FAILTE ROMHAT

UNION JACK flags fluttered in the shadow of the GPO and God Save The Queen sounded within the Garden of Remembrance as black balloons of protest drifted above it.

It was a day of extraordinary symbolism and raw emotion.

Tension rippled through the air at the memorial to the nationalist dead, the explosion of three firecrackers in nearby streets audible as Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by President Mary McAleese, descended the steps to the garden’s pool of reflection after travelling through a city centre that was eerily empty apart from the massed ranks of gardaí, a smattering of well-wishers and the huddles of protesters who fringed the security cordon.

The loudness and the ferocity of the protesters was, however, in stark contrast to their small numbers.

The vast majority of people watched the first visit by a reigning British monarch for 100 years with either subdued approval or benign indifference.

The signing of the visitors’ book at Áras an Uachtaráin and the wreath-laying ceremony at the Garden of Remembrance were the emotional and symbolic touchstones of this delicately structured four-day tour.

The significance of the British Queen honouring Ireland’s revolutionary heroes was lost on no one as she bowed her head towards the monument to those fallen in the national struggle.

As the poem We Saw A Vision was read out, a flurry of black balloons swept over the south of the garden. At times the jeers and whistles of hardcore republicans became audible inside the memorial garden as helicopters hovered above and gardaí patrolled every rooftop that overlooked the site.

As the strains of Amhrán na bhFiann died away, the two heads of state made their way back alongside the cross-shaped pool of reflection — its design depicting the Celtic custom of casting broken weapons into the water to mark a conclusion of battle and an end to hostilities.

It was a poignant conclusion. The sombre atmosphere lifted as the queen received a largely warm reception from those who lined the streets towards Trinity College — while hardcore activists pelted gardaí with missiles in streets adjacent to the national memorial.

Union Jack flags could even be glimpsed on Cathal Brugha Street, a thoroughfare named after one of the 1916 rebels who went on to be Speaker of the first Dáil and who was killed in the Civil War that ended the decade of bloody turmoil that gave birth to Irish nationhood.

As the queen emerged from the plane at Casement Aerodrome yesterday morning, she was resplendent in an outfit of emerald green and St Patrick’s blue.

For the wreath-laying ceremony, after lunch at the Áras, both heads of state had changed outfits, the queen now mainly in white, the President largely in black.

Perhaps their dress was intended to symbolise the black-and-white view each country has often had of the other down through the course of their turbulent, intertwined histories.

Yesterday’s events, and today’s Islandbridge memorial ceremony honouring those Irish people who died in the service of the crown, reaffirm that the true nuances of the relationship between the two islands have always been more in shades of grey — with both nations now eager for fresh colours to wash away the bleak hues of the past.

As the queen left behind the Book of Kells at Trinity College, an intriguing new chapter in Ireland’s narrative had clearly been opened by her visit.


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