In every society and at all times there is a notion of “political correctness” – that is, a kind of civic ideal of virtue to which we are encouraged to aspire. The prevailing “political correctness” in the Ireland of my childhood, in the 1950s, was concerned with a certain ideal of “upright republicanism”.
Ireland had only been declared a Republic in 1948, and that, itself, was controversial, and not supported by all political parties: the situation was complicated by the partition of Ireland which had effectively taken place in 1920, with the six counties of Northern Ireland remaining British (and predominantly Protestant) and the majority 26 counties in the rest of the island being an independent Irish state (and predominantly Roman Catholic). Until 1948, however, Eire, the Irish state, retained a tenuous link with the British Commonwealth and thus the British Crown. At Easter 1949, after a bill had been put through parliament, Eire became a full Republic.
The republican ideal had a certain tradition in Irish history, and in culture, yet Irish republicanism mostly meant “opposition to the Crown”, and “anti-British” sentiment rather than the intellectual and political republicanism of France or Garibaldi’s Italy. Popular patriotic ballads lauded Irishmen who had died in rebellion against “the Crown”, such as the young volunteer Kevin Barry, who was executed in 1920 after a British court-marshall. A rousing verse in the ballad of Kevin Barry goes: “Another martyr for old Ireland: Another murder for the Crown!” “The Crown” was a symbol of Ireland’s traditional oppression by England. British military troops operating on Irish soil were always disparagingly called “The Crown Forces”.
So this Irish Republicanism which was so much a part of our national values, meant, essentially being against “the (British) Crown”, and being against fawning towards any form of nobility, aristocracy or monarchy. The original aspirational declaration of the Irish Republic had promised that “all the children of the nation should be treated equally”, and that should eliminate social difference. There is a specially contemptuous word in the Irish language and used also in Hiberno-English, for one who fawns: shoneen. (The orthodox Anglophone equivalent would be “lickspittle”.)
Republican virtue meant not fawning before monarchs or their representatives. It meant – and it is not a dishonourable concept – being proud and independent and self-reliant: one of the founding fathers of Irish independence, Patrick Pearse, often praised what he called “manliness”, which sounds to us, now, an archaic echo of the period of the First World War. But it had some resonance, and perhaps some usefulness for a poor nation seeking its own sovereignty. Republican virtue carried a degree of Spartan austerity – I remember being taught that while Britain had a newly-launched National Health Service (in 1948), Ireland was a poor country and such advantages were beyond our budgetary reach. But better to be poor and proud than parasitical.
Some observers have found it puzzling that while Irish Republicanism rejected notions of social deference, nevertheless enormous deference and respect were paid to the Catholic Church in Ireland at this time. The simplest explanation lies in the suggestion, made by more than one historian, that the clergy became “the native nobility” after the fall and exile of the Irish chieftains several centuries earlier. The village priest became the “head man” in the community, and since he sprang from the ordinary people, his position was dynastic, and he was bound, at least officially, by celibacy. In the 1950s, the Catholic Church also provided some of the ceremonial and pageantry that was lacking in Ireland after the department of the British presence. Nature abhors a vacuum!
When Queen Elizabeth II acceded to the throne of the United Kingdom in February 1952, it was reported in the Irish media – newspapers and radio were the main media at the time – but with restraint and austerity. There is always a sense of respect for the dead in Irish culture, so the death of her father King George VI was treated with dignity. But the coronation of Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey in the following year received minimalist coverage – as if to say that we mustn’t be shoneens when it came to monarchical display.
I was 9 in 1953, and staying with my aunt and uncle in Sandymount, a pleasant suburb of South Dublin (the poet W.B. Yeats had lived there, and the seafront also features in Joyce’s Ulysses). Sandymount, then regarded as a village, had a harmonious Catholic-Protestant mixture, although in certain areas, Catholics and Protestants kept to their own spheres – schools, dances, and sporting occasions, and to some extent even jobs.
And one evening, during that summer of 1953, my aunt and uncle, looking very conspiratorial, consigned me to a friend’s house, so they could go off to some secret destination. Some time later, my aunt confided to me where they had been, after she had extracted from me a promise that I would not disclose this to anyone. My uncle was a senior Civil Servant at Customs & Excise, and it could be harmful for his career if this were made known. It was then revealed to me that my relations had been taken by kindly Protestant neighbours to watch the film of the Queen’s Coronation. It had been shown in a Protestant church hall in Sandymount in a private viewing: it could not be shown in public cinemas because extreme Republicans had threatened to bomb any cinema which did so.
Many decades later, when researching my book Crown and Shamrock: Love and Hate between Ireland and the British Monarchy I discovered that a similar scenario had been enacted, in 1953, all over Dublin and other parts of the Irish countryside. Irish Protestants – who had a historic allegiance to the British Crown – were allowed a dispensation to show the Coronation film privately and discreetly. Many of them brought along Catholic friends, and the secrecy of the event probably added to the thrill. (Television was not yet available throughout most of Ireland.) The Coronation film itself was not particularly distinguished – it was just a news film, with some rather treacley commentary. But it was a glimpse of something splendid – a pageant which went back to William the Conqueror in 1066, and even at this distance I could understand why my aunt, in particular, was thrilled by it.
Children pick up attitudes very shrewdly and I understood that we were not supposed to be interested in British royalty officially (foreign royalty might have certain dispensations: the Irish patriot Arthur Griffith had approved of the Norwegian monarchy in 1905 because it was elected). But we might be interested in it secretly. Glamorous pictures of Queen Elizabeth wearing ermine and a sparkling diadem crown were often smuggled to Dublin from friends in Northern Ireland, and there was an avid popular interest, notably among women, in the social activities of the royal family.
Gossip about Princess Margaret, the Queen’s controversial sister, was common, while official culture kept its distance and sought to maintain republican uprightness. British-Irish relations were correct but cool enough during the 1950s anyway: the IRA (the guerrilla Irish Republic Army) were active in attacking the Border with Northern Ireland, and there was still some resentment, in Britain, that Eire had remained neutral during the Second World War.
But the 1960s brought some sense of détente: there was more dialogue between Dublin and Belfast, with two modernising prime ministers, Sean Lemass, in Dublin, and Terence O’Neill, in Belfast, meeting together. Princess Margaret came to visit the Irish Republic in 1965, the first direct member of the British Royal Family since 1922. Her husband, Lord Snowdon, had Irish connections and at Birr, Co Offaly, in the midlands. Although there were some protests from extreme republicans, Margaret and her husband were met with enormous warmth from crowds of ordinary people.
It was a sign that attitudes were changing. British-Irish relations were also improving gradually, as politicians, diplomats and civil servants began to work together on Britain and Ireland’s entry into what was then the Common Market. General de Gaulle was strongly opposed to Britain’s entry: but nevertheless, in 1973, when Britain, Ireland and Denmark acceded at the same time.
Then came, all through the 1970s and 1980s, the mournful events known as “The Troubles”, when Northern Ireland exploded, first in peaceful civil rights demonstrations – Catholics had suffered disadvantages in Northern Ireland – and then with violence. Queen Elizabeth visited Belfast in 1977, and had one of the worst receptions of her reign: she showed composure as missile were hurled at her, and her effigy was hung in public.
Two years later, in 1979, her husband’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, was killed by the IRA when holidaying off the west coast of Ireland. These were terrible events – and there were many terrible events, it must be said, on all sides. Yet Mountbatten’s murder was widely, even passionately, condemned by the majority of Irish people.
Cultures change, and attitudes to royalty became, in Britain itself, much less deferential from the 1980s onwards. With the advent of Princess Diana, the “royals” were increasingly presented as part of the repertory of “celebrities”, rather than in the sometimes over-respectful manner of previous times. In Ireland, interest in British royalty was now open, and no longer considered a breach of “republican virtue”. But suggestions that the Queen might visit the Irish Republic – it was one of the few countries in the world she had never visited – were met with resistance, concern, anxiety and sometimes hostility.
However, the onward march of better Anglo-Irish relations – especially after the Belfast Peace Agreement of 1994 – made it inevitable that this official visit must, sometime, take place. The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 was also an important step forward. Prince Charles paid a cordial but low-profile visit in 1995, which was to pave the way. Much work was done behind the scenes before the date was finally fixed: May 2011, one hundred years since a British monarch had last landed at Dublin – her grandfather, George V.
The Queen’s visit was approached with much apprehension, generating an enormous amount of public correspondence in the Irish newspapers. Although the aloof attitudes of previous times had dissolved, there remained a residue of anxiety over the question of “fawning”. Wouldn’t it be terrible if any of our politicians were seen to “fawn”! And wouldn’t it be mortifying if women started to curtsey to the Queen! (Only subject curtsey so it didn’t apply.) A psychologist analysing this “fear of fawning” might even wonder if it suggested a sub-conscious attraction, which must be repressed, for royalty.
The visit had to be orchestrated with the maximum security, which I regretted, because many ordinary people wanted to see Elizabeth up close. And yet, it was a charming four days and as the Queen laid flowers before the monuments of Irish patriots – who had struggled against “the Crown” – it felt as though a great moment of reconciliation had taken place. There were many healing events during the visit, (and a true pleasure for Elizabeth also in seeing some fine Irish racehorses). The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny said of Queen Elizabeth’s visit: “She closed the circle of history.”
“Friends and Equals”- thus, newspaper headlines summing up the event, referring to Ireland’s relationship now with Britain. Whether a small country of under 5 million people can be truly “equal” with a former imperial power of more than 60 million is debatable. But there is a kind of equality in recognising that one can practice “republican virtue” without being hostile to a neighbouring monarchy: and one can practice royal grace without disparaging a neighbour’s republicanism. ENDS. Published in The British Politics Society of Norway, February 2012.