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Prince Charles visit: South shows its true face

We shouldn't be surprised that Prince Charles' visit to the Republic was such an unalloyed success. The Irish are, in fact, an innately royalist people, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 22/05/2015

Charles and Camilla in Mullaghmore this week
Charles and Camilla in Mullaghmore this week
Archbishop of Dublin William Walsh walks alongside King George V and Queen Mary in Maynooth in 1911
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge leaving Westminster Abbey after their wedding ceremony

"Protests are expected," said The Australian newspaper in advance of Prince Charles' visit south of the border this week. You don't say? This is Ireland. The prospect of a good protest is the only thing that gets many Irish people out of bed in the morning. But, as a northerner living in the Republic, the most surprising thing about the four-day royal trip is how little controversy it excited.

A small raggle-taggle of malcontents gathered in Galway on the first day, but such bitterness was mainly notable by its absence and those who chose to wallow in it were generally regarded as no better than sulky teenagers, huffing in their rooms rather than coming down and joining the party.

Instead, as when the Queen visited in 2011, there was cheering, clapping, smiling faces all round. You can't please all of the people all of the time, but Charles came impressively close to doing so.

Part of that is because Sinn Fein is on its best behaviour, having spectacularly misread the mood when the Queen dropped by four years ago. If they wanted, republicans could have got more people out onto the streets to chant slogans and burn Union flags, but it's more interested these days in getting a piece of the action. One picture of Gerry Adams shaking hands with Charles is worth a thousand fundraisers in Boston.

But the general pleasure at the visit of the heir to the throne is a reminder that the Irish have always been much more pro-royal than nationalist clichés might suggest.

Considering that the greatest arch-republican in British history was a certain Oliver Cromwell, who overthrew a monarchy which he regarded as tyrannical before proceeding to set up an English Commonwealth that was, in every way, thoroughly worse, subjugating the Scots and Irish by force, that's perhaps not unexpected. Who wouldn't feel warmer about royalty after that?

That's why early republicans didn't dream of meddling with the monarchy. Even post-independence, they still envisaged retaining a crowned head. King George V's visit to Dublin in 1911 came within living memory of the Famine for many, but was greeted with huge crowds, the same crowds who booed the 1916 rebels as they were led through the streets after surrendering.

That mood changed, for obvious historical reasons, but it did so as a reaction to circumstances, it did not change the Irish people's fundamental nature. The War of Independence and Civil War were nasty episodes, but, again, they were soon over, and afterwards the country quickly reverted to quiet conservatism.

That had negative consequences, not least an inability to challenge the oppressive authority of the Catholic Church; but it had its good side, too. This wasn't a country that was ever likely to descend into anarchy. Ireland, like the England described by Napoleon, is a nation of shopkeepers, and shopkeepers don't do revolution.

Ireland was always a property-owning, bourgeois democracy and, if it had one overwhelming desire, it was to not make a fuss. It took them until 1949 to finally break the link with the Crown and declare a full Republic.

That doesn't mean they hanker for a return to the Union. The Irish love their Presidency to an almost ironically royalist extent, but affection for the royals is in abundance, too.

One reason for that, according to the historian Diarmuid Ferriter, is the long tradition of Irish soldiers serving in the Crown forces. There's also the fact that Britain has been the destination of millions of Irish down the years who looked across the water for opportunities and freedoms denied them at home.

Generations of coming and going leave a mark. Besides, where else is an innately royalist people to get their fix of glamour and pageantry? A million-and-a-half people in the Republic watched the wedding of William and Kate and those who were inclined to sneer at it all found little echo of their cynicism in the south, but were roundly dismissed as begrudgers, killjoys.

Like it or not, the people of these islands have a shared history and an interlocking identity and keeping up with the Saxe-Coburgs seems to be another way of safely enjoying those connections, because, a few grumbly letters to Government ministers from Charles aside, the royal family has always been avowedly non-political.

The royals, in turn, are masters at charming those irksome Celtic fringes. Scotland, Cornwall, Wales, Ireland - they have deep ties to all and they know how to fortify them.

Boneheaded republicans may see the Irish welcome this week as humiliating obsequiousness, but it's simply good manners, and the southern Irish do pride themselves on being hospitable.

That was powerfully expressed when Charles' great-uncle Lord Mountbatten was murdered in 1979. A sense of having failed in their duty as good hosts was tantamount.

They took pride in the fact that Mountbatten could come to Co Sligo each summer and tend to his lobster pots. In retrospect, it was naive. This was the height of the Troubles and Mullaghmore was only a few miles from the border.

But that they felt this way says a lot about how people in the Republic, in spite of the horrors of that decade, saw themselves and their society as essentially friendly, peaceful, decent.

The problem for northerners, nationalists and unionists alike, is that we tend, much less so than before, but still to a dispiriting extent, to look at the world through an Ulster-shaped window.

Our sense of the south was skewed by the Troubles. Wasn't everything? But even as children, heading across the border on holiday, it was always an astonishment to discover, to adapt that famous phrase, that the south was a foreign country, they did things differently there.

It was even more alien to unionists, who rarely made that journey, squinting suspiciously on the Republic as a Provo hothouse. If they'd looked closer, unionists would have found that resentful Belfast republicans were probably closer to the mark when they lambasted the "Free State" as a conservative place whose main concern was to keep the north at arm's-length.

Middle Ireland is about as radical and dangerous as the Home Counties. The mistake that republicans made was feeling contemptuous of that quality, rather than simply accepting that southerners were different. The mistake unionists made was being too suspicious of the Republic to see it as it really was.

The real spirit of the country is not found in Gerry Adams' sour refusal to soften his past words about Mountbatten, but in people like Fine Gael's Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan, a pluralist to his fingertips, who is now able to welcome the "warm, neighbourly, dynamic" relations between Ireland and Britain that he sought all along.

In a way, bringing Charles to Mullaghmore was a way of repairing what was broken in 1979, and, just as the Irish are good hosts, the royals always make good guests. Civility and humour go a long way to healing wounds and the Irish are never happier than when outsiders appreciate them.

"I am very proud of Ireland today," said former President Mary McAleese. That is the Ireland she was talking about and it put on its very best face this week. If only Gerry Adams could say the same.

Eilis O'Hanlon is a Belfast-born journalist and writer living and working in Dublin

Belfast Telegraph

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