Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

'Like Charles and Diana, my wife and I married in 1981 and like the royal couple our fairy tale did not last either...'

Paul Hopkins on how Charles and Di's doomed love story mirrored events in his own life and why people in the Republic, where he lives, also felt such a fascination with the shy young woman who married a prince

Paul and Geraldine Hopkins on their wedding day
Paul and Geraldine Hopkins on their wedding day
Prince Charles kisses his bride, the former Diana Spencer, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in London after their wedding
Happier times: Charles and Diana with Prince William aged two
Paul with his ex-wife Geraldine and adult children Niamh, Paul (left) and Louis
Paul Hopkins with first-born Niamh, in 1982

By Paul Hopkins

Those of us of a certain age can remember where we were when the world woke up to the news that Princess Diana had died, aged 36. This writer has cause to remember August 31, 1997, when Diana, her lover Dodi Al-Fayed and their driver, Henri Paul, died in a high-speed car crash in a Paris tunnel.

Cause, perhaps, for the courtship and marriage of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles, heir to the throne of England, in some ways mirrored my own marriage to the mother of my three children.

I am no monarchist, nor do I have any wish to be mawkish or overly sentimental - a habit that fades with age and its accompanying cynicism. For the record, though, Charles and Di married the same year my wife and I did; the prince and I are of the same generation, while Diana and the mother of my children were the same age, so young when they wed, and a good decade younger than the men they married; Prince William was born the same year as my first child, my only daughter, and both couples' second children were born 10 days apart.

My young bride-to-be even managed a flattering imitation of the taffeta - a fine, lustrous silk - Diana used in her bridal ensemble in her own dress for the day.

And if we didn't have the lofty sanctuary and solemnity of St Paul's Cathedral, like the young royals did on July 29, 1981, to exchange our vows, our celebration took place in the Mansion House, private residence of then Dublin Lord Mayor Alexis Fitzgerald, with the good councillor as principal guest, and more than 300 attendees.

That austere but fine townhouse was built by Englishman Joshua Dawson in 1715 and sold five years later to the City Fathers for the princely sum of £3,500. The porch and adjacent round room was built for the visit of King George IV, and was the venue for the first sitting of Dail Eireann in 1919 - so our day (too), on November 16, 1981, was marked with a sense of history. What both weddings had also in common was that neither marriage survived the course, though mine made it to 25 years.

Unlike Charles, however, I was a man very much in love back then. As a young couple planning our forthcoming wedding, we watched - mainly because it was difficult to avoid the wall-to-wall coverage - the royal wedding take place and remarked, just as a by-the-way, on the births of William and Harry as we celebrated our own children coming into the world.

Sign In

The royal couple and we were, of course, in every other aspect, a million miles apart. We felt for them, though, on that August day 20 years ago, for our own fairytale was still in full flow - our break-up still a good 10 years into the future. There was something about the young woman who lost her life in the City of Light, a certain je ne sais quoi that would cast her in an iconic mould, this Shy Di, this People's Princess, this Queen of Hearts. Before the advent of the internet and its spawning of the cult of instant celebrity, she was probably the most loved person in the known world, certainly the most sought-after, the most photographed, the most commented on.

She was, or at least seemed, accessible, unlike the stuffy, dysfunctional family she married into; seemed 'like one of us' though, if truth be told, she merely afforded those who needed an escape from the reality of the economic and political dreariness of the Eighties, a peek into a fairytale world, offering momentary respite.

In the south, we Irish did not escape succumbing to her beauty and innocent charm, long before we thought the Brits 'okay' after Queen Elizabeth's address to the Dail in 2011. Women loved her, admired her fashion and looks, respected her motherhood and her many charitable works, marvelling when she said once: "Carry out a random act of kindness, with no expectation of reward, safe in the knowledge that one day someone might do the same for you."

And the very same, young women empathised with Diana during her battle with bulimia and depression and with her sad excuse of a marriage.

I loved it when she said once: "They say it is better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable, but how about a compromise like moderately rich and just moody?"

Irish men were merely happy that their women's fawning and following - most days back then she made the main news pages of Irish newspapers - of the princess's fairytale lifestyle kept their minds off other matters that would have otherwise centred on their men in the pub or on the playing field.

Jolly hockey sticks, the princess even had Irish blood in her veins: her great-grandfather, one James Burke Roche, was elected to Westminster in 1896 for Kerry East as an anti-Charles Stuart Parnell candidate. Incidentally, the great grandmother of Parnell was a member of the Tudor family.

Diana, then, was the glittering princess at the centre of a royal soap opera played out in the glare of the media, making her probably the most recognised woman around the world. Her passing prompted the biggest public outpouring of grief seen in Britain in recent times, and few since have captivated the world like she did. But she was a troubled soul and not all of it down to the man who talks to plants. Being so much in the limelight, it must have been - it was - difficult for her to deal with her demons in any kind of meaningful way. Being 'written off' by the royals only served to antagonise the situation.

However, her emotional candour, empathy and maternal love softened Britain's stiff upper lip somewhat irreversibly.

A mass outpouring of grief marked her tragic death, conspiracy theories notwithstanding. After the initial tumult had died down - the breast-beating and the wreath-laying - we were left with sincerity, solemnity, and respect, those being the traits that defined her public memory.

This was the tone that shaped the news, and which has become her chronicle - a beatific figure, complicated by beauty and circumstance, who occupied a nation's heart. She stole it. We loved her. Even those of us considered republicans in a Republic of Ireland loved her. Some went overboard, affording her the iconic status last afforded the slain (and young) President John F Kennedy.

If the week immediately after her death was unforgettable for its mass hysteria, the lasting peculiarity of her life is that sense of unanimity. There is only one way in which she was going to be allowed to be remembered. It is almost as if a child had died, or a saint, or the Sacred Heart Himself was dying for us all over again.

Diana's death as a moment in cultural history come down to this: whether or not her death changed Britain or merely cracked open changes that had already happened, but gone unremarked upon, there is no question that Britain was a different country after it. Certainly many felt different after she was gone, as if that chance to emulate, in some guise or other, whether fashion or deed, a young woman who had seemed to be, if only fleetingly, "one of us", had offered us all a temporary respite from the mundane.

We've always had fairy tales. We've always, at some time in our lives, needed them even if only as bedtime stories.

Despite all this outpouring and iconic devotion, previous anniversaries of Princess Diana's death have gone by with little or no fanfare, suggesting that the People's Princess, as she was dubbed by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, had perhaps lost some of her allure and relevance.

But, with William and Harry to the fore, the 20th anniversary has seen her once more dominate front pages of newspapers as she did half a lifetime ago.

In TV reports over the last few months, William (35) said the shock of losing his mother still lingered, while Harry (32) revealed he had sought counselling in his late 20s to help deal with the grief.

"She still is our mum," Harry said in an intimate TV documentary. "Of course, as a son I would say this, that she was the best mum in the world ..."

Just like the mother of my three children … car-crash ending of my own marriage apart.

Maybe, fairy tales are not for grown-ups after all. At least not with any happy ever-after.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph