iN YEARS gone by, the subject of the British Royal Family was hardly ever mentioned in Ireland in the public prints. I am talking about the period after the foundation of the Irish State, in 1922, and up to the 1970s.
It was not a forbidden talking-point in private or domestic life, and I recall, as a young child, hearing discussions around the kitchen table about the death of King George VI, the Queen Mother's husband: this would have been 1952.
But royalty was not an approved subject either it was not considered a Republican virtue to discuss the comings and goings of royal persons.
Ireland was a republic and no man need bow his head to an hereditary monarch; the Crown was a symbol of Ireland's unhappy subjugation to England. The Irish media carried only very correct and legalistic references to the British Monarchy, as when Queen Eliza beth met with Commonwealth heads to discuss the future of Africa, or some such worthy cause. I think I am correct in saying that the Irish media virtually ignored the controversy surrounding Princess Margaret in the mid-Fifties when she finally made the decision not to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend.
There would have been a difference of approach between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, too. Irish Protestants always had a feeling of attachment to the Crown. During the 1920s, the Church of Ireland Gazette, the weekly newspaper which reached all Irish Protestants, felt more upset by breaking the link with the Crown than even, unbelievably enough, the burnings-out of the big Ascendency houses.
And thus it was that my aunt and uncle, who had kindly Protestant neighbours, were smuggled into the Methodist Hall in Sandymount, there to view a film of the Coronation of Elizabeth II, in 1953. I was told about this expedition by my aunt, but warned "not to go around blathering about it". In that instinctive way that children understand,) knew there was something mildly unorthodox about this event. The film of the Coronation was not exactly banned, but it was not shown publicly in the Republic of Ireland. Watching such ceremony did not qualify as Republican virtue.
The first event which signalled a change of attitude
was Princess Margaret's wedding in 1960, which actually made the front page of the Dublin "Evening Press". The edition was sold out as soon as it hit the streets. It must have occurred to the newspaper-men, gradually, that royal weddings sell newspapers, however antithetical to Republic virtue these are. Other royals began to make their appearances. Princess Grace of Monaco was, in any case, one of our own, having been born a Kelly of Philadelphia. •(l once met Princess Grace and she told me that the British Royal Family were a lot less snobbish to her than the grandee WASPS of Philadelphia high society, who disdained to entertain Irish Catholics, particularly those of labouring stock.) Queen Margarethe of Denmark made a highly successful visit to the Republic, as did the King and Queen of the Belgians. Republican virtue was beginning to make allowances for kings and queens.
From the 1970s onwards, and then, most particularly, from the appearance of Princess Diana, the British Royal Family joined the Alist of celebrities regularly featured in the media, in Ireland as elsewhere. A new generation didn't feel it was necessary to have a political analysis of an accepted human phenomenon of kings and queens. Some countries were republics, some were monarchies: so what?
As I have lived, metaphorically (and sometimes literally), with one foot in Ireland and one foot in England for most of my adult life, I have no difficulty in reconciling both viewpoints. It is simply the case that some societies are suited to being republics and some suited to monarchies, and you honour both systems within their own context. I feel no conflict in accommodating both. The Republic of Ireland has a fine constitution which I honour and respect. But in the United Kingdom, the Crown has an irreplaceable role, which has acted as an agency of moder ation, stability and also, sometimes, a necessary official depersonalisation. The royal family may be personal, but the Crown is not: when you are accused of a crime, you are accused in the abstract name of the Crown.
Particularly in this week marking the 100th birthday of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother do I esteem the longevity and the continuity that the Crown represents. As one grows older, one comes to appreciate the importance of history, tradition, heritage. The family continuity of a hereditary monarch carries a valuable symbolism. It even pleases us to note the family likenesses and kinship connections, over the generations, in the royals as in our own families. The system may not be "rational" or "democratic", but within its own tradition, it works. The distaste that republics (France too) had of all mention of monarchs has gone, for monarchy is recognised as a human, and particularly a feminine phenomenon.
For her 100th birthday, here's a toast unto Her Majesty: may she continue in visibility, and in taking pleasure in the joys of the racecourse for as long as the Lord can spare her.