The State Visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland, May 2011
The defining moment of the State Visit by Her Majesty the Queen to Ireland was her bowed head in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance as she laid a wreath to the men and women who fought and died for Irish freedom.
Situated in Parnell Square, where the Irish Volunteers were founded in 1913, and where several of the leaders of the 1916 Rising were held overnight before being taken to Kilmainham Gaol, the Garden was opened in 1966 by President Eamon de Valera, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising – in which he had been a Commander.
The Garden’s focal point is Oisin Kelly’s statue of the Children of Lir, which symbolises rebirth and resurrection. Perhaps, after the ceremony on May 17th, we can add the third R of reconciliation.
Certainly that moment fulfilled the hope expressed in the poem of Liam Mac Uistin, “We Saw a Vision”, composed in the aisling, or forward-looking style, and written on the stone wall of the Garden’s monument:
In the darkness of despair we saw a vision, We lit the light of hope, And it was not extinguished. In the desert of discouragement we saw a vision, We planted the tree of valour, And it blossomed.
In the winter of bondage we saw a vision, We melted the snow of lethargy, And the river of resurrection flowed from it.
We sent our vision aswim like a swan on the river, The vision became a reality, Winter became summer, Bondage became freedom, And this we left to you as your inheritance.
O generation of freedom remember us, The generation of the vision.
In The Book of Proverbs Solomon expressed the belief that “where there is no vision, the people perish”. In the disfigured history of Ireland there has been precious little vision and too much violence.
As The Times newspaper rightly commented: “In Ireland, British actions brought little glory and sometimes much shame on the metropolitan power.”
It was in this context that the Queen remarked: “with the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently, or not done at all.” The remarkable African-American writer, Maya Angelou, captured the same thought when she wrote:
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage need not be lived again.”
The Queen displayed her deep Christian belief in forgiveness and the need to heal history by both her visit to the Garden of Remembrance and to Croke Park, where, in 1921, British soldiers opened fire on the crowds at a Gaelic Football match, killing 14 civilians.
This first Bloody Sunday paved the way, in 1972, in Derry, for that other Bloody Sunday; and then, in 1998, for the Omagh bombing – when the Real IRA killed 28 people – including nine children, one just18 months old – and for all the other atrocities inflicted by both sides.
Time spent at Dublin’s War Memorial Gardens, emphasised a different loss of life – as the Queen paid tribute to the 50,000 Irishmen who died during World War One serving in the British forces. Our history is intertwined and shared – and continues to be.
Around 800,000 Irish born people reside in Great Britain and another 1.4 million – including my own -claim Irish descent.
Worldwide, 80 million people, including more than 40 million Americans, claim Irish blood – including President Obama (or should it now be O’Bama? ), whose visit this week to Moneygall in County Offaly will underline the emigration of his great-great-great grandfather, Falmouth Kearney, 161 years ago.
The exodus of 3 million Irish people during the 1840s and 1850s (and the deaths of one million others) was caused by another dark moment in our collective history: the potato famine, the great starvation:
As they fled, an estimated 100,000 died in the British port of Liverpool of famine related disease. In one desperate week in the parish of St. Mary’s, there were 166 burials of Irish Catholics; 105 were children.
For too long, Ireland has been trapped in the suffering and visceral hatred of its own history.
Now, as President Mary McAleese rightly said, that nightmare past has been replaced by a more hopeful vision: “while we cannot change the past, we have chosen to change the future.”
And the faultless success of this first State Visit was in no small part due to these two remarkable women – the President and the Queen.
I first met Mary McAleese when she was a member of the Catholic Church Episcopal Delegation to the New Ireland Forum in 1984 and, subsequently, during her time as a legal academic at Queen’s University, Belfast. In 1998 I hosted her visit to my university in Liverpool, where she gave a Roscoe Lecture and unveiled Liverpool’s first famine memorial.
She and her family have known the sharp end of suffering having been burned out of their Belfast home by Loyalists. Since becoming Ireland’s eighth President in 1997 she and Martin, her husband, have served Ireland with great distinction.
The other remarkable woman at the centre of the State visit has also experienced personal heartbreak and pain.
In 1979 the IRA murdered Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Queen’s uncle by marriage, and other members of his family. They were among the 3,526 of the Queen’s subjects to have died following the start of the “Troubles” in 1969 and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. During the same period 47,000 people were injured and nearly 20,000 people were charged with paramilitary offences.
But at least two others should also be remembered in paving the way for this evocative and historic denouement..
Just as the Queen’s visit began, the death was reported of Dr.Garet Fitzgerald, aged 85. As Taoiseach he was credited with liberalising Ireland and beginning the peace process. We met from time to time at British-Irish Association meetings – and in 1985 he and Margaret Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
I was Liberal Irish Affairs Spokesman during that period and in the Commons insisted that “the only way forward is through mutual respect, mutual forgiveness for past injuries and wounds and building up the common good.”
In our report “What Future for Northern Ireland”, published the same year, Shirley Williams, myself and others, argued for the defeat of terrorism by the political measures of devolved power sharing and the painstaking building of new British-Irish relationships.
But above all, there was one intervention which undoubtedly paved the way for what we have just witnessed.
In 1979, accompanied by Cardinal Cahal Daly, Pope John Paul II went to Drogheda and “on my bended knees” he begged the IRA and other paramilitaries to lay down their bombs and rifles and to pursue the path of peaceful coexistence.
That was the auspicious day on which history began to be healed and when all things – including power sharing by former combatants and a State Visit by the British Monarch – began to be possible.