A queen’s welcome: Victoria’s stormy affair with Ireland

IF Queen Elizabeth deigns to come to Cork during her State visit to Ireland, they may have to do a bit of heavy lifting at UCC. A statue of her predecessor, Queen Victoria, once held pride of place on the roof of the college’s Aula Maxima when it was Queen’s University Cork.

In the 1940s the tribute to Her Majesty was unceremoniously dumped as too much for republican sensibilities by the college’s president, Alfred O’Rahilly. It might also have been payback from O’Rahilly as he had been twice held at the Sovereign’s Pleasure.

Her likeness now lies adjacent to the staff common room, which, of course, means that the staff can enjoy tea with the queen whenever they like. A photograph on UCC’s website shows Victoria taking a back seat to the Liam McCarthy Cup.

But if the staff want to enjoy the real thing with the current British monarch, it might be considered appropriate not to leave Queen Vic out in a dusty hallway.

Another statue of Queen Victoria sculpted by Irishman John Hughes was erected in front of Leinster House in Dublin in 1924 and removed in 1947 after years of criticism that it was inappropriate to have the queen’s likeness stand in front of the parliament of the Irish Free State. After years in storage the statue was given by the Republic of Ireland to Australia and re-commemorated in December 1987 to stand outside the Queen Victoria Building in the centre of Sydney.

Ever since Queen Victoria planted her royal rear on Lord Kenmare’s overstuffed carver, Killarney has been subject to an array of superlatives. ‘Heaven’s Reflex...’ ‘Beauty’s Home...’, ‘The place that God made when he was in good humour...’ have all sought to reflect the beauty and majesty of what is still Ireland’s premier tourist destination.

The queen went there with her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861, along with their two children, Alice and Helena, and a posse of ladies-in-waiting. She was, by all accounts, so struck by its beauty that she couldn’t stop talking about it.

Although the queen had visited Ireland on two previous occasions, in 1849 and 1853, this was the first time that Kerry was included in her itinerary.

The royal party stayed the night of Monday, August 26, 1861, at Killarney House, home of the Earl of Kenmare.

They then travelled on to Muckross, home of the Herbert family, where they spent the following two nights. The queen’s visit to Killarney House was very much a state occasion. However, her stay at Muckross was a more private affair.

The genuflecting local press reported that Her Majesty “had declared her intention of being ‘very quiet’ while at Muckross”. (The Kerry Evening Post, August 28, 1861).

As every schoolgirl knows, Queen Victoria was not easily amused. She was particularly enchanted, though, by a stunning view across the lakes and declared that such was its beauty it should only be gazed upon by ladies. Ever since, it has become known as Ladies’ View.

Queen Victoria was the last British queen to visit Ireland. She developed a great grá for the country, particularly during her early reign, and is credited with having put Killarney and its lakes on the tourist map. Her love of the country was matched by initial Irish warmth towards the young queen but things began to go pear-shaped during the Great Famine.

The queen is said to have personally donated £2,000 for famine relief. However, when Sultan Abdulmecid of the Ottoman Empire declared that he would send £10,000 in aid, Queen Victoria requested that he send only £1,000, to save her blushes. The Sultan sent the £1,000 but also secretly sent three ships full of food. British courts tried to block the ships, but the food arrived at Drogheda harbour and was left there by Ottoman sailors.

Victoria’s first official visit to Ireland, in 1849, was specifically arranged by Lord Clarendon, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland — the head of the British administration — to try to both draw attention from the famine and alert British politicians through the queen’s presence to the seriousness of the crisis in Ireland. Despite the negative impact of the famine on the queen’s popularity she remained popular enough for many Irish nationalists at party meetings to finish by singing God Save the Queen.

In 1853 she attended the Great Industrial Exhibition in Dublin. More than one million people attended and Victoria knighted the architect of the exhibition, John Benson.

However, by the 1870s and 1880s the monarchy’s appeal in Ireland had diminished substantially, partly because Victoria refused to visit Ireland in protest at the Dublin Corporation’s decision not to congratulate her son, the Prince of Wales on either his marriage to Princess Alexandra of Denmark or the birth of the royal couple’s oldest son, Prince Albert Victor.

Queen Victoria had also felt deeply hurt after Dublin Corporation had returned a bust of her beloved late husband Albert, which she sent as a gift to the people of Dublin. In addition, she had felt hurt by the indignation at the suggestion to place a statue of Albert on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, and to rename it ‘Albert Green’. It has been theorised that these perceived insults to her darling Albert’s memory hardened her views of the Irish people.

Now that the best of enemies have become the best of friends, the visit of Elizabeth II will doubtless be welcomed by closet royalists and liberal republicans or, as President McAleese puts it, the visit of the Queen will show to the world “how old enemies can become good neighbours”.

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