After 59 years on the throne — Elizabeth II is now the second-longest-serving monarch in British history, and she will in all probability live to outdo her great-great-grandmother, Victoria, who clocked up 63 years — the Queen has been to nearly every country in the world.
She has completed some 380 state visits in her time.
But the Republic of Ireland really is something new: as is now well known, no British monarch has set foot in Dublin since George V, the Queen’s great-grandfather, in 1911. Because of “political sensitivities” no British monarch could set foot in Dublin until now. The planning of this state visit has been at least three years in the making: the invitation was indeed first formally extended to the Queen by President Mary Robinson back in 1993 but progress had to wait on the Good Friday Agreement and the healing peace process which has taken place since then.
As I understand it, the Queen herself has been keen to make this trip, and she herself chose to make it a four-day visit, rather than the more usual two-day gig. She has a full, rich, and imaginative itinerary, which includes an appearance at the GAA’s Croke Park, and the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin’s Parnell Square, founded to honour generations of Irish patriots who were usually viewed by the Crown as rebels.
I believe it will be a piquant and stimulating event, which for both the Queen and Prince Philip, will seem just a little different from so many state visits they might have made to other foreign or Commonwealth countries. For most British people, the Republic of Ireland is not exactly a “foreign” country: it is something like a slightly exotic cousin — a historic part of the family, but apart, as well.
The family link is relevant: it is reckoned that some 10% of people in Britain have an Irish parent or grandparent. Being a Dubliner married to an Englishman myself, I’m familiar with this context: our London-born sons had loads of friends who, like them, had one British and one Irish parent and a strong, fond link with “the auld country” was always maintained. How often did “The Fields of Athenry” ring out on St Patrick’s Day?
Yet in coming into Dublin, in particular, the Queen will find herself in somewhat familiar surroundings. It is often said by architectural experts, that Dublin is essentially “an English city built on a Danish foundation”: for it was the Danes, who defeated our last High King, Brian Boru, in 1014, who laid out Dublin, and it came to its full elegance under the Hanoverian Georges.
The Queen will be lodging at a stately mansion associated with the Guinness family, Farmleigh, but she will spend time at the President’s residence, now known as Aras an Uachtarain, but originally the Vice-Regal Lodge. It’s a splendid Palladian edifice dating from 1782, for which an extra wing was built for Queen Victoria, and an extra wing added for George V. (President McAleese once told me rather delightedly that she likes to sleep in George V’s bed). Victoria felt especially at home here in the Phoenix Park, where she could trot around the grounds in her pony and cart.
The famous sites of Dublin which the present Queen will see were almost all put in place under the English — and later, British — Crown, from Dublin Castle (King John in 1204), through Trinity College (Elizabeth I in 1592) to the Taoiseach’s Office in Merrion Street: the foundation stone laid by her great-grandfather Edward VII in 1904 (very popular in Ireland as a man of the turf) and the building formally opened by George V.
All around are the glories of Georgian Dublin: Leinster House (built 1745), Merrion Square, Mountjoy Square, Eccles Street (of James Joyce fame), Henrietta Street, and Parnell Square itself with its lovely Rotunda. Leinster House, now the home of the Dail and the Seanad, also contains the only statue left in Dublin of a member of the British royal family: that of Prince Albert, Victoria’s consort, discreetly still standing on a plinth in the back lawn. All the rest have been, one way or another, knocked off their pedestals — but when the Lord Mayor of Dublin meets the Queen, it may be observed that that Mayoral chain of office still contains the image of William of Orange.
So Dublin will have many familiar resonances for Her Majesty, and I’m sure she will be far too tactful to go around pointing out various landmarks, saying: “Oh yes, I think we gave you that one” (though perhaps Prince Philip might, if provoked!)
Once she travels outside of Dublin, she will be much more into authentic Irish foundations, such as the Rock of Cashel in Co Tipperary, associated with the kings of Munster and the Irish monastic traditions. But, by the way, Elizabeth II can claim Brian Boru among her own ancestors (the Dublin geneaologist Monica Henchy has traced the connection, via the kings of Scotland), so the intermingling of history is still a factor.
When she gets to the English Market in Cork — one of Europe’s best food markets, which has contributed to Cork’s growing reputation as the gastronomic county of Ireland — it may also be recalled to her that the English Market was set up in the 18th century in imitation of similar markets in England, notably in the Leeds area.
If the Queen keeps a diary it will be surely as fascinating an archive for the future as the diary of Queen Victoria, which was immense, rich and copious (or even the diary kept by George V, which was less fluent and opinionated, but still a very good record of his life, including his visits to Dublin and Belfast). How fascinating it would be to get a peep at Elizabeth II’s record of the state visit to the Irish Republic which she was committed to making.
Queen Victoria’s diary was in a very different time — her reign being from 1837 to 1901 — but she caught something vivid and true about Ireland in her observations. Though she would have been fiercely critical of “rebel” inclinations of any kind, she was very responsible to the people. “This warm-hearted people,” she wrote repeatedly.
At that time, all of Ireland was, of course, within the United Kingdom, so it was a home trip. Yet she saw that Ireland was both like Britain, and different. There was something almost Italian in the effusive way the people, especially in the south, expressed themselves. I am sure that most of us hope that next week’s unique visit will bring to the Queen and Prince Philip both something familiar and something beguilingly different, and that, like Victoria, she will leave the country saying the whole experience was unforgettable.
Mary Kenny is a writer, journalist, public speaker and the author of Crown and Shamrock – Love and Hate between Ireland and the British Monarchy. www.mary-kenny.com
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