THE Queen’s visit to Ireland began at noon last Tuesday, but it was another three hours before she touched down. More than her physical presence in the state, it was her gesture at the Garden of Remembrance that brought her into contact with the Irish people. Somebody among the organisers must have realised that the laying of a wreath to those who died for Irish freedom should occur as soon as possible.
In the centuries-old enmity, words have played a significant, often malignant, role. How fitting it was then that no speeches marked Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the Garden in Parnell Square around 3pm on Tuesday. The distant rumble of protest only served to heighten how marginalised are those who want to hang onto past differences. Overhead, a helicopter’s blades cut through the afternoon sky.
Queen Elizabeth was handed the wreath and set it forth. In the course of 300 overseas trips, she has laid a multitude of wreaths, many in dedication to soldiers who opposed her country at some stage of history.
This was different. This was to salute the generations going back through 800 years who had fought to remove the Crown’s forces from a small, narky island in Britannia’s backyard. It was a gesture for those who had died for Irish freedom, many of whom had been executed as traitors. It was for those who, down through the strife, had plotted and dreamed of killing the queen’s forebears as a means to break the chains of bondage. This was personal.
The Queen handled the occasion with her customary dignity. She bowed her head in honour. Later, at the state dinner, she would declare that we should be able to “bow before history but not be bound by it”.
God Save The Queen rang out across the northside of Dublin city centre, to be followed by Amhrán na bhFiann. The new reality of relations between the two islands, which have developed hugely over the last decade or so, thus received an official seal. Friends and equals.
From there on, the visit was always going to be a success. The odd faux pas only served to lighten the mood, rather than cause offence. At Trinity College on Tuesday, while chatting to students, the Duke of Edinburgh noted that “you don’t sound like the natives”.
At Croke Park on Wednesday, former GAA president Nickey Brennan instinctively reached out for an elderly woman’s elbow to help her along, only to be pounced on by protocol, which allows no contact with the royal personage.
Ghosts of Bloody Sunday 1920 swirled around the stadium for the visit, but they kept their distance. Six years ago, an English rugby team appeared on the hallowed turf and God Save The Queen rang out to a respectful reception. The occasion offered a closure of sorts on the outrage. On Wednesday, the Queen walked out onto the pitch with President McAleese and Christy Cooney as a visitor respectfully bearing an olive branch, rather than an apology, while in his address to the queen, Cooney pointed to the ties that bind the two nations.
For some reason, speculation suggested that she would use her speech at the state dinner to apologise. For what? Eight hundred years of complicated history in which massacre begat massacre, where the line between the good guys and bad guys was often blurred?
She went as far as could have been expected.
“The relationship has not always been straightforward; nor has the record over the centuries been entirely benign… with the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things that which we would wish had been done differently or not done at all.”
Earlier, McAleese had given an equally solid speech, noting that “inevitably, where there are the colonisers and the colonised, the past is a repository of sources of bitter division”.
The most jarring note at the Dublin Castle event was the composition of the guest list. Among the gilded were the three McAleese offsprings, as if the president was the titular head of a royal family herself. There was room on the list for backbench TDs, and party strategists, but nobody from among other sections of politics, bar the Fianna Fáil leader. Nobody from the trade union movement; nobody from the legions of community groups who work with those who never see the inside of Dublin Castle. The GAA and rugby union were represented, but where was somebody from soccer, or boxing? So much for the redundant notion that we exchanged subjugation for a democratic republic.
By the close of day two, the heavy lifting was done. Thereafter, it was time for the Queen to catch up on her horsey pursuits, and the state to hoist her on a tourism totem pole.
She checked out the national stud. The duke handed out a few awards. They got together with the president for a celebration of Mary Byrne in the Convention Centre.
Yesterday, the caravan moved onto Cashel, where the Queen was invited to be filmed in a manner that might entice millions of her subjects to come and spend a few quid.
A quick jaunt to Coolmore stud allowed her to indulge once again her passion for the sport of kings. And then it was onto Cork.
The city hung out its brightest colours for the visitor, and the elements did their bit, keeping rain at bay for the afternoon. The English Market was hermetically sealed, with the surrounding streets cleared once more.
Two small protests were mounted at opposite ends of the Grand Parade, but they were dwarfed by the size of the crowd that came out for the occasion. Noticeably, once the party moved out of Dublin, the tension around security appeared to lessen.
Inside, she was guided through stalls all the way to a plaque to mark the occasion. She nodded. Chairman of the traders, Tom Durcan, presented the royal couple with a hamper, and elicited from the duke a question as to how the spiced beef was cooked.
“I told him it was boiled and he laughed,” Durcan said. “She (the Queen) is a woman has an incredible presence.”
Through it all, the monarch nodded agreeably, and showed interest at various points. The most noticeable feature of her progress through the food emporium was her willingness to be used to advertise Irish produce. Once back outside, she couldn’t resist approaching ranks of schoolchildren pressed against the barriers. In a visit that was tightly secured, it was the only opportunity she had to interact with the public and she grabbed it with both hands.
From there it was onto the Tyndall Institute before the homeward star beckoned.
The royal party flew out in the knowledge the historic visit could hardly have gone better. Throughout the four days, the Queen looked as if she was enjoying herself, and can now cross Ireland off her list of “things to do before I die“.
Both governments will have been delighted with a visit that represented a risk.
If anything had gone wrong, it could have set relations back at a time when this country needs friends. From Britain’s point of view, it’s another effort to come to terms with its own past. And then there are the one million people living in Britain who were born in this country.
As her plane took up into the clouds yesterday, she left behind a country where the overwhelming emotion was relief. All who were involved in the organisation could take time out for self congratulation. But both official Ireland and the wider populace will be relieved that the whole thing went off without an embarrassing, unedifying or dangerous incident.
For a week at least, the national conversation was able to move away from the dark hole that is the economy. Now we might manage to knock a few days out of Obama as well.
Picture: Taoiseach Enda Kenny says goodbye to Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh Prince Philip as the royal couple leave Cork Airport yesterday at the end of their four-day state visit to Ireland. Picture: Des Barry