Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

How a simple bow changed course of troubled history

David Cameron has called it a 'game changer' in Anglo-Irish relations. But the Queen's visit to Ireland began with the humblest gesture, says Lise Hand

It was the smallest of actions by the Queen - a half-bow, an incline of the head - but its significance was immense. For it was a gesture most people in the Republic never thought they'd see.

They never thought they'd see the sovereign standing in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin paying tribute to Ireland's war dead; to the men and women who perished in the struggle for freedom from British rule.

But this turned out to be one in a series of memorable moments during four extraordinary days in May, when the Queen made the first state visit by a British monarch to the Republic.

The mood in the country before the Royal visit was mixed; there was a level of tension over whether any of the dissident IRA groups would succeed in disrupting any of the events and a massive security operation swung into action.

However, as soon as the Queen emerged from her plane in Dublin, her intention was clear.

Dressed in emerald-green coat and hat, she sported a bright smile which rarely dimmed throughout her stay.

So began a four-day odyssey during which time the Queen learned more about Ireland - and the Irish learned more about themselves.

Every day brought a new first and, over the course of the visit, the fascination of the Irish people grew.

There were laughs to be had - the sight of an obviously thirsty Duke of Edinburgh circling a freshly-poured pint of Guinness struck a pang of amused empathy in many spectators.

Later the same day, the Queen walked past the ghosts of Britain and Ireland's entwined past and out into the glossy green sward of Croke Park, the site of a bloody massacre one Sunday in November 1920.

That same evening, 825,000 TV viewers tuned in to watch the Queen make her only speech of the visit, at the state dinner in Dublin Castle.

Again, it was clear that much thought had gone into the Queen's ensemble - her white silk evening gown was adorned with 2,091 hand-sewn embroidered shamrocks.

But there was more - she began her speech with five words in Irish - "A Uachtarain agus a chairde" ("President and friends") - perfectly pronounced in her crystal-cut accent. "Wow," whispered Mary McAleese beside her.

Although she displayed no show of emotion, this formal address was unexpectedly moving. She spoke of the weight of history and - with a graceful reference to the Garden of Remembrance ceremony - "of being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it". At her table, a tear rolled down the face of Prime Minister David Cameron.

A big downside of the security concerns was that Irish citizens had so little chance to interact with the royal couple, with all events being attended by invited guests, which meant that the Queen was getting little unofficial feedback as to what the Irish were making of her visit.

But this changed as the visit progressed, most notably when she toured the English Market in Cork. It was the most relaxed public event of the trip and she and Prince Philip were snapped laughing with local fishmonger Pat O'Connell; also, she was able to meet the crowd gathered outside.

However, she had already received some resounding feedback the previous evening when she attended a concert in the National Convention Centre which featured acts such as The Chieftains, Westlife, the cast of Riverdance and Mary Byrne.

A cheer and prolonged applause rose from the packed auditorium and, as she turned on the stage to acknowledge the noisy crowd, the Queen's face lit up.

The cheers were in appreciation of a woman who had come to make friends after so many years of estrangement; and marked the maturity of a grown-up nation determined not to be bound by the past anymore.

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