The Queen was showing Mr Higgins items of Irish interest from the royal collection in the castle’s green room when the fan, given to Queen Mary for her wedding in 1893, caught their eyes as they as they chatted in animated fashion about the pieces spread out before them.
Indeed, it could be said the pair got on like a house on fire — if one can use such a metaphor in Windsor Castle, scene of the blaze that capped the Queen’s infamous annus horribilis in 1992.
But that was then and this is now — which could serve as the unofficial theme for this visit of reconciliation an renewal. The moss green in the Queen’s paisley silk dress was a nod to the symbolism of the occasion, as was the orchid gold and diamond broach which also featured Waterford Crystal detailing.
Mrs Higgins wore a pale pink ensemble topped with a Philip Treacy hat.
But it was a book of Oscar Wilde’s poems that the writer had given to the then prince of Wales, later Edward VII, in 1881, that seemed to excite most interest in the President, along with a portrait of George Bernard Shaw. The chatter of the party, which also included Prince Charles, his wife Camilla, and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, could be heard approaching down the long richly adorned corridor.
However, the impending entrance was forewarned by a footman coming into the green room to tell media handlers: “She’s coming up now,” — prompting one to wonder what her majesty would have made of such informality regarding her royal personage.
As well as the green it is named after, the sumptuous room is resplendent with gold finishing, indeed the inside of the castle is so opulent, the Queen must be one of the few viewers who looks down on the decor in Downton Abbey as a tad shabby.
And there was nothing left wanting in the lavish display of pageantry put on for the President and his wife after six horses pulled the Australian state coach the Queen and Prince Philip had transported them back to the castle in through the crowds of some 6,000 people who lined the streets of Windsor.
The heated coach was immune to the chill of the crisp spring air, and the warmth between the two parties seemed to spill out through the day as the Queen and Sabina chatted and laughed as their husbands inspected the honour guard after the Irish national anthem echoed twice through the castle’s imposing quadrangle whose battlements have been silent witness to nearly a millennia of history.
Then, the unexpected star of the day stepped forward, as Domhnall, the Irish Wolfhound mascot of the Irish Guards, was presented with a new doggy jacket by the President.
Domhnall took the whole thing nonchalantly in his stride, even though he had been given a special bath for the occasion.
Then the spectacle proper was unleashed as the clatter of hooves on gravel consumed the quadrangle with 275 Irish-bred horses and cavalrymen parading past the dais accompanied by more than 850 soldiers. The silver breast plates shined immaculately in the cool sunshine as the light breeze lifted the white plumes on helmets.
With most of the Irish Guards deployed overseas it was left to the Grenadier Guards to provide the line for inspection.
But, again, this touch emphasised the personal attention of the Queen in the details of this visit, as this is the regiment charged with her protection. They will guard her body after her death, and their regimental standard, on display in the welcoming ceremony, will act as the pillow for her corpse before it is buried.
After a private lunch, President Higgins departed for Westminster Abbey where he laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown warrior, and then paused respectively at the memorial to Lord Mountbatten.
The state banquet was the climax of the day and another careful feat of choreography, as former IRA commander and present Northern Ireland deputy first minister Martin McGuinness was seated at the long table, but 15 places away from Prince Philip among the 160 guests.
At the morning arrival, Irish tricolours and union jacks fluttered along the streets of Windsor as a 21-gun salute rang out across the castle, while, simultaneously, a 41-gun salute sounded at the Tower of London, to mark the beginning of the first state visit by an Irish president.
As the smoke from the cannon fire cleared, a selection of traditional Irish melodies took its place, the sound of reconciliation intended to drown-out the echo of the gunfire of the past.