo heart with pride. The final part, divided into a lament and a celebration, seemed to succeed, as the aptly named Joe Queenan - Cathaoirleach of Sligo County Council - said in introducing it, in "making audible what ultimately becomes visible".

Prince Charles has a deeply scarred soul, and it shows in his eyes and voice. He is an object of some fascination, especially among the majority of men who would have killed for a night with Princess Di. In the age of the Omnipotent Victim, here is a man scarred and aged by his entanglement with one of the world's leading victims, but still standing.

His first word, it is said, was not Mama or Dada but "Nana", addressed to his nanny, Helen Lightbody. Due to shyness, he had difficulty making friends. He has always preferred his own company, or one-to-ones.

In his book They F*** You Up, the psychologist Oliver James suggests that Charles was the object of the jealousy of his father, Prince Phillip, who resented that his son was heir to the throne. In his speech at the Black Box, Prince Charles remembered his granduncle Lord Mountbatten as "the grandfather I never had". Interestingly, James also claims that Charles was an object of banter and ridicule for both his father and granduncle, whereas both men doted on his younger sister, Princess Anne.

Sent to boarding school to Gordonstoun, in the wilds of Scotland, the young Charles was bullied by the other boys, who delighted in pillowing the future king of England. To be caught speaking to the Prince was to invite ostracisation. Charles wrote home: "I don't like it much here. I simply dread going to bed as I get hit all night long."

Attitudes towards Charles are beginning to change -from hostility and condescension to a kind of affectionate respect. His recently published letters to British government ministers were billed as likely to embarrass the royal family but instead increased his stature as a man of substance and passions. Janet Street-Porter, in her column in the i on Saturday last week, wrote that, though not a fan of either Charles or inherited privilege, she was beginning to think that he might "not be such a weirdo" after all.

For about an hour on Wednesday afternoon before the royal couple arrived in Mullaghmore, it was as if the ghost of that August day in 1979 was breaking through the mist over the harbour after an unseasonably cold and capricious morning. This is a place of dry irony and complicated responses. "Tiocfaidh ar Chuck," a man greeted me with an inscrutable grin. Down here, people themselves don't know what exactly they're thinking.

The memory of that awful day still hangs over the village, which is actually not called Mullaghmore but Kilkillogue. Mullaghmore, according to Seamus McGloin, who lives on the main street, is a townland of three houses up beyond the former home of Mountbatten, Classiebawn Castle. Seamus's house is directly opposite the harbour. Lord Mountbatten came visiting there on occasion to his grandfather, who had once worked on the farm up at Classiebawn.

It's a village of less than a hundred hearts in winter, swelling to a thousand or more in summertime. On Wednesday, it didn't reach the summer peak, unless you counted the gardai and security who seemed to outnumber those who have come for a glimpse of the putative future King of England. Security was ridiculous. The press area in which we were imprisoned for several hours was about the size of a small caravan in front of Seamus McGloin's yard gate, cordoned off with crash barriers. Across the road was the line of perhaps 500 people whom Charles would briefly emerge to greet. Although the sun was shining, an east wind blew through the gate. Journalists huddled together and craned their necks to see and hear any fiddle or fart worth reporting.

Seamus McGloin left his front door to chat to myself and a neighbour from up the hill who had snuck under the security blanket. Let us call him Michael. Seamus had declined an invitation to cross the road and greet the prince with the sightseers, opting to stand outside his front door. A passing garda sergeant scolded Seamus for the dozenth time: "I need you over at that front door!" Seamus winked and obeyed. Michael, masquerading as a newshound, standing within a yard of the sergeant, coolly observed: "There's no sense of the ridiculous left in the country at all!"

It's true. Where we stand now, the death of Lord Mountbatten reveals itself as entirely meaningless, a fact borne testimony to by the prince's meeting with Gerry Adams last week. The posturing of the Sinn Fein leader suggested that advances occurred as a result of such atrocities, but in truth all we got was a bunch of nordie politicians carrying their primed cliches down south.

Shortly after his own meeting with Prince Charles, I ran into Dr Des Moran, the coroner who carried out the inquests into the 1979 murders. Des is the walking representation of the contradictions inhabiting this place, this province, us people. After the inquests, he gave an interview to Jim Fahy of RTE which went viral around the world. He said that the teaching of history is a great responsibility, because otherwise it's just propaganda.

On Wednesday, Des wore the navy and mustard tie of the Royal Army Medical Corps, which belonged to his foster father, also his uncle, a medical doctor who raised him from the age of one. A follower of John Redmond, his foster father had been in WWI, but got a medal for services to the Irish Free State after his return. Dr Moran's real father was in the IRA and had, he told Des, "something to do with" the planning of the unsuccessful attempt in 1919 to assassinate the British Lord Lieutenant, Lord French. His uncle/foster father had no children of his own, a not unusual characteristic of

WWI veterans who returned home disillusioned by what they had seen. Prince Charles recognised the tie - creating a moment of unexpected emotion for its wearer. "I've been through enough now not to get emotional, but…"

The reportage of last week's visit may have conveyed a disproportionate sense of its impact on either Sligo or the West. In truth, almost nobody in Sligo bothered except for a handful of local dignitaries and a few hundred day trippers up for a laugh. There were just enough people behind the barriers to make it look on TV like there were a lot of people there.

In Dublin, this kind of thing is dressed up to be more than it is. In the talk of these matters from Montrose, the word 'reconciliation' is used as a weapon and there's always this undercurrent of our having all but arrived where we imagined we were going. You could easily get the impression that history is over and nothing among our stored pathologies matters enough to keep us long estranged from the Commonwealth.

In the West, there are no such undercurrents because our hearts have a way of remembering even when our heads are befuddled by warring ideologies. Our lands are too soaked in blood for humbug or forgetting. Down here, at the workaday level, all Wednesday needed to amount to was a day out - a prince from another principality come to visit. We would wear our best bibs and be nice. We might mouth the usual platitudes, but would not take it to heart. Still, the occasion was, in its way, important - a ritual, as Des Moran said, of closure. But what exactly is a ritual for? To enact things collectively that we cannot individually express. To create tableaux of meaning that, for fear of embarrassment, cannot be played out in "real life".

Symbols, similarly, are essential to draw all our eyes simultaneously to a single point, to evoke in a multiplicity of hearts a common if superficial sentiment, the glue of solidarity and shared understanding. Charles looking out to sea from Mullaghmore Harbour may be the most significant image of the recent life of these two islands with their - no, not "shared" - fused histories, melded histories, the pasts of conjoined twins too interdependent to be separated.

So, what kind of symbol was conjured up on Wednesday? One, I would say, of relative truthfulness after a long period of calculated lies. Prince Charles's sincerity took us by surprise. Here was a man possessed of a heart not unfamiliar with pain, and so not unfit to stand with the descendants of the people whom the power presided over by ancestors sought to exterminate.

Sorry: I insist. Enough of palaver! Only when we can speak of these things without checking ourselves will we be able to "move on".

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