CORK, Ireland — It was a surreal week in many respects. When Queen Elizabeth’s BAE 146 Whisperjet touched down in the Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel, the nation seemed to take in one long, measured breath. For four days thereafter, the weight of history made everything else shrink into insignificance. We scarcely blinked at the thought of Obama’s forthcoming stopover. We forgot about debt, jobs, policies. The IMF told us we were on track and making progress, and we even landed a few blows in the ongoing corporate tax spat with Sarkozy. But much of this fell to the wayside while we sat glued to our televisions and watched a small 85-year-old woman and her 90-year-old husband disembark, smile, greet. She made headlines — made history — with her emerald green attire and that familiar, delicate wave.
Geographically, Ireland is as close as forty miles to the UK, but for all that has happened between the two over the centuries, she might as well have been taking her first steps on the moon. Time has moved on. There are now a great deal more Irish people whose experience of the countries’ troubled relationship is confined primarily to history books, a few Hollywood movies, and half-hour montages from RTÉ’s popular historical series Reeling in the Years.
The days and weeks leading up to her visit raised few heads, bar the usual grumbles from republicans. Or at least, I personally wasn’t paying too much attention. However, the sight of her plane descending from grey skies stirred up the significance of the occasion. The first monarch to visit the Republic of Ireland. The first to even touch Irish soil in a century. I wondered what it must have be like for her as she came down those steps. It must have been strange to have access (and be welcome) to so many parts of the world, and yet to be unspokenly denied by her nearest nation and the echo of war.
And maybe stranger still for the door to finally open in her 85th year.
Although Ireland and the UK now enjoy a harmonious relationship and lucrative trade deals, no corners were cut when it came to security. The week preceding her arrival was a string of nervy reports of viable devices and coded IRA threats. The euro equivalent of $42 million was spent on ensuring her safety and stamping out possible attacks from dissident republican groups. There were violent protests from a handful of dissenters on Dorset Street, just a few hundred metres from O’Connell Street and Parnell Square, but police in riot gear held them off comfortably. Controversially, Sinn Féin declined to participate in the visit that was described by party leader Gerry Adams as “premature”. He and others opted instead to “celebrate republicanism” by releasing 1,000 black balloons to coincide with the Queen’s excursion to the Garden of Remembrance. Inside, however, she laid a wreath at the sculpture of the Children of Lir and bowed her head noticeably, paying her respects to the soldiers who had fought British crown forces for the sake of Irish independence. It was a poignant acknowledgment of Ireland’s sovereignty and bestowed respect upon those who had died fighting for it. In light of this, republican demonstrations seemed weak and fussy, even self-defeating.
She followed an exhaustive, if sterile, tour of Ireland’s historical sites, planting trees, visiting Áras an Uachtaráin, The Book of Kells, the Guinness Storehouse, Government Buildings, Croke Park, and Islandbridge (a memorial garden dedicated to the 50,000 Irish soldiers who fought and died for Britain in World War I.)
A state dinner was held in Dublin castle where, to her credit, she met and greeted 160 guests—a feat at any age, let alone at 85. There had been plenty speculation about her scheduled speech. The matter of whether there would be an apology made many headlines in the UK and around the world, but despite reports to the contrary, the Irish people neither expected nor demanded an apology. This visit was never intended to act as some sort of confessional for years of colonial fallout.
Britain’s is a constitutional monarchy and it has not operated in a political capacity in decades. She is the head of state, an ambassador, and not a general or a strategist. It was never the Queen’s responsibility to apologise for The Troubles. The mood of the event was one of reconciliation as a means of moving on from the past, and her words were fashioned around this more optimistic notion.
In an unexpected gesture, she opened with Irish.
“A Uachtaráin agus a chairde”.
Those cúpla focail, perfectly enunciated, will most likely live longer in people’s memories than anything else the Queen said or did. She spoke of the anguish the conflict had wrought and accepted that mistakes had been made by all throughout the two nations’ tetchy story.
“To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past, I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathies. With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would have done differently or not at all.”
She honoured President Mary McAleese, who had originally invited the Queen as early as 1998, shortly after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and her meditative words garnered a five-minute standing ovation from a room full of diplomats, politicians, and poets.
From Dublin, she moved south, passing through Kildare and Tipperary before arriving in Cork where the sun made a rare appearance. In contrast to Dublin, where security efforts had resulted in large exclusion zones and mostly empty streets, the Queen was met by a crowd of 30,000 in the rebel city and here she embarked on an impromptu meet-and-greet with the some of the people who had lined Grand Parade to see her. With the help of blue skies, the occasion turned into something of a festival experience, and the crowds were treated to live music performances and food fairs throughout the city’s temporarily pedestrianised streets.
Her short two-hour stop in Cork saw her visit the famed English Market, a beautifully restored 18th-century indoor food emporium, where local traders described her as gracious and warm. She was given a less traditional insight into modern Irish culture when she was brought to the Tyndall Institute, UCC’s state-of-the-art research facility. She was given a brief overview of the work being done at Tyndall before meeting Hassan and Hussein Benhaffaf—conjoined twins who were born in Cork and separated successfully by surgeons at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London.
Ireland has hosted Clinton, Bush, and today Obama, but this was a state visit like no other. To say it was packed with symbolism is now a redundant statement. The phrase was beaten into the realms of cliché by media mallets over the last few of days. But it was symbolic. As her plane lifted off from the blacktop at Cork airport, we reflected on the week that had passed and there was a sense of relief and accomplishment. I think, more than anything, we surprised ourselves. Where previous generations might have spurned her, might have wished for more sinister outcomes, we surprised ourselves with an unexpected anxiety for her safety and an eagerness for her presence. For a long time, every official interaction between Ireland and the UK seemed only to highlight our differences and fuel the resentment, but May 17th marked a turning point where the sole wish was to cast off history’s deadwood and to reconstruct using the things that we have in common.
“These ties of family, friendship, and affection are our most precious resource. They are a reminder that we have much to do together to build a future for our grandchildren. The kind of future our grandparents could only dream of.”