I suspect that deep in the soul of some Irish people there is a sneaking affection for the Royal Family

Michael D Higgins’ visit to the UK was accompanied by enthusiastic reports in his country’s press


“It was wonderful to watch the Queen and Michael D at the banquet,” an old acquaintance said to me in a Dublin bookshop last week. “You know, I think everything changed for the Royal Family when Kate Middleton married William.”

Pausing in Ireland last week – en route from Istanbul to the US – it was as revealing as it was instructive to be there when the Irish President, the aforesaid Michael D Higgins, was paying his state visit to Britain. The Irish papers, normally so acerbic in their coverage of all things royal, positively purred with self-satisfaction that “the Queen” – not Queen Elizabeth, mark you, as she would have been called by any other self-respecting republic – had greeted the Irish President with all the Queen’s horses and all the Queen’s men.

I have always suspected that deep in the soul of every middle-aged Irish lady – far more than Irish men, perhaps – there lies a sneaking affection for the tiaras, and brocade, and the palace, and the castle, and the pomp and circumstance that their grandparents rejected in 1920 (though not so wholeheartedly as we may believe – Ireland remained within the Commonwealth until after the Second World War).

But my old friend in the bookshop was obviously fascinated by the panjandrum of Windsor and there was a very Hello! magazine quality to the way in which she thought Kate had helped the royals to “turn the corner” from, as she put it, “the Diana years”. And I did recall that I was also visiting Dublin one morning 33 years ago when I noticed that every woman and child vanished from the streets, every bus ran empty, every shop was deserted. Everyone, it turned out, was at home watching Lady Diana Spencer marry her Prince Charming in Westminster Abbey.

But last week was revealing in other ways. While the British media dwelt upon the sins of Martin McGuinness and his IRA past and his handshake with the Queen of England, the Irish papers fulfilled the role of the British press in sanctifying the rule of Good Queen Bess. The London correspondent of The Irish Times wrote of the “kaleidoscope of memories” which the royal week had left behind. Miriam Lord, normally stabbing (accurately) the hypocrites of Dail Eireann – one of her female predecessors as Dail sketchwriter was known to TDs (Irish MPs) as “the bitch with the rusty knife” – was at her softest when it came to our beloved Queen and the Irish President’s success – “then it was back to Windsor Castle for a special reception with a Northern Ireland theme...” Being a bit of a British republican, I did suggest to my friend that if she was so enthusiastic about our Queen, I was sure we could arrange to freight the old lady over to Ireland for three months a year.

The Irish are looking, among other things, for an increase in joint Anglo-Irish trade delegations abroad. The British are desperate to ensure that never – ever – again does Northern Ireland become a battleground for the British Army. The UK can no longer afford “the Troubles”, nor the military manpower they sucked up. After all, without the Good Friday Agreement and the “peace” which it brought to the north, the British Army would simply not have had enough troops to occupy Afghanistan, or invade Iraq, or deploy on the other adventures they’ve enjoyed in recent years.

Yet it is the legacy – or perhaps the history – of that same British Army upon which Ireland has been dwelling this past week. Gay Byrne, surely Ireland’s most popular television celebrity (a tough and political one, too), is telling the story on Irish television later this week of his father, Private Edward Byrne, who joined the 19th Royal Hussars in 1912 and fought in some of the most ferocious battles of the First World War. Wicklow-born Byrne, of course, wore British uniform, and was part of the original British Expeditionary Force which went to fight the Germans in France in 1914. He was one of the 4 per cent of the old regular army – “the Old Contemptibles” as they called themselves after a sneering remark which may or may not have been made by the Kaiser – who were not killed or wounded by the end of 1914.

Private Byrne survived the first and second Battles of Ypres, the July 1916 Battle of the Somme (20,000 British dead in the first 24 hours) and then the crazed and futile cavalry charge at Le Cateau, in which 100 of his regiment were killed or wounded. At Ypres, he fought hand-to-hand with the Germans. Seven of Byrne’s brothers – Gay Byrne’s uncles – fought in the Great War, one of them dying later from gas inhalation. Private Byrne didn’t join up for the monarchy now so beloved of the Irish media, nor to save mostly occupied and Catholic Belgium. There was simply no more work for farm labourers in Ireland.

Gay Byrne never talked to his father about the war but remembers him waking in the night, shrieking in horror, so loudly that the neighbours would themselves wake and turn their lights on. He was one of 200,000 Irish soldiers of the British Army who returned to a land which had embraced the struggle for independence against the Crown and whose honoured martyrs were not the dead of the Somme but the executed fighters of the 1916 Easter Rising.

Yet even amid plans for the coming centenary of that cataclysmic event in Irish history – the Irish, I should add, seem a little more cautious than the British about the Queen’s apparent enthusiasm for the Royal Family to participate in honouring the Irish dead – there is a harsh thread of reality to combat the romanticism which once shrouded these events. Last week, for example, Irish schoolchildren honoured the 40 children killed in the 1916 rising, some of them – as we have learned from newly opened archives – hit by rebel as well as British bullets. Families of 15 of the dead children – who are, as the Irish minister for children said, “missing from the pages of 1916” – commemorated their loss, admitting that their families rarely spoke of their grief.

Twelve-year-old Patrick Fetherston was taken by his mother to the Jervis Hospital in central Dublin but bled to death from a bullet-hole in his thigh. The youngest victim of the rising was Christina Caffrey, who was only two years old. At an ecumenical service, a schoolteacher read WB Yeats’s “The Stolen Child”, which ends with the words: “For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”

Why doesn’t the Muslim world react with horror?

And weeping now, perhaps for the Middle East, for the Muslim world, for its dead – and for its folly. I have been asking myself this past couple of weeks what would happen in the European Union if a judge – in Brussels, perhaps, or Rome, or even London – were to sentence more than 500 men to death after a two-hour trial for the murder of a policeman, as happened in Egypt? What would we say of a European nation which fingerprints a nine-month old baby and then charges it with murder? There would be uproar, outrage, hundreds would die in demonstrations against such obscenities.

Careful now, while we remember how many hundreds of thousands of Muslims (and Middle East Christians) we in the West have slaughtered these past years. But really, I ask myself, how does one explain the mass death sentences, the Pakistani charge of murder – now dropped – against a baby? There were comparatively few Middle Eastern voices raised against this vileness. Explanations please – on paper, by post only, rational not racist – and open, of course, to those of all religions and none.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales & Marketing Co-Ordinator

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Well established small company ...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Sales Executive - Hair & Beauty - OTE £25,000

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company supplies the ultim...

Recruitment Genius: Design, Marketing and Media Manager

£27000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: HR Assistant

£17447 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This organisation is a leading centre fo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A woman runs down the street  

Should wolf-whistling be reported to the Police? If you're Poppy Smart, then yes

Jane Merrick

Voices in Danger: How can we prevent journalists from being sexually assaulted in conflict zones?

Heather Blake
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence