Ireland’s complicated fascination with royals

Royalism was common in Ireland for centuries — CS Parnell was a royalist, for example. Our relationship with the crown is a long and winding one, writes Mervyn O’Driscoll

In May 2018, large sections of us unapologetically devoured even the most trifling details of the wedding of Prince Harry Windsor and Meghan Markle. It was not that different in 1981, when Prince Charles married Lady Diana.

Although, in the depths of the Troubles, Irish citizens were more discreet. Until the Good Friday Agreement (1998), official policy was one of principled detachment towards the British crown.

Ireland chose not to attend the coronations of George VI (1937) and Elizabeth II (1953), in contrast to the rest of the world. Elisabeth’s father, George VI, was informed that Ireland’s absence was not a slight towards him “personally”; it was an expression of the Irish “attitude towards his office” as “the titular head and front of a foreign system” that Ireland had recently “broken down”. In 1953 non-attendance was a protest against partition.

Regardless of the aloof official attitude and the century-long hiatus in royal visits (until Elisabeth II’s groundbreaking visit in 2011), public fascination with royalty continued.

That interest was submerged but the social and personal pages of the middle-class Irish Independent displayed a remarkable curiosity in court reports.

Large numbers — not just from the ranks of the Anglo-Irish minority — followed the lives, loves and marriages of the royals who were celebrities (before our age of celebrity). British royalty inspired style trends among the fashionable Irish middle classes.

After all, before cultural nationalism took hold in the late 19th century and constitutional nationalism (Home Rule) was overtaken during the revolutionary decade (1912-22), royalism was common.

Daniel O’Connell, the Great Liberator, and Charles Stewart Parnell were royalists. O’Connell signed up for the Yeomanry during the rising of Robert Emmet in 1803.

He opposed the Act of Union (1800) on the grounds that Ireland was a separate kingdom loyal to the crown. Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin, favoured a dual monarchy (two governments with one monarch). These were not “shoneens” (the derogatory term applied to those Irish accused of preferring English ways). If nationalist icons held to dubious royalism, could the masses be trusted?

Some Republicans after independence worried that Irish womanhood was weak-minded and feared the seduction of the impressionable by royal pageantry. A vexed Mary McSwiney (sister of Terence) waxed lyrical during the Treaty debates declaring that the residence of the king’s governor general in Dublin might transform women into royal and loyal lackeys and flunkeys.

We are not a race of archangels, and you allow that governor-general’s residence, with drawing-rooms, levees, and honours and invitations to be scattered broadcast to your wives and your sisters and your daughters… with all the baits that will be held out to them to come in.

Apparently, Irish women needed protection from themselves (a depressingly common refrain of the new state).

Royal cleansing advanced and Victoria (the Famine Queen) was a particular target. In 1935, a statue of Victoria at University College Cork was taken down (it was buried in the president’s garden until it was disinterred in 1995 for the college’s 150th anniversary).

Kathleen Clarke (widow of Fenian Thomas Clarke, executed for his part in the 1916 Rising) removed all royal portraits from Dublin’s Mansion House on becoming lord mayor in 1939. In the 1940s, the statue of Victoria on Leinster House’s forecourt was taken away.

However, when Victoria had visited Ireland (1849, 1853, 1861, 1900) she was pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome she received from the masses. She recorded, in August 1849, that “the enthusiasm” she was greeted with in Cork was “immense”.

In Dublin, “the women are really very handsome — quite in the lowest class — as well at Cork as here (Dublin); such beautiful black eyes and hair and such fine colours and teeth”. They were “ragged” certainly, but she was plainly impressed.

Victoria would forever be cast by Republicans as the Famine Queen. A myth developed that she donated just £5 to famine relief, although she was the largest individual donor (£2,000).

Her misfortune was that she, like other figureheads, was blamed for disasters not of her making. Ironically, the term Famine Queen was a political smear coined three decades after the Great Famine. It was CS Parnell’s sister, Anna, who invented the epithet during the Land War. Maude Gonne adopted and deployed it to great effect. Fake news is not new.

The anti-royalist public temperature after 1922 can be gauged by the controversy surrounding the screening of Elizabeth II’s coronation (1953). Cinemas chose not to show the movie in the face of bomb threats.

Protestant church halls were treated with indulgence, however, and Catholic friends of Protestants procured invitations. (Of course, they chose not to talk about it).

After independence, Windsor Palace’s hints at a visit were deftly deflected or gingerly ignored. The record shows that the occupants of the British throne were aggrieved by the tragic state of affairs between the islands and by partition. Despite the imagery of the crown as a unifying symbol at the head of a family of nations (the Commonwealth), in the Anglo-Irish context it was a source of bitter division.

Irish governments of all shades dreaded political competitors and extremists outflanking them by laying claim to an uncontaminated or purer form of Irish Republicanism.

They shrank from any suggestion of a royal visit under their watch. They were engaged in a form of competitive anti-royalism. The ostentatious royalism of Ulster Unionism aggravated matters by making the crown a badge of partition, the final and potent Republican grievance against Britain which only deepened after 1969.

Loathing of the crown, therefore, drew from a deep well of grievance. Republican elites and ardent followers saw it as the mark of oppression, although by modern times the constitutional monarch — shorn of political power — reigned but did not rule (a point lost on many).

As for its leadership of the Church of England, much of its sectarian tone was chopped off by Elisabeth II’s grandfather. George V successfully demanded an alteration to the Protestant Declaration (the Defender of the Faith). He appreciated it was out of sync with the age and he refused to open parliament in 1911 until it was amended.

It was not partition that finally triggered the Treaty split in 1922, it was the Oath of Allegiance to George V as head of the Commonwealth.

Requiring such submissiveness was simply a bridge too far for many. True, Éamon de Valera committed a U-turn (1927) declaring the oath an “empty formula”. This allowed Fianna Fáil deputies to take their parliamentary seats.

But the oath was not an empty formula in de Valera’s eyes; he took the oath in order to abolish it. After 1932, he transformed Ireland into a republic in all but name (1937 Bunreacht na hÉireann).

De Valera voluntarily and externally associated Ireland with the Commonwealth, but the contrivance made no explicit mention of the crown in an effort to spare Republican sensitivities. Conversely, he viewed the retention of the link as a fig leaf aimed at Ulster Unionists.

In October 1948, John A Costello surprised world opinion with his unscripted announcement of Ireland’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth and his declaration of a republic.

Days later, Ireland’s high commissioner, John Dulanty, was invited to a party at Buckingham Palace for Commonwealth representatives. On meeting George VI, he tried to lighten the mood, saying that ‘in present circumstances it was good of them to ask me to their party’.

The king, laughing, answered that he thought so too, and that he had intended to make a similar remark , ‘but it was better that you and not I said it’.

The Irish relationship with the monarchy defies generalisation. After independence, many indulged in a private fascination with royalty but adhered to Republican principles publicly.

Dr Mervyn O’Driscoll, BA (NUI), MA (NUI), PhD (Cambridge), senior lecturer, School of History, UCC, and has broad interests in the fields of modern and contemporary Irish history, international history and international relations

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