Earlier in the year, I posted about the (as I saw it) deplorable acceleration in Ireland’s crime rate, and the increasing savagery of those crimes; in that post, I spoke about how Irish people were losing faith in their government and the Catholic church, and that only the system of law had any credence left.
Well, since then, the Gardaí – our police force – has imploded under the weight of a bugging scandal and the dismissive treatment of two whistleblowers who sought to bring corruption within the force to light and crime, very sadly, has carried on undaunted. I have stopped counting the amount of shootings and attacks that line every news bulletin, because there’s only so much darkness that one struggling mind can take. Sometimes it truly feels that Ireland is under a black cloud – partly of its own making – which will never clear.
But today I have a reason to be proud of my country.
Seo é Úachtaráin na h-Éireann, Michéal D. Ó hUiginn – this is the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. And today he, his wife Sabina, and our ‘Tánaiste’ (equivalent to a Deputy Prime Minister) are travelling to London to meet with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth on the first State Visit to Buckingham Palace by an Irish head of State.
Perhaps, to a non-Irish person, this doesn’t sound like a huge deal. But it is.
A few years ago, when Her Majesty visited Dublin, I was still working in the city. Getting around Dublin during the weeks before the visit was complicated, as security checks were being completed absolutely everywhere. Buildings were checked. Sewers were sealed up. Barriers were erected to cordon off the expected crowds, for not only did the Queen visit Ireland that summer, but so did President and Mrs Obama, whose trip came a few days before hers. In practical terms, these barriers meant that a hurrying, short-legged pedestrian – i.e. me – racing to catch buses and make their way home after a long day at work was often thwarted in their efforts.
But, somehow, it didn’t seem to matter all that much. The Queen was coming to Ireland. The Queen. No British monarch had set foot in the country since 1911 – exactly one hundred years before – when we’d still been part of the Empire. This was huge. Of course, there was the usual sabre-rattling from the expected corners of the country; there were bomb threats. There were howling voices in the media decrying it as an insult to our fallen forefathers.
And then, there were ordinary citizens like me, praying that nothing would happen to Her Majesty or Prince Philip on Irish soil. Praying that they’d be safe, not only for their own sake but also for the sake of the future of Ireland and its relationship with Britain.
When the Queen stepped out of her car dressed in a green suit to shake hands with the then-President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, it was a lump-in-throat moment for me.
Her Majesty went on to lay a wreath in the Garden of Remembrance to honour the fallen in the cause of Irish freedom, and I watched it on TV and wept, as – I’m sure – did many in my country.
When she gave a speech at a State dinner in Dublin Castle – once, of course, a British stronghold in the city – and began it with a few words of Irish, it was stunning. I think it was at that point the country, and its relationship with Britain, turned a corner.
I hope our President and his wife will be safe in the UK, because I’m sure there are still dissenters who would wish to derail the peace that has been hard-won between our countries. I hope he acquits himself with as much dignity as Her Majesty did on her State visit to Ireland – I have no doubt he will, for he is a scholar and a gentleman. But most of all I hope the trip gives Ireland something to be proud of, something to lift the spirits; I hope it reminds us all how far we’ve come since the terrible times when it seemed we were going to tear ourselves in shreds, all for the sake of the indefinable idea of ‘freedom.’
There is more than one way to be free. Ridding ourselves of the burden of the past is a good first step toward the liberty we’ve fought so long for. But above all, let there be peace, and peace evermore, and let no more blood be shed.