Both historic and very ordinary: the Queen’s 2011 visit to Ireland

·7-min read
Then President of the Irish Republic Mary McAleese, Queen Elizabeth II and then GAA President Christy Cooney at Croke Park, Dublin, during her visit to Ireland (Julien Behal/PA Wire) (PA Archive)
Then President of the Irish Republic Mary McAleese, Queen Elizabeth II and then GAA President Christy Cooney at Croke Park, Dublin, during her visit to Ireland (Julien Behal/PA Wire) (PA Archive)

Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Ireland in 2011 is remembered as a cordial affair for such an historic event – making history both as the first British monarch to visit Ireland in 100 years, and the first since the nation gained independence from Britain.

In what was one of the most significant moments of her 70-year reign, a series of cultural events and symbolic gestures set the pace for closer Anglo-Irish relations, while surpassing expectations with the candour with which the Queen spoke during a speech at Dublin Castle.

In a tribute following her death, Irish President Michael D Higgins said the Queen “did not shy away from the shadows of the past” during her visit, and that her “moving words and gestures of respect were deeply appreciated and admired by the people of Ireland”.

Irish premier Micheal Martin said her 2011 state visit “marked a crucial step in the normalisation of relations with our nearest neighbour”.

During the four-day visit, she won praise after she laid a wreath and bowed her head in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance to pay tribute to the rebels who rose up against British rule in 1916; and for speaking Irish in an address to a state banquet at Dublin Castle.

“A Uachtarain agus a chairde,” her address began, the Irish for ‘president and friends’.

It prompted the then Irish president Mary McAleese, seated beside her, to exclaim ‘wow’, and the audience to erupt into applause.

The Queen continued: “To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past, I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy.

“With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.”

Feargal Purcell, who was a government press adviser to the then Irish premier Enda Kenny, said that “a huge amount of history got condensed into that moment”.

“I remember hearing Mary McAleese when the Queen started speaking Irish. You could hear her amazement. She exclaimed, and you could hear it. Not because she said it loudly, because she whispered it, but there wasn’t a sound to be heard in the room beyond what the Queen was saying.

“I think that froze everybody. There was a bit of a time slowed down a little bit, in that moment, and what got condensed into that was a lot of hurt, and a lot of healing.

“It almost happened in real time: the healing and hearing that happened in that moment in that speech, a huge amount of history got condensed into that moment.

“It went from being a nervous situation to being a kind of mutual respect, and moved into joy,” all over the course of the four-day visit, he said.

He said that the McAleeses were important in laying the foundations in the years before the visit, and that the maturing of the East-West relationship was fast-tracked under Mrs McAleese’s presidency.

Mr Kenny’s government had just come into power after winning an election three months earlier, but the significance of the Queen’s upcoming visit “was not lost on anybody”, Mr Purcell said.

“The focus was on getting it right. It was seen for the opportunity that it turned out to be.”

When asked whether the visit exceeded expectations from that moment in Dublin Castle, he said: “It did.”

“It was a very fraught economic time for Ireland, and (the visit) seemed to be a place for everyone to go.

“It seemed as if there was this nervousness initially,” he said. “There was a concern. And such was the public reaction that that seemed to almost evaporate.

“The security operation was significant, but it seemed to just calm and the story around the visit is that everyone settled into it, and that it became a hugely positive experience for everybody.

“Partly, initially relief, I think, and then it gained momentum. But I think that was down to the Queen mostly, and that moment.

“Because it was almost as if that moment gave licence to us all to move on. Every party has to move on for the shared history, but that line in that speech seemed to be a gateway into a more equal and mature relationship.”

Of the Queen’s bow at the Garden of Remembrance, Mr Purcell remarked: “It’s amazing. All the words in the world, all the diplomacy in the world is really important.

“On reflection, what’s recurring to me is the power of the personal gesture: unbelievable power in the words spoken at Dublin Castle, and in that bow.

“The bow seemed to me to be the action that backed up the words in Dublin Castle. It was the action, so if you look at the words, and you look at the memorial, the bow, you could tie one to the other.

“So it seemed to me that the Queen was determined that the visit was going to have an outcome.”

Photographer Ray McManus photographed the Queen as she was escorted around the grounds of the Croke Park stadium in Dublin by Mrs McAleese and the then president of the GAA, Christy Cooney.

British forces shot dead 14 spectators at a Gaelic football match held in the stadium in 1920.

“She was very pleasant,” he said, adding that the tour of the stadium was “very cordial, very relaxed”.

“It was very ordinary, down-to-earth, there was no airs or graces about it.

“She didn’t say a whole lot, which I think is her way.

“I remember taking a particular shot where she smiled profusely under the GAA logo with 1884 on it,” he said, describing a golden GAA crest in the shape of a Celtic cross on a blue background.

“She just happened to stand between me and the GAA crest. I didn’t particularly move or she didn’t particularly move… But she just happened to stand there under the crest. And the gold of the crest and the golden colour, the yellow she had on at the time, just all matched in.

“She went through the dressing rooms and was introduced to the likes of (Tipperary hurler) Lar Corbett, who’d be a boisterous sort of a fellow, so for him to be introduced to the Queen was interesting.

“There was a line of former presidents of the GAA and she was introduced to them all and shook hands with them all. All very senior GAA people who you wouldn’t have thought would be lining up to shake hands with the Queen. But they were.

“She was in the dressing rooms where the players all tog out.”

When asked was it jarring to see a significant figure on a historic visit in such ordinary surroundings, he said: “It was quite dramatic in the context.

“I’m a long time taking pictures of things and I would never have thought that I would have taken (pictures of) the Queen in Croke Park – either from the Queen’s side or indeed from the GAA’s side.

“I thought they were two quite distinct parties and never should they meet. But they did and it was very cordial and very pleasant.

“She walked out of the same tunnel where the players run out on to the pitch for an All-Ireland final.

“It was one of my more historical occasions taking pictures and it was a very pleasant occasion, to be fair.”

Mr Purcell said that he believes the historic visit “led to positivity” between the two governments and “you could see the benefits” up until the Brexit vote in the EU referendum in 2016.

Four years after the Queen’s visit, her son Charles would visit the harbour village Mullaghmore in Co Sligo where the IRA murdered his great uncle Lord Mountbatten in 1979.

Mr Purcell added that the Queen’s visit and that of US President Barak Obama to Ireland three days later “provided us with absolutely invaluable moments in which we could see hope for the future”.

“It was an enormously positive springboard for us. And the people parked their pain, and people were in a lot of pain financially and in every other way, and seemed to embrace all those things.

“I think one of the things that might happen, or we might look at as neighbours, is to maybe remind ourselves of what the Queen’s legacy might be for these islands.”