Hats off, Ma'am! The Queen in Ireland. The inside story of a diplomatic coup

She was the first British monarch to visit Ireland since its independence, and it could all have gone horribly wrong. Instead, it was pitch perfect, right from the emerald green dress she wore on arrival to that brief bow of respect and the Gaelic greeting. Even Gerry Adams was stunned into praise. And, as the US President lands in Dublin tomorrow, the gauntlet is already thrown down. Beat that, Barack! Jane Merrick on how she did it

Sunday 22 May 2011 00:00 BST

1. Emerald green coat wows the press

The success of the four-day visit may have been sealed from the moment the Queen's BA146 jet touched down at Casement Aerodrome outside Dublin on Tuesday. As she steadied herself on the way down the steps and on to the tarmac, a loud cheer went up from many of the hard-nosed journalists huddled around TV screens in the media centre in the grounds of Dublin Castle. The Queen, whose fashion choices are usually made less mundane with the word "radiant" in reports of her walkabouts, had covered herself in the striking emerald green of Ireland. The choice of coat and hat was a deliberate act of diplomacy in wool and feather. It was planned by her personal assistant and dresser, Angela Kelly, who had been among a small party sent out two months ago for a painstaking recce for the visit. With the help of the Queen herself and her deputy private secretary, Edward Young, Mrs Kelly, a Scouser with Irish ancestry, suggested the colour to make a highly symbolic statement.

2. Symbolic tree planting in Phoenix Park

One of the Queen's first stops was at Irish President Mary McAleese's official residence, Áras an Uachtaráin, in Phoenix Park, Dublin. President McAleese, who extended an invitation to the Queen six months ago, showed the monarch a Redwood, or Giant Sequoia, that was planted by Queen Victoria in 1861. Royal tree-planting may be a cliché, but here, the Queen dug-in an Irish Fastigiate oak – a symbol of hope in future Anglo-Irish relations, as well as continuity with the past.

3. How the incline of a royal head won hearts in the Garden of Remembrance

The British monarch's decision to pay respects at the memorial to "all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish freedom", a struggle that also claimed British lives including her husband's uncle, Lord Mountbatten, was described by some in the Irish press as "brave". All visiting heads of state go to the Garden of Remembrance, but, according to Buckingham Palace, it was "particularly poignant and significant" that a British head of state should go there. This visit, like each item on the itinerary, was discussed between Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, the President's office and both foreign ministries. Yes, the sound of protests was audible as she stepped back after laying a wreath, but what made the appearance all the more memorable, was the Queen's tilt of the head – apparently silencing centuries of conflict.

4. Croke Park memories

The Queen's appearance at the home of Gaelic sports was heavy with symbolic reconciliation. She paused at the entrance to the players' tunnel, flanked by Christy Cooney, the president of the Gaelic Athletic Association, and President McAleese. They gazed out at the empty stands where, 91 years ago, British troops opened fire on spectators, killing 14 in the original Bloody Sunday. Again, all British and Irish parties played a part in choosing this location, but it was the deputy private secretary Mr Young, in consultation with the Queen, with whom he is said to have a close working relationship, who ultimately decided she should go. "It was a crucial decision – to make this a significant visit – that there should be real substance behind the Queen's actions and locations," said a Buckingham Palace spokesman.

5. A pint of Guinness

There was a lighter moment on the second day: a trip to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, Ireland's No 1 tourist destination. The Queen watched as master brewer Fergal Murray poured a pint of stout for her. No, she didn't take a sip – she was never going to. But her presence at Guinness was not trivial: it was another act of symbolism, representing deep Anglo-Irish economic relations.

6. Dressed in 2,091 shamrocks

For the state banquet at Dublin Castle, the Queen wore a white silk crepe dress. The bodice and sleeves were adorned with 2,091 embroidered shamrocks, individually hand-stitched by her team of four dressmakers. This was another triumph for Mrs Kelly, whose official title is personal assistant, adviser and curator to Her Majesty the Queen (jewellery, insignias and wardrobe). On her left shoulder, the Queen wore a Swarovski crystal brooch in the shape of an Irish harp. When Mrs Kelly visited in the forward party two months ago, she chose an outfit to match every appearance and location. On her return, she reported that the banquet would require "something very special". The dress was kept as "closely guarded a secret as Kate Middleton's wedding dress", said one insider. But it was the attention to detail that impressed the Irish hosts.

7. A Gaelic greeting

"Wow, wow, wow," mouthed President McAleese after her royal guest opened her speech with the words: "A Uachtaráin agus a chairde" ("President and friends").

Her near-perfect pronunciation triggered stifled gasps followed by a spontaneous round of applause in the banqueting hall. The speech itself was carefully crafted by a team of advisers, but it was the Queen herself who chose to open in Gaelic. Like the incline of the head at the Garden of Remembrance, this was a personal touch by the 85-year-old monarch, who, after all, has been doing her job for nearly 60 years.

8. The 'apology'

The Queen doesn't "do" political speeches, we were briefed beforehand. Her state banquet address did not include an apology for Britain's role in centuries of bad, often bloody, relations between the two islands. But she did acknowledge the "sad and regrettable" shared history and expressed her "deep sympathy" for those who had lost loved ones in the conflict. She added: "With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently – or not at all." It was the closest she could come to a full apology. The speech was written by Buckingham Palace, the Foreign Office and Downing Street, and was praised even by Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, who acknowledged that her expression of sympathy was "genuine".

9. A shared love of horse-racing

Day three was somewhat lighter in tone: the Queen, amid glowing reports in the Irish media of her tour so far, paid a visit to the Irish National Stud, the Curragh, in Kildare. This, according to Buckingham Palace, was an opportunity for a "perfect match": the Queen and the Irish and their joint love of horse-racing.

10. Concert with Westlife and Mary Byrne

In the end, there was something for everyone: and on Thursday evening came the turn of Irish popular culture. This was the "return event" that happens on every state visit: usually the British Embassy throws a reception, but this time it staged an hour-long concert for the royal party and 150 guests. Dublin-born X Factor finalist Mary Byrne and Westlife featured among the entertainment.

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