George V visited Ireland 100 years ago this July. His welcome was flat — Home Rule was the real issue,says Robert Hume
‘A cloudless sky, Dublin bay bathed in glorious sunshine, a flag-bedecked fleet lying at anchor in the scarce-rippled waters of the Irish Sea … pinnaces laden with tars flitting across the sparkling waters; the quay ablaze with welcoming throngs.’
THE above passage is the Cork Examiner waxing lyrical about the arrival of King George V, Queen Mary, and their eldest son and daughter on Saturday, July 8, 1911. The editor noted that his Dublin correspondent was describing the scene ‘through English glasses.’
The king had been crowned a fortnight earlier. As the new head of the British Empire, he had chosen to make his first visit to Ireland, and many of Ireland’s loyal absentee landowners had been recalled from London to be present.
But given that Home Rule was the burning issue of the day, would the public welcome him? The authorities were concerned about possible trouble: ‘a demonstration,’ ‘untoward incidents,’ ‘an unfriendly reception’.
The crowd cheered as the royal party was rowed ashore to the sound of the national anthem. The king, ‘a picture of bronzed health and vigour,’ bowed repeatedly. He was dressed in the uniform of an admiral. The queen wore a turquoise satin dress, a white hat trimmed with ostrich feathers, and a white veil.
A carriage took them from Kingstown to Dublin Castle: eight vans carried their personal luggage.
The route was lined with men from the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. Onlookers had scaled walls and climbed trees to get a better view. Inscribed on some of the houses was ‘céad mile failte’.
As the royals entered a festively-dressed Dublin, among those awaiting them were 1,000 people who had left Cork on a special train at 6.30am.
The royal party was welcomed by the lord mayor of Dublin, but the overwhelmingly nationalist city corporation had decided to take no part in the reception.
At 1pm, the royal visitors entered the shaded yard of Dublin Castle — and protection from the ‘almost tropical’ heat (110 degrees F).
A quick meal and a change of clothes — the king put on a grey frock coat — and then out once more into the blazing sun.
A crowded programme was packed into the next four days. Although the visits would be confined to Dublin and its neighbourhood, they would include poor as well as rich districts and humanitarian engagements would be sandwiched between formal presentations.
In practice, not everything went strictly to plan: just before the procession reached Monkstown on its way to Dublin, the artificial flowers of a floral arch caught fire, and only ashes were visible in the road as it passed.
Charles Street was too narrow for the king’s car to get through, so he had to press a button to open a TB dispensary more than 50 yards away.
The visit to the children’s play centre was spoilt by a drunk who forced his way in, and by a ‘rather portly gentleman’ who got mixed up with those being presented.
At Phoenix Park, police tried unsuccessfully to chase away a herd of deer that strolled across the grounds moments before the king’s car was due.
The royal family was ‘respectfully’ received with a ‘thoroughly Irish welcome,’; the public was ‘cordial in the extreme’; and there were even outbursts of ‘spontaneous heartiness.’ But only occasionally was any real enthusiasm reported.
After all, the main issue of the day was not a royal visit, but Home Rule. Rebublican and author Erskine Childers was about to publish The Framework of Home Rule; and a lengthy letter about how a Home Rule parliament would work had been printed in the Cork Examiner only a week earlier.
“It was something of a shock,” wrote a correspondent from The Times “to have thrust into one’s hand, just as the procession was approaching, a nationalist leaflet denouncing us all for standing in the streets of Dublin to cheer the ‘King of England’ while Ireland was without a separate legislature.”
Outside Dublin, support for the visit was certainly muted. In Cork, only ‘a number’ of houses in the city hung out flags and bunting, at all.
In Limerick, the police were called to deal with an anticipated riot when the owner of a lodging house in Mungret Street was caught displaying the Union Jack.
A Limerick magistrate said he was happy to see Britain’s power base of Dublin Castle swept away by the sea.
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