“It was wonderful to watch the Queen and Michael D at the banquet,” an old acquaintance said to me in a Dublin bookshop last week. “You know, I think everything changed for the Royal Family when Kate Middleton married William.”
Pausing in Ireland last week – en route from Istanbul to the US – it was as revealing as it was instructive to be there when the Irish President, the aforesaid Michael D Higgins, was paying his state visit to Britain. The Irish papers, normally so acerbic in their coverage of all things royal, positively purred with self-satisfaction that “the Queen” – not Queen Elizabeth, mark you, as she would have been called by any other self-respecting republic – had greeted the Irish President with all the Queen’s horses and all the Queen’s men.
I have always suspected that deep in the soul of every middle-aged Irish lady – far more than Irish men, perhaps – there lies a sneaking affection for the tiaras, and brocade, and the palace, and the castle, and the pomp and circumstance that their grandparents rejected in 1920 (though not so wholeheartedly as we may believe – Ireland remained within the Commonwealth until after the Second World War).
But my old friend in the bookshop was obviously fascinated by the panjandrum of Windsor and there was a very Hello! magazine quality to the way in which she thought Kate had helped the royals to “turn the corner” from, as she put it, “the Diana years”. And I did recall that I was also visiting Dublin one morning 33 years ago when I noticed that every woman and child vanished from the streets, every bus ran empty, every shop was deserted. Everyone, it turned out, was at home watching Lady Diana Spencer marry her Prince Charming in Westminster Abbey.
But last week was revealing in other ways. While the British media dwelt upon the sins of Martin McGuinness and his IRA past and his handshake with the Queen of England, the Irish papers fulfilled the role of the British press in sanctifying the rule of Good Queen Bess. The London correspondent of The Irish Times wrote of the “kaleidoscope of memories” which the royal week had left behind. Miriam Lord, normally stabbing (accurately) the hypocrites of Dail Eireann – one of her female predecessors as Dail sketchwriter was known to TDs (Irish MPs) as “the bitch with the rusty knife” – was at her softest when it came to our beloved Queen and the Irish President’s success – “then it was back to Windsor Castle for a special reception with a Northern Ireland theme...” Being a bit of a British republican, I did suggest to my friend that if she was so enthusiastic about our Queen, I was sure we could arrange to freight the old lady over to Ireland for three months a year.
The Irish are looking, among other things, for an increase in joint Anglo-Irish trade delegations abroad. The British are desperate to ensure that never – ever – again does Northern Ireland become a battleground for the British Army. The UK can no longer afford “the Troubles”, nor the military manpower they sucked up. After all, without the Good Friday Agreement and the “peace” which it brought to the north, the British Army would simply not have had enough troops to occupy Afghanistan, or invade Iraq, or deploy on the other adventures they’ve enjoyed in recent years.
Yet it is the legacy – or perhaps the history – of that same British Army upon which Ireland has been dwelling this past week. Gay Byrne, surely Ireland’s most popular television celebrity (a tough and political one, too), is telling the story on Irish television later this week of his father, Private Edward Byrne, who joined the 19th Royal Hussars in 1912 and fought in some of the most ferocious battles of the First World War. Wicklow-born Byrne, of course, wore British uniform, and was part of the original British Expeditionary Force which went to fight the Germans in France in 1914. He was one of the 4 per cent of the old regular army – “the Old Contemptibles” as they called themselves after a sneering remark which may or may not have been made by the Kaiser – who were not killed or wounded by the end of 1914.
Private Byrne survived the first and second Battles of Ypres, the July 1916 Battle of the Somme (20,000 British dead in the first 24 hours) and then the crazed and futile cavalry charge at Le Cateau, in which 100 of his regiment were killed or wounded. At Ypres, he fought hand-to-hand with the Germans. Seven of Byrne’s brothers – Gay Byrne’s uncles – fought in the Great War, one of them dying later from gas inhalation. Private Byrne didn’t join up for the monarchy now so beloved of the Irish media, nor to save mostly occupied and Catholic Belgium. There was simply no more work for farm labourers in Ireland.
Gay Byrne never talked to his father about the war but remembers him waking in the night, shrieking in horror, so loudly that the neighbours would themselves wake and turn their lights on. He was one of 200,000 Irish soldiers of the British Army who returned to a land which had embraced the struggle for independence against the Crown and whose honoured martyrs were not the dead of the Somme but the executed fighters of the 1916 Easter Rising.
Yet even amid plans for the coming centenary of that cataclysmic event in Irish history – the Irish, I should add, seem a little more cautious than the British about the Queen’s apparent enthusiasm for the Royal Family to participate in honouring the Irish dead – there is a harsh thread of reality to combat the romanticism which once shrouded these events. Last week, for example, Irish schoolchildren honoured the 40 children killed in the 1916 rising, some of them – as we have learned from newly opened archives – hit by rebel as well as British bullets. Families of 15 of the dead children – who are, as the Irish minister for children said, “missing from the pages of 1916” – commemorated their loss, admitting that their families rarely spoke of their grief.
Twelve-year-old Patrick Fetherston was taken by his mother to the Jervis Hospital in central Dublin but bled to death from a bullet-hole in his thigh. The youngest victim of the rising was Christina Caffrey, who was only two years old. At an ecumenical service, a schoolteacher read WB Yeats’s “The Stolen Child”, which ends with the words: “For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”