Belfast Telegraph

President visits Shakespeare town

The President has offered up high praise for the English language in the place of Shakespeare's birth as he concludes an historic state visit to the UK.

Michael D Higgins was waved off by the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh at Windsor Castle, in Berkshire, where the presidential party has been hosted throughout the four-day trip.

Later, on a visit to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, he spoke of the "delight" of a shared and powerful language - and humour - between the British and the Irish.

Mr Higgins, welcomed to the stage with warm applause to make his address, said: "The words exchanged between Ireland and England have often been part of a long and sometimes tortured exchange.

"We cannot pretend it was always a happy and friendly affair.

"To do so would be a dis-service to truth and history and here in this place sacred to the English language, and its many clones, it would be inauthentic and foolish to gloss over truth because at the heart of language there is, and must be, a passion for truth.

"I just want to acknowledge the English language we share.

"If it was once the forced language of conquest, it is today the very language in which we have now come to delight and share our different and complimentary understanding of what it means to be human together in this world, transacting in the currency of words over the ages.

"To share a language is to privilege the existence of the other, accept the joy and responsibility of hospitality of wide entrances at all times and in all things."

Arriving at the riverside theatre in glorious sunshine, about 100 people welcomed the presidential motorcade applauding the Irish head of state as he turned to wave at the crowd, before greeting dignitaries.

Among those waiting in the public area was 65-year-old Philomena Hodgetts whose family is originally from Portrush, Northern Ireland, who said the president's visit was "important" for both Britain and Ireland.

"It is very important that someone like him, a non-political figure, is coming to bridge the gap, given our history," said Mrs Hodgetts, who now lives in Bidford-on-Avon, Warwickshire.

"His meeting with the Queen, MPs, and other state dignitaries speaks volumes," she added.

"It is lovely that two nations, which have gone through so much together - and with The Troubles which touched many people - can now show the world how to achieve peace and friendship."

Another reminder of the UK and Ireland's complicated shared past was on display, courtesy of the Birmingham Irish Heritage Group.

Group member Richard Sinclair had brought the emerald green colours of an Irish regiment which fought in the First World War as part of the British and Imperial forces - during which the Easter Rising occurred.

Many Irish soldiers returning from the battlefields of Flanders were treated as traitors when they returned home to a nation which had changed in their absence, said Mr Sinclair.

"It is wonderful that after 100 years we're finally closing that circle," said Mr Sinclair, who is from Birmingham where there is a sizeable Irish population."

Mr Higgins, accompanied by his wife Sabina, was given a backstage tour before being treated to a brief performance from the RSC's current billing - Shakespeare's Henry IV.

Telling the audience he felt "privileged" by his visit, he gave a speech praising the benefits of a shared language which though "once the forced language of conquest" had now come to be a beacon of understanding between Britain and Ireland.

He also reflected on the two nations shared sense of humour.

Mr Higgins said: "Humour too is a deepening and widening of understanding, to expand the horizons of solidarity and vulnerability.

"And solidarity is the search always and everywhere for a future in a world not yet fashioned or even formed where our children, nurtured, can share a compassionate future understanding using words as gestures of love and care and hospitality to each other."

He compared George Bernard Shaw's observation of English and Americans being "separated by a common language" to the UK's relationship with Ireland.

"His perception can be very usefully re-framed to cast light on the present happy face of relations between our two people as we pass slowly but surely into a new kind of relationship between Ireland and Britain that beckons us," he said.

Mr Higgins was later presented with The Complete Works of Shakespeare, signed by the acting company, and gifted the RSC a copy of The Book of Kells.

He later visited the nearby 16th century Shakespeare's Birthplace, to view that part of the museum's collection which bears an Irish connection.

The Irish head of state travelled on to Coventry for a tour of its current cathedral and the ruins of the old building which was bombed during the Second World War, and he was due to meet religious and civic dignitaries before flying home.

This first state visit by the President follows an official trip to Ireland by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in 2011.

At a state banquet earlier this week at Windsor Castle, the Queen said the events of the very recent past showed the two nations were "walking together towards a brighter, more settled future".

She added: "We will remember our past, but we shall no longer allow our past to ensnare our future."

In an historic address to the House of Commons on Tuesday Mr Higgins hailed the transformation of the relationship between Britain and Ireland from what had once been one of mistrust to one of mutual respect and friendship.

The President attended a concert held in his honour at London's Royal Albert Hall, where he said his "memorable" state visit to the UK has been "so positive, so uplifting and so hopeful".

Taking to the stage to uproarious applause, he said: "On a night like this it is great to be Irish."

He added it was "even better" to share it with "our friends in Britain", and described the cultures of the two nations as "deeply interwoven".

He said the two nations' friendship "will grow and deepen and become richer as a result...of this memorable week".

Mr Higgins, joined in the Royal Box by his wife and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, enjoyed an evening of music, song, dance and literature featuring artists from the two nations, including Glen Hansard, Imelda May, Paul Brady, and special guest Elvis Costello.

Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was also in the audience, along with First Minister Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and former prime minister John Major.

Earlier, the Queen had hosted a Northern Ireland-themed reception, where Mr McGuinness shook hands with the monarch, congratulating her on her role in peacemaking in Ireland.

He said: "The Queen's visit to Dublin and how she conducted herself - her words at the memorial and Dublin Castle and how she reached out to all victims without differentiating - were all hugely impressive.

"She had many reasons not to meet me, and me her, but I think we've risen above that and seen the contribution that these big acts of reconciliation can have."

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