The woman is pushing 88. She must have been completely exhausted by the end of it all, having to put up with the good, the formerly bad and the frowning countenance of Tommie.
In terms of the official visit, there was a sense of a postscript about it, rather than the main event. The hand of history, which came to rest lightly on Tony Blair’s shoulder in 1998, is limp now. Over the last 15 years, it has been grabbed and shook more often than a politician’s palm in an election campaign. Long before last week, we were sorted for making history.
That was certainly the opinion on the far side of the Irish Sea. Most of the British media outlets gave the impression that it was Martin McGuinness who was making the state visit. The Queen’s decision to invite McGuinness to the knees-up she hosted rankled with some. His presence in Windsor Castle was seen as an affront among this constituency, to the extent that it dwarfed the presence of the President of the Republic of Ireland. Some of John Bull’s finest quite obviously still cling for dear life to a one-dimensional view of this island.
That meeting of the living symbols of the two extremities of the strife that dogged this island for centuries was indeed historic. They had met before on neutral ground, but here the Queen had invited to her home this man, whom, in all likelihood, was one of the members of the army council, which sanctioned the murder of her cousin — who was also the uncle of the Duke of Edinburgh.
McGuinness has travelled his own journey, endured his own bereavements. He has come a long way, but the niggling feeling persists that his party’s acceptance of the Queen’s offer was taken primarily with a view to electoral advancement in the Republic. The Shinners were caught offside when the Queen visited here, but they learn fast.
As for the visit, some among us — or maybe it’s just me — experienced a familiar feeling before Michael D travelled. A shiver of insecurity rang through my ethnic gene, full of fear that our top citizen might in some way show us up in front of the neighbours.
It’s not that the President isn’t capable of holding his own in any company. The man knows his onions when it comes to politics, culture, sport or even philosophy. No, it’s his propensity when speechifying to lapse into esoteric notions rooted in abstract philosophy that scared the living daylights out of me. What will the Brits think if he scoots off down some avenue pouring forth on the scatological meanderings of neo-liberal politics, as manifested by rampant consumerism on a rainy night in Soho?
Since assuming high office, the Prez has a tendency to go all flowery when delivering speeches. This is not the English way. They address their native language in a straightforward manner. Whereas Michael D’s audience at home might react to some of his stuff with knowing nods, and a spot of chin stroking, the English would ask straight out; “What in the name of St George is the man going on about?”
My fears were misplaced. Michael D reined in his verbal excursions to wilder shores by delivering well-crafted and easily-digested speeches wherever he went. Deep down, he must have known he’d never get away with the usual academic ramblings in front of native speakers. Fair play to the man. He went over there and represented us only massive.
The most significant thing to come out of the visit was the commitment of the Queen to send over one of the family to celebrate 1916 in the centenary year. It was a bit forward of her, inviting herself to our party, but she’s been so long on the throne you’d nearly forgive her for taking things a bit for granted.
Already, some voices are reaching into the past, crying for ‘Brits out’ at the commemorations. Such people would do well to give the likes of Norman Tebbitt a call and they can meet up, discuss their mutual hate, and pine for the bad old days.
If the visit was a postscript in the new relations between this country and the UK, it still had huge significance for one constituency: the generations who had been coughed out of this country and found a home on the far side of the Irish Sea and who didn’t always have it easy.
Anybody who has spent time in the Irish communities abroad in places such as the UK, the USA and Australia, would have always found a different vibe in the land of our nearest neighbour. Until recent decades, the Irish in Britain didn’t possess the self confidence that their displaced compatriots in other countries did.
Particularly since the Troubles exploded, a strain of suspicion informed relations between the Irish and their hosts. This didn’t manifest itself on an individual basis, and there is little doubt that the English are both hospitable and tolerant. But there were times when it was difficult to be Irish.
Anybody who was caught in a rush-hour tube station, delayed over an actual or suspected bomb, knows what it felt like to be wary to open your mouth. The one response in 10 might be hostile, but you never really knew which one it might be.
Those days are now gone, and the last 15 years has seen a transformation in attitudes to the Irish in Britain.
There were others though who may never have fully come to terms with their displacement. Going from rural Ireland to teeming cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester in the middle decades of the last century was just too much to bear. They never fully integrated, and many among them sought refuge in the bottle. Could things have been easier in their new environment if there didn’t exist that awkward undercurrent of discrimination, perceived or real?
They were, as the line in the play Kings of the Kilburn High Road enunciated, “Neither Irish nor English, but Paddies“, a tribe that was forever between homes. For them, last week was a significant step, and President Higgins a worthy ambassador to sign off on national validation.
It’s difficult to think who would be a better man to send to meet the queen at this point in time on the nation’s history. More than one whispered aside had it during the week that it was a good job that Michael D won the controversial presidential election in 2011.
He carried it off with aplomb, apart from that line about cheering for England at the World Cup in Brazil. I hope he didn’t consider that he was talking for the nation there. Such matters cannot be dealt with by a mere presidential edict. We’ll have to have some talks about talks before that hurdle can be leaped.