Britain’s Royal Family and Ireland…where does one begin?
Actually, in this momentous week, I’m happy to begin by saying that I had great admiration for Queen Elizabeth II, whose death was announced today. But then a lot of Irish people feel the same way (as evidenced in a recent Sunday Independent poll). A lot of Irish people had considerable affection for this remarkable monarch, who was admired all over the world for the manner in which she conducted her historic 70-year reign. A fascination with the royals on the part of Irish people – well, a curiosity at least – was probably always there. The contradictions were never subtle, never denied. Historically, many of us may have been critical of, or outwardly indifferent to the royals, perhaps even disdainful; and yet, and yet, at some level we were always interested to a degree, always looking in.
When Charles and Diana married in 1981, we watched. When our TVs showed the Queen and Prince Philip on their foreign trips, we couldn’t resist having a look. When various scandals broke, we scanned the tabloid newspapers. The tell-all books topped the bestseller lists. And every year when the Queen delivered her Christmas Day speech, oddly enough, many Irish households discreetly tuned in!
But while many of us were drawn to the soap opera-like appeal of the royals, in real (and important) terms Ireland’s relationship with the British monarchy has – for well established historical reasons – been complex and strained. And yet so much has changed over the past decade or so. There is a new maturity in the relationship between Britain and Ireland (Brexit implications notwithstanding). Most people see the new King as a friend of Ireland.
The late Queen might reasonably be given a lot of the credit for this transformation. During her historic State visit to the Republic in 2011 (with her husband, the late Prince Philip), Queen Elizabeth endeared herself greatly to the Irish people, and made meaningful gestures that significantly enhanced relations between our country and Britain. It is true that the peace process was fairly well bedded in by then – and that a new understanding between the neighbouring islands was already being forged – but that 2011 State visit was a watershed moment for Anglo-Irish relations.
I wouldn’t for a moment turn the proverbial blind eye to the wider debate about the monarchy. God knows, there’s a lot to discuss…how royals have benefited from colonialism and imperialism, their obscene wealth, the extravagance, elitism and entitlement, and so on and so on. But that is a debate for another week.
Taken on her own merits – as opposed to what critics might argue she partly represented – Queen Elizabeth was an extraordinary stateswoman. All her life was lived in the public eye. She became Queen at the age of 25, following the sudden death of her father, King George VI. For 70 years, she led her people with dignity and a peerless sense of duty. She was a calming presence in good times and bad, gaining the respect of the British people and millions of others worldwide.
Her stoicism when family members became embroiled in scandals was another admirable trait, the Queen remaining impressively steadfast and calm as matriarch of a family that, it’s probably fair to say, has dysfunctional elements.
Whatever one’s view of the monarchy, Queen Elizabeth served her people magnificently, her 70-year reign spanning periods of enormous historic change. The fact that most people living in the UK had never known another monarch (until today) emphasises the unique longevity of that reign.
The people of the UK are grieving for their Queen, but also – you suspect – for the loss of something they have always known, something within themselves. It truly is the end of an era.
Initially, it was understood to be confined to private houses, with the odd inevitable outbreak at bar counters. They became known as the people with long faces, sullen moods and lost looks (I know, the group needs a new name).
After the first few days of torture, they became organised, and began holding meetings (in private). There are unconfirmed reports that these meetings began with the group watching recordings of TG4’s GAA Beo. After half an hour or so, this was followed by a symbolic serving of refreshments (ham sandwiches and tea from the boot of the car, just for nostalgic purposes). Apparently each session would finish with a recording of a Premier League match from many months ago, the mood still mostly sombre.
The individuals involved could understand it that first weekend, when all Roscommon GAA club fixtures were called off, for well publicised reasons. They were bereft then, but philosophical. And for many of them, there was still the consolation that weekend of watching Premier League football, with its cast of fabulous players, fuming managers and largely faceless VAR villains.
But when the second weekend of torture kicked in, it took a lot out of them. All football off in the UK, on account of the Queen dying. They were distraught. When they heard that the cricket was going ahead, it only made it worse. That’s when the WhatsApps began to ping. That’s when the sport-starved Rossies had the idea of setting up a support group, of meeting and watching old footage.
You may know some of these people. You may even be one of these people. We feel your pain. Some respite came with Shane Lowry’s heroics in the golf, the Offaly man winning the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. But a weekend without GAA followed by a weekend without Premier League football inevitably took its toll. By midweek, the group members were beginning to get testy with one another. The guy who reported that England had beaten South Africa by nine wickets in the cricket was actually shown the door. When someone suggested putting the 1980 All-Ireland final on, he got a few dirty looks.
By midweek the agony had thankfully ended, with the resumption of Champions League football. The GAA returns in full this weekend (please respect all referees).
I know now what I didn’t know previously: the Cannonball Ireland Run involves hundreds of ‘supercars’ of all shapes, sizes and colours travelling around Ireland, while raising funds for charity.
I’m not really a car enthusiast, but I popped into town on Sunday with our son, to have a look for ourselves. The Cannonball Run had stopped off for lunch at the magnificent Kilronan Castle earlier in the day; now the group was at Casey’s, Roscommon for a fuel stop.
Given that it was a grim day weather-wise, I had expected the turnout to be small. In fact, the sight that greeted us at Casey’s Circle K was remarkable. There must have been close to 2,000 people there!
It was actually hard enough to get a close-up view of some of the vehicles, such was the size of the crowd. But the drivers and crew members – many of them dressed up as cartoon or superhero characters – were all very friendly and happy to facilitate wide-eyed children (and adults!).
I read online that former Kilkenny hurling manager Brian Cody, a guest speaker at the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party think-in in Mullingar today, advised that politicians (of all parties) should not have egos. If Brian can have any input into achieving that utopia then it will rank higher than any of his record-breaking coaching achievements with the Cats.
King Charles – who visited Northern Ireland today – has certainly hit the ground running. Meanwhile, one would hope that Sinn Féin’s generosity of spirit in terms of that party’s response to the Queen’s passing (and to the new King) will further advance progress in Northern Ireland.