IT WAS the moment the country had hoped for. Queen Elizabeth II reached out to the people of Ireland. A gesture so simple and yet so profound, it encapsulated the historic visit.
Ross Twomey, a 28-year-old Special Olympian from Douglas, was there to share it.
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh captured the hearts of the nation as they embarked on an unexpected walkabout on Grand Parade in Cork city centre.
After days of unprecedented security, gardaí and the Queen’s own security detail felt comfortable enough on the final leg of the historic state visit to allow the royal couple meet some of the estimated 30,000 people who had lined the streets to greet them.
The meet and greet on the Grand Parade was hailed as a highlight of the visit and the perfect conclusion to the trip.
“It has gone really, really well,” said the British ambassador to Ireland, Julian King. “We hoped it would go well, but I think it has gone better than we had hoped.
“We have been touched by the warmth of the welcome everywhere, but the warmth of the welcome here in Cork has been exceptional.
“We had a set of events, a set of images, that have gone all around the world and, indeed, her majesty’s own words are going to make a major contribution to the relations between Britain and Ireland,” he added.
While the first two days were rich with political and historical symbolism, the last two days have given more insight into the Queen as a person.
The British media has been surprised by the warmth of the welcome, with picture editors remarking they had never seen so many pictures of her smiling.
At the Convention Centre in Dublin, she was clearly bowled over by the applause when she took to the stage to thank the performers.
And in Coolmore, in a private visit, she got to indulge her passion for horses. In Cashel, we also witnessed the first handshake between the British monarch and a Sinn Féin politician.
During the Cork walkabout, the royal couple spent several minutes chatting to dozens of people who had spent up to three hours waiting in the hope of catching a glimpse of them.
Danielle Cantwell, 17, and her mother, Patricia, from Rochestown, in Cork, were among a handful of people lucky enough to get a spot opposite the English Market.
“We didn’t think we’d even get to see her,” Patricia said.
“But she came over to me and shook my hand,” Danielle said.
“She asked what club I was from and I said Special Olympics Leeside Legends Athletics Club.”
Earlier, the royal couple visited Cashel and helicoptered to Cork before being whisked to the city centre.
Looking relaxed, the Queen strolled through the historic English Market, meeting several traders.
Then she threw her head back and laughed out loud as fishmonger Pat O’Connell told her he hadn’t been this nervous since his wedding day 30 years ago.
“She’s a very special lady. There is no doubt about that,” an emotional Pat said.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who bid farewell to the royal couple at Cork Airport, said the Queen had enjoyed her visit to Ireland and had expressed a genuine desire to return.
“She said, in response to a question from me as to whether she had enjoyed herself or not, yes, she and her husband and the party had enjoyed themselves very much indeed.”
As the Queen boarded her aircraft, Mr Kenny asked her if she would like to return to Ireland.
“And she said: ‘Yes I would very much like to do that’. So — maybe at sometime in the future.”
Cork Lord Mayor Cllr Michael O’Connell said the fact that the Queen decided to meet people was “a testament to the huge excitement and warmth” she experienced on Leeside.
“It was an extraordinary sight,” he said. “You could feel the energy from the crowds.
“It’s a very proud day for Cork city and our people and I would like to thank everyone for making the Queen’s final stop in Cork one of the most fun, relaxed and celebratory on her trips.”
Picture: Across the barricade: Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands with Ross Twomey during an informal meet and greet on the Grand Parade in Cork on the last day of her state visit to Ireland. Picture: Maxwells
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