Anticipation and fretful tension melt away with welcome smiles

IT was a day when the world turned a little differently.

The Union Jack fluttered in the breeze at the gates of Áras an Uachtaráin, the Irish and British national anthems were aired in the summer drizzle, and Queen Elizabeth II finally arrived after months of waiting.

The queen became the first ruling British monarch to visit Ireland in more than 100 years since her grandfather last came here all that time ago. After more than a century of waiting, no one was going to quibble if she was a few minutes late. The queen’s car parked outside the Áras a couple of minutes behind schedule, yet everyone was back as per the timetable 20 minutes later.

She wore a symbolic green outfit with a matching hat, and her entrance at the Áras, where she was greeted by President Mary McAleese and her husband Martin, was enveloped in the kind of ceremony and respect one might expect of such a momentous visit. There were smiles and handshakes warmly reciprocated, as some of the tension and fretful anticipation which had built up ahead of the visit melted away.

The first historic meeting on Irish soil of the President and the queen was redolent with meaning and formality, but imbued with smiles. The Garda Band had been tuning up for a while before the earlier arrival of Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

The lawn was manicured, and behind that, where a row of mounted guns were set, ready for the salute, it looked like the silage had been cut.

At 12.20pm exactly the President, dressed head to toe in vibrant cerise, then emerged to take the Presidential Salute, while the army, the air corps and the navy stood stock still for inspection.

Moisture hung in the air, not quite a drizzle, but a little after 12.30pm, the sun came out, and then a helicopter whirred overhead, the first signal that Queen Elizabeth II was on the way. Then, row upon row of motorcycle cavalcade, any number of black cars, and the Range Rover carrying the queen and Prince Philip. If anything, it looked like she might need a small ladder to help her step out of the vehicle, so high was it from the ground. Then handshakes were exchanged, and smiles, as the Royal party were brought inside by President McAleese.

Outside, the other vehicles disgorged dignitaries, including British Foreign Secretary William Hague. The British contingent stayed to the right of the door, and then an Irish contingent formed at the other side, led by the Taoiseach. Moments later, the queen and the President re-emerged from the Áras, and the queen was then escorted to the salute point by the Chief of Staff of the defence forces, Lt Gen Sean McCann, and the GOC of 2nd Eastern Brigade, Brig Gen Denis Murphy. As the first note of God Save the Queen historically struck up, the first of the 21-gun salute was fired, with the final bang covering the last note of Amhrán na bhFiann. In between, four planes performed a flyover, and afterwards the queen stepped off the red carpet and inspected the two ranks of the guard of honour, as requested by Capt Thomas Holmes.

On returning to the red carpet, the president then took the queen and her husband to meet the Irish delegation, Philip moving slowly and keeping his left hand behind his back as he shook hands warmly with those gathered, including Irish Ambassador in London Bobby McDonagh. The party then moved across to the other side and the president was introduced to the British delegation, which included British Ambassador in Dublin Julian King. The group then headed inside for a private meeting, back on schedule, Philip, in particular, grinning from ear to ear.

All the colour was provided in formal shades, and away from the Áras, there seemed little interest in the visit from the plain people of Ireland. A small knot of walkers had gathered near the entrance to see the cortege enter, but bar a few regular walkers, the Phoenix Park was mostly populated by railings and gardaí.

The security concerns were ever-present in Dublin yesterday, with endless stories of bags being checked two or three times, or the instance where the man with the Eircom van, parked close to Leinster House, was questioned over his identity by three gardaí. Indeed, the city centre was strangely quiet, while the occasionally indifferent reaction of the public to the queen’s visit was also evident. One or two people standing on the street near Christchurch Cathedral waved uncertainly at the busload of fare-dodging reporters covering the event and its garda escort, and when the bus swooped down the hill towards the quays one pedestrian started a mock goose step. These moments were on the margins, and back at Áras an Uachtaráin (or ‘Oor-ass an Oochtoran’, as one reporter scribbled in his notebook), events unfolded with maturity and precision, and later in the day, warm applause and some interaction with onlookers on her visit to Trinity College.

There were a hundred thousand reasons for trepidation and a hundred thousand moments of shared history, some of them painful. The queen may not have received a hundred thousands welcomes, but it was a welcome all the same.

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