By Peter Makem
At the ultimate height of symbol and ritual was the deepest low of economic and social depression. When people were acclaiming the healing of the final wounds in the thousand-year-old Ireland/England saga, others were murmuring about the bankrupt country hosting the royal event.
At the moment the Republic of Ireland had come of age and Queen Elizabeth of the UK had arrived to verify it, in that coming of age was the arrival of the bailout masters of Europe to save a nation from oblivion.
Welcomed by President Mary McAleese with great fanfare, many newspapers here and in Britain likened her stepping onto Irish soil at Baldonnell Airport with the first steps on the moon — one small step for a queen, etc. One giant leap for Irish/British relations and so on.
There was a ceremony at the Garden of Remembrance in Parnell Square when the Queen laid a wreath at the memorial to the Irish republicans who had died fighting against Britain in the series of risings most notably in 1916, and another “healing” visit to Croke Park where in 1921 the Black and Tans fired indiscriminately into the crowd killing 14 spectators and wounding 700 others—Ireland’s Bloody Sunday. This was, they said, in reprisal for a Michael Collins’s inspired killing of British secret agents in the ongoing War of Independence
But missing from this visit were the usual crowds that line the streets in other parts of the world waving flags and cheering. She drove from the airport through barren, deserted streets of Dublin and saw only line after line of barricades following the greatest security operation in Irish history (Her visit and that of Obama are costing the Irish taxpayer $35 million).
Everything was well choreographed and presented, but always surrounded by a sense of massive space, emptiness and security.
It is true that the visit was historic in terms of Irish/British relations in that a British monarch actually set foot in the Republic of Ireland after a century. People in the media were uttering endless “Who would have thought etc., etc., etc., a mere 20 years ago etc., etc. But as far as I am aware nobody asked the question why, if the visit was such a breakthrough, it demanded 50 times more security that the visit of King George or Queen Victoria who were actually cheered through the streets of Dublin.
Some commentators referred to these earlier royal visits notably that of Queen Victoria—who visited Ireland several times—and who never seemed to be sure where she was or what she was doing there.
There was also the visit of George V to Dublin in 1911 exactly100 years ago, when he received a warm welcome from the people, something that was bitterly noticed by some of the leaders of the Rising which occurred four years later and which, because of the brutal reaction of the British, changed the mindset of the people.
Most editors in Britain were quite flushing about the visit, the majority in England giving the impression that if the visit finally put an end to the long saga of Ireland and got us out of their hair for good, then “thank Heavens for that.”
Both North and South gave saturation coverage in all the media. The Dublin media were glowing and warm throughout with the odd dissenting voice let get its spake in and things moved on.
Even Gerry Adams had cooled down his opposition as the visit approached and became supportive of the visit with the loincloth proviso that she apologize for things etc. The probable reason was that he didn’t want to be associated with the several hundred protesters in O’Connell Street who fought a battle with Garda for several hours around the Garden Of Remembrance event. Several hundred black balloons were released by protesters signifying the Anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan loyalist bombs on that same day in 1974 which killed over 30 persons. This was in fact a serious black mark on the organization of the visit which was commented on my many.
After a visit to see the Book of Kells in Trinity College (Queen Victoria infamously asked when shown the priceless book —Where do I sign it?—and a visit to the Dail, Elizabeth was off to the one place in Ireland where she was totally at home, the Curragh racing complex. It’s said she was reared among horses— not literally— and knows the entire equestrian/breeding scene inside out. In fact the racing tracks and horse breeding and training places are probably the only places in Ireland she recognizes.
So symbolism and ritual dominated, a sense of putting old wrongs right with chosen words and symbolic acts of appreciating the suffering of the Irish at the hands of England down the centuries, of bonds that both unite and divide the two peoples and so on. But when the visit speedily dies down in the public imagination, it’s back to the reality of the presence of the new and real rulers of Europe, Germany, and how their bailout money is doing, and the citizens of the Republic returning to their lives of quiet desperation. The rituals of healing old deep wounds marks the reality of the opening of new ones.