After Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, the Irish government censor took pre-emptive action to ban any incoming British magazines that had covered the event with too much enthusiasm. The Irish government had already set the tone, declining all invitations not merely to the Coronation ceremony itself, but also to a celebratory reception at the British embassy in Dublin. In the capital’s centre, forty-year-old Peter O’Brien, who publicly cried out “God Save the Queen” on the day before the Coronation, was arrested and fined three pounds, about a week’s wages, “for using insulting and abusive words”.
The idiocy did not end there. Using unrevoked special powers from the Second World War, the Irish government secretly prohibited publication of details of all radio broadcasts in newspapers on Coronation Day, so that no one officially knew that they might hear “live” accounts of it.
This letter appears in November’s Quadrant.
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Officially, this day did not exist. Unofficially, it did. For next day, newspapers duly reported that Dublin’s streets were deserted on Coronation Day as people listened on their wirelesses to the BBC coverage of the ceremony, Irish radio not obliging. Attempts by Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, to prevent people watching television coverage of the ceremony on bootleg television sets that could just about pick up BBC images from Wales in the Dublin hills were largely unsuccessful. However, in the centre of Dublin, a pub television which had by some miracle managed to conjure some ghostly images from the stray BBC signals passing through the ether, was smashed by an irate customer who had rather serendipitously arrived with an axe. Plans to show film of the Coronation in cinemas in the republic over the coming days had later to be abandoned because of IRA threats, and thousands of people crossed the border to visit cinemas in Protestant areas of Northern Ireland.
Most people in the republic—which had been declared just four years before, as Ireland huffily and foolishly departed the Commonwealth—were still fascinated by the royal family. This genuine regard across Ireland, uniting ordinary Catholics and Protestants, contrasted sharply with a co-existing official loathing of everything royal, as attested by poor Peter O’Brien’s arrest and the axe-shattered television screen in the centre of Dublin. Moreover, southern Irish Protestants—declining remorselessly in number as the austere authoritarianism of Irish Catholicism in the republic created a deeply intolerant culture—remained loyal. Protestant schools still taught their children to sing “God Save the King”, but now adjusting the words to accommodate the new monarch who most Irish Protestants regarded just as much as “theirs” as she was Britain’s.
For the Irish government, an event of far greater moment that week in June was the return of the Roman Catholic Primate of Ireland, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid on the SS Mauretania, after a 40,000-mile tour of that other empire, the Catholic one that had largely been established by Irish missionaries in Australia, New Zealand and the US, and which by a strange and almost miraculous coincidence was precisely contiguous with the empire that the Irish government and the IRA found so objectionable. McQuaid was welcomed back by the Irish prime minister or Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, in top hat and frock coat, as befitted a prelate of the One True Church.
The aftermath of the Coronation rumbled on in Dublin. The window of a bookshop that displayed pictures of the event was smashed and enterprising republicans purloined from a cinema the newsreel of the young Queen reviewing her fleet in Spithead before it could be shown and it was never seen again. In Northern Ireland, a Senator O’Hare (a Catholic member of a largely irrelevant political body) declared his opposition to the royal family, adding that when Ireland was united again, Irish nationalists would welcome visits by royalty from any friendly country. “But until that time comes,” he proclaimed, “we will oppose with all the forces at our command the forces of a Quisling loyalty.”
“Quisling loyalty” was indeed what many Irish republicans thought about those many Irish people who still associated themselves with what remained of the British Empire. For example, Wing Commander James Wallace DSO DFC of Limerick was chosen to lead the RAF fly-past over London on Coronation Day, while in the months that followed many more Irish people, whose opinions Senator O’Hare would surely have deplored, rose among the ranks of the Queen’s servants. Amongst the first of these was Theodore Pike of County Tipperary, appointed Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Somaliland. Another was E.P. Gregg, a former barrister in Dublin who was made a judge in Hong Kong. A Dubliner, Colville Deverell, was appointed Crown Secretary to Jamaica, and the new Crown Equerry to the Queen was Sir Dermott McMorrough-Kavanagh, from County Carlow. One of the young Queen’s first knights was Sir Patrick Branigan, of County Louth, who was appointed Minister for Justice in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and whose colonial career had taken him previously from Tanganyika to Rhodesia. His brother was the Registrar of the High Court in Dublin. P.J. Bourke, of Ballina, previously Chief Justice of Sierra Leone, was appointed to be Chief Justice of Cyprus. He replaced Sir Eric Hallinan from Cork, who was now appointed Chief Justice of the Caribbean States. P.J. Bourke’s brother had a young daughter, Mary, who thirty-five years later would be elected President of Ireland.
The new British ambassador in Buenos Aires, Sir Francis Evans, replaced Sir Henry Mack who was retiring. Both men were Irish, as was Air Vice-Marshal John Franks, who was appointed head of Technical Training Command in the Air Ministry. Two other Irish RAF men, Sir Dermot Boyle and Sir Francis Fogarty, were appointed Knights Commander of the Order of Bath. At the other end of the social scale was Able Seaman Patrick Troy of Dublin, who was awarded the Royal Navy’s Distinguished Service Medal for gallantry in action in Korea.
In London, it was announced that the first Royal Command Performance for the new Queen—a variety show of excruciating banality, annual versions of which over the decades would test to the final detail her ability to endure Torquemada levels of torment—would be presented by an Irishman, Eamonn Andrews. Both he and she were standing on the thresholds of great celebrity: of comparable age, he became nearly as famous in the UK as she did, though her career and her life would outlast his by thirty-five years.
Even though the Irish government had rejected all invitations to the Coronation, and Ireland’s Minister for External Affairs, Frank Aiken, had derided the young monarch as “the Queen of Northern Ireland”, which he said was an outrage to the Irish people, the British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, invited both him and the Eamon de Valera to lunch at Downing Street. This was the second time de Valera had been a guest at Downing Street, Clement Attlee being his earlier host. During this trip to London, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Swinton, similarly invited them both to dinner at the Foreign Office. Things could not possibly go wrong between the Irish and the British in this new Elizabethan era, could they?
Well, one ominous sign was that the Irish were not inviting their British counterparts back. Another was that in Northern Ireland, the Coronation aroused sharply different emotions between the majority Protestant community and the minority Catholic population, most emphatically exhibited in the person of the IRA leader Liam Kelly. In 1953, he told a public rally in County Tyrone: “I will not give allegiance to the foreign queen of a bastard nation. I took an oath of allegiance to the Irish Republic when I was sixteen and I intend to keep it … Do I believe in force? The answer is yes. The more the better, the sooner the better. That may be treason or sedition, call it whatever the hell you like.”
He was prosecuted for uttering these words, the evidence against him being presented by a Catholic officer of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Detective Constable P.J. Callaghan. Kelly was bound over to keep the peace, but this he refused to accept, and was duly imprisoned. On his release, ten thousand people welcomed him back to his home town of Pomeroy, and he was subsequently twice elected as “abstentionist MP” to the Northern Ireland Parliament (meaning he would not take his seat because it required an oath of allegiance to the Queen).
Kelly was a straw in the wind. A blood-soaked haystack would follow, though not immediately. As the IRA began a fresh campaign against the Northern Ireland state, the governments of both Dublin and Belfast clamped down on the insurgency, interning suspects without trial. Rather bizarrely, Kelly was elected to the Senate of the republic, which offers a dimension to Irish politics which defeats a simple explanation, as equally do limitations of space prevent a more complex one. However, elucidations of the metaphysics of Irish politics exist on largely the same plane as theories of relativity, and the simplest and safest option is to move swiftly on, eyes chastely averted, though, alas, much worse was to come, both for the young Queen and the two islands on which her kingdom resided.
The IRA’s campaign from 1957 to 1961 fizzled out, and in 1966 what seemed like a permanent peace had been achieved between the three governments in London, Belfast and Dublin. A free-trade agreement between the British and the Irish, cordial meetings for the first time ever between the Irish and the Northern Irish prime ministers, and the return to Ireland of the bones of Roger Casement, an Irish martyr executed in London in 1916 for high treason, seemed to signal a new era for the peoples of the islands.
Which indeed was exactly what lay ahead: one of strife and bloodshed and mutual incomprehension that in hindsight we may conclude came about because it was the wish of far too many people on the island of Ireland for their tribe to be victorious over the other. Thus 1953’s apparently marginal window-smashers of Dublin now took centre-stage, ably aided and abetted by London’s deep and sometimes violent incomprehension of Ireland and by hardline Protestants in the North—led by the Reverend Ian Paisley—who were bitterly opposed to any accommodation with Dublin specifically and with Catholics in general.
The Troubles began with a civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland, seeking first an end to an electoral system which gave votes in local government elections according to the numbers of properties a person was paying rates on, and second a redrawing of electoral boundaries to end gerrymandered constituencies which gave Protestants disproportionate electoral power. However, the campaign was soon hijacked by the IRA, and the fundamental issue rapidly became not one of fairness in Northern Ireland, but the very existence of the state itself. Violent inter-communal strife was soon transformed into an IRA campaign that barely paused before stooping to depths unrelated to anything connected with “civil rights”: the IRA’s abduction and murder of three young unarmed Scottish soldiers, the youngest being just seventeen. One of the murderers was called Liam Kelly, but a different one.
The passage of more than fifty years since the IRA’s campaign began is still not enough to explain the mercilessness of the events that followed. Throughout this period, the Queen was quite powerless, as hundreds of her soldiers were brought home in boxes, or occasionally not brought home at all, their bodies having been vapourised by IRA bombs while coffined fictions were buried in British soil, and volleys fired beside weeping children and forlornly mystified widows. As the savagery intensified, the IRA chose to enlist the Queen’s family in their mortal harvest. In 1979, with the Troubles over a decade old and having claimed 2130 deaths, the IRA blew up a pleasure boat in County Sligo, deliberately murdering her father’s cousin and her husband’s uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten (aged seventy-nine), Doreen Brabourne (eighty-three), Paul Maxwell (fifteen) and Nicholas Knatchbull (fourteen). That same day—probably the worst in Her Majesty’s reign—eighteen British soldiers were slaughtered in two IRA explosions on the border with the republic.
The IRA next moved their war closer to Buckingham Palace, butchering eleven soldiers in the centre of London in two bomb explosions, killing four Guardsmen and seven horses on The Mall, with seven bandsmen blown to pieces in nearby Regent’s Park. One of the dead soldiers, Anthony Daly, of Irish extraction, was a young favourite of the Queen’s, having been chosen to be the lead subaltern for the Trooping the Colour ceremony later that year. The intention had been far worse than the outcome: the bombers had not found room in the bandstand in the park to plant a large bag of nails which would have caused mass deaths amongst the spectators.
We are now in a place of utter evil. The consummation of that evil came twenty years later when the British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote a letter of ease for one of the bombers, allowing him to pass freely between Britain and Ireland. Blair was also a prime architect of the peace process, which helped woo the IRA from its campaign of violence, though not regretting any of it—and indeed, retrospectively exulting in many of its more violent and revolting deeds. The most monstrous imposition on Her Majesty through this often-sordid process was having to shake the hand in public of Martin McGuinness, he who had been on the IRA army council that had authorised the mass murder of the Mountbatten boating party.
It is unlikely that she has written an account of her feelings at this squalid transaction, and if she has, nobody alive today will ever see it. But she encapsulated her own feelings about the Troubles during her state visit to Ireland in 2011 when she said that in hindsight, many things that had been done in the previous decades would have been done differently, or not at all. Republican commentators jubilantly declared that this “not at all” was a royal apology for British misdeeds, though a more generous assessment would conclude it was a genuine expression of regret from a good and kind person for atrocities on all sides, including the British. And of course, though she had no part in creating government policies in Northern Ireland, it is hard to imagine her being other than revolted and appalled by the massacre of fourteen of her subjects by the Parachute Regiment, of which her son was honorary Colonel in Chief. That the proximate authoriser of the butchery, General Robert Ford, Commander of Land Forces, was subsequently promoted and knighted, is clear proof of the limitations of a constitutional monarch, who reigns but does not rule and who touches commoners’ shoulders with her royal sword but does not decide to whom those shoulders should belong.
History works in mysterious ways its wonders to perform. Sooner or later, the security forces were going to exact a revenge on the IRA for its many atrocities, and at the tiny village of Loughgall in 1987 the British Army’s SAS regiment trapped and wiped out an IRA unit on its way to conduct a massacre of its own. One of the IRA dead was Eugene Kelly, a nephew of the abstentionist Liam Kelly—which would make it seem very much like an operation conducted by the British against the Irish, but this would not be the whole story. The operation was masterminded by an RUC Special Branch officer, Frank Murrey, who, like P.J. Callaghan of a generation earlier, was a Catholic Irishman, and the British Army machine-gunner who virtually wiped out the IRA unit was himself another Irish Catholic.
The simplest lesson in Irish history is that nothing about it is ever simple.
But it was during the Queen’s visit to Ireland twenty-four years after that IRA defeat that another astonishing discovery was made. Initially, Dublin was closed down during her visit to the capital and the streets lay empty, but the complete absence of any hostile demonstrations convinced the authorities that a new mood had arrived in Ireland. Thereafter, the Irish police effectively abandoned all security for the rest of the trip, and the Irish people’s feelings for her were revealed in full measure. In Cork, she was almost mobbed by enthusiastic crowds, and the only reasonable fear was that the warmth of the welcome might prove fatal for a lady approaching her nineties. The Irish people simply sensed what all peoples have felt about her down the many decades of her life: that here was a good and patriotic woman doing her duty to her country, her people and the world.
President Higgins, an old-fashioned man of the Left who managed to find kind words for the brute Castro of Cuba and the thug Chavez of Venezuela, genuinely spoke for the Irish people when he issued a statement on Her Majesty’s death:
It is with profound regret and a deep personal sadness that I have learnt of the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
On behalf of the people of Ireland, may I express my heartfelt sympathy to His Majesty the King and to the Royal Family on their very great personal loss. May I offer my deepest condolences to the British people and to the members of the Commonwealth on the loss of a unique, committed and deeply respected Head of State …
Her Majesty served the British people with exceptional dignity. Her personal commitment to her role and extraordinary sense of duty were the hallmarks of her period as Queen, which will hold a unique place in British history … the Queen often spoke of how much she enjoyed her own historic State Visit to Ireland in 2011, the first such Visit by a British monarch since Irish independence, and during which she did so much through eloquent word and generous gesture to improve relations between our two islands.
Ireland’s state broadcaster RTE showed the funeral live on television while the streets and shops of Ireland again lay empty, and the public outpouring of sorrow at her passing was genuine. Of course, the vicious, vapid Left predictably used the opportunity of her death to yodel their promiscuous disdain for monarchies, without bothering to wonder why kingdoms are generally such peaceful polities and why genocides—as in Nazi Germany, the USSR, Communist China, Kampuchea and Rwanda—are a monopoly of republics.
However, for the most part, the Irish media reflected the genuine emotions of the Irish people at the passing of the greatest human being not merely of her generation but very probably of the twentieth century and possibly even of the one following, though few of us today will be able to make that judgment.
President Higgins was present at Westminster Abbey for Her Majesty’s funeral, as too were all the leaders of the main parties of Northern Ireland, including two Sinn Fein politicians, one of whom, Alex Maskey, is a convicted IRA terrorist. I must also add that he is a thoroughly decent chap who began his IRA career doing the wrong thing when that path seemed braver and far more morally right than doing the really right thing, namely doing nothing, but either way, over the past thirty years, he has worked constantly and bravely for peace.
It was good that such a good man was present to honour such a truly good woman. No doubt, we should all receive such obsequies, but then if we did, there would have been nothing special about the Queen, and the world and his wife know that that is not true. We who lived within or during her reign must be accounted blessed, and having met her twice, I am thrice-over blessed.
Rest In Peace, Majesty.
Kevin Myers is a Dublin journalist. He has contributed his occasional Letter from Dublin to Quadrant since 2018