First published on 18th May 2011.
I am Irish. Like an Englishman, I carry some baggage.
History gives it to us whether we like it or not. I think I carry it lightly. I grew up in Belfast during the Troubles, neither a republican nor a royalist. But I was aware how deadly the shared history of Ireland and England was; aware that things were never really “over” in Ireland and aware of how heavy the baggage of conquest and killing, of rebellion and retaliation was for the peoples of both islands.
After nearly four thousand dead, an agreement swept away the thirty years war and, piece by piece, it has built bridges of trust and jaw-dropping compromise that would have seemed unthinkable a generation or two ago.
This week those bridges received a capstone and Ireland witnessed one of the most remarkable visits in its history. In a land where symbols matter, the Queen’s Tour has been a tour de force.
I’m not sure if everyone in Britain and around the world appreciates exactly what has happened. Its just a Royal visit ,after all, and Irish news suffers – in Britain at least - from the baggage of having been prominent for too long,for all the wrong reasons. From the outside it looks like the Queen landed at the airport of a near neighbour, laid a wreath, toured a city, visited a sports stadium and got on the news. But it was so much more than that.
First the airport. Wearing emerald green,she landed at Casement Airport. It’s named after Sir Roger Casement, a former British consul turned Irish rebel who was executed by Britain during the First World War.
When her foot hit the ground, she became the first British monarch in a hundred years to visit Ireland. Think about that. What country in the world has a leader who hasn’t set foot in the neighbouring country in a hundred years?
The Queen then began perhaps the most political tour she has ever undertaken.
Visiting Heads of State traditionally honour the war dead of their host country. But rarely dead rebels who've fought against them. The Queen laid a wreath at Ireland’s memorial to the forerunners of the IRA, the men and women who murdered her grandfather’s troops in order to sever the link with the British crown. They were the gunmen and bombers who inspired other Irishmen to murder the Queen’s cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten by blowing him to pieces. She bowed her head to them at one of the sacred shrines of Irish republicanism. It was quite astonishing ; the moment quivering with history.
She then toured central Dublin, through the streets where British soldiers had mown down rebels and civilians and been gunned down themselves; deliberately driving past the General Post Office where the republicans who began the break up of the United Kingdom in the Easter Rising of 1916 were headquartered and proclaimed their breach with the monarchy.
On her second day she was no less ambitious- determined, it seems, to tackle the past head on. She walked on the grass of a sports stadium. But not any sports stadium. Croke Park was the scene of a massacre. Here in 1920, paramilitary troops loyal to the British crown shot and killed thirteen spectators and a player at a Gaelic Football match. They did it to avenge a rebel ambush earlier that day. It was the original Bloody Sunday. Croke Park is still the home of the Gaelic Athletic Association. For a hundred years it banned British troops, Ulster policemen and “foreign” sports ,including rugby and football from being played at its grounds. Croke Park’s Hogan stand is built on the rubble of the Rising against Britain. But here too the Queen came. And heard the history. Here too,not long ago,’God Save the Queen’ was played for the first time as Ireland hosted England at rugby and the baggage of history was left at the turnstiles. The Irish fans treated the anthem with the utmost respect.
The Queen has now reciprocated. The head of the G.A.A thanked her for ‘the honour” she had bestowed on the organization. It would have been unimaginable even a decade ago. Today too, she laid a wreath for the nearly 50,000 Irishmen who died in World War One fighting for Britain. For decades they were the forgotten soldiers in Ireland; men who were seen to have fought on the wrong side of the Irish cause; not traitors, but not honoured dead. The Queen has now honoured them and their sacrifice.
Irish police outriders have carried the British flag. The visit has been broadcast live, wall to wall, on Irish television and radio. Most Irish people -supporters of English football teams, avid watchers of British television (and,whisper it quietly, even Royal weddings), visitors to and workers in their bigger neighbour- have nothing bad to say about the visit, apart from the fact that they couldn’t get a look at the Queen because of the heavy security. Not all Irish people of course. And I wouldn’t want to suggest that they all have union flags in their hands or handbags ready for the moment she swings by their neighbourhood.
But something remarkable has happened. Above all, Queen Elizabeth has gone out of her way to confront history, some of it brutal and perpetrated in the Royal name. By doing so she hopes not to forget it, but to remove some of the deep rooted sting from its Irish breast. For so much of its history Ireland has lamented its colonial suffering and often sought comfort in it.
Today however, it is largely free of the poisonous resentments of the past. Today, a few more ghosts were laid to rest, Ireland and England grew a little closer and I, for one, take my hat off to the monarch in green.