Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

The British monarch in the Republic? I was speechless

The Queen Elizabeth II arrives at the Convention Centre Dublin for an evening of British and Irish music and fashion
The Queen visits the Irish National Stud on May 19, 2011 in Kildare, Ireland.
President of the Irish Republic Mary McAleese, Queen Elizabeth II and GAA President Christy Cooney at Croke Park, Dublin, during the second day of her State Visit to Ireland.

You know the way it is: you wait forever for a bus to come along and then you get two. Now, I am perhaps the only living Irish person who had never met President McAleese and I am one of the few British-born persons never to meet the Queen.

And then, in a single second yesterday, I met them both.

It's not as if I was prepared for this. It had seemed for a while that I wasn't going to get an invitation to Islandbridge and, when I did, I was assured that I would certainly not be meeting either head of state.

So, at the ceremony's end, I stood in the dappled sunlight, waiting for the president and the Queen to finish the inspection of the memorial books of Ireland's Great War dead.

And then Sean Murphy, of the Royal British Legion, asked me to leave the main body of the gathering and to stand in line on the edge of the assembly area.

Even then, I was unsure of the reason for that: perhaps I would be expected to lay my cloak on the ground in the event of rain.

The president, the Queen and the republican-royal entourage emerged from the book repository and met members of the council of state and, turning at right angles, began to move past the motley throng of which I was a member.

Some of them, for reasons which defy analysis on this most courteous and forgiving of days, were members of the Ulster Defence Association; all muscle, menace and moustache.

I am unsure — even now — what characteristic of mine merited such august company. Either way, the two heads of state lingeringly moved towards the exit, the president shaking the odd outstretched paw and nattering affably, while the Queen performed that inscrutably cheerful grin that she presumably finds comes in handy, doing the same job for 60 years.

The two women were sailing right by when President McAleese suddenly stopped and greeted me.

Contrary to the agreeable fiction of media life in which she was once a distinguished participant — that we all know one another — I had never met her before. Our first time, in other words.

In that same moment, she introduced me to the Queen, who directed the royal grin at me and nodded.

The president told the Queen that I had done a lot of work on the Irish in the two world wars.

This is a guess because, at that particular moment, someone unplugged a swimming pool in my skull and all I could hear was the roaring noise of several million gallons of water sluicing downwards.

I am unclear about what followed next; however, in times of panic, I am inclined to speak Tibetan mixed with Afrikaans.

The two ladies blinked politely. Not having very much idea what I should do next, I believe I turned to the nearest head of state in the cluster around them and croaked, “My president.” This was not some Latinate effusion of loyalty, just cerebral incoherence.

I know now that I should have said, “Madam president,” which I could easily have done had I been given a week or so to practise.

Not to leave the other head of state broken and forlorn at my heartless neglect, I then babbled “Majesty”. The two of then briefly studied me, before apparently deciding that further conversation was unlikely to be productive and moved on. I waited for a moment to see if King Canute or President Abraham Lincoln might next come popping by, but after a suitable wait, it was clear I was clean out of heads of state — for the time being, anyway.

No doubt, if I waited a day or so, another brace might come my way. But what does the president of Peru look like?

It is 33 years since I first walked around Islandbridge, when it was Dublin's official tip-head, where corporation lorries queued to dump the offal of the city's bins.

A huge Traveller encampment covered the rest of the site. Herds of shaggy, piebald ponies grazed on the patches of grass between the stinking detritus, the caravans and the scrawny unwashed children.

The great stones of Lutyens’s memorial were defaced and fallen. The memorial to Ireland's dead could barely have been treated worse had the Taliban been in power.

That era is over. Recrimination belongs to another day. Yesterday, I met two ladies in a lovely park beside the Liffey. And I am happy.

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