A shiver went through St. Patrick’s Hall, her words hanging in the air for a moment as their historical significance landed and journalists answered the phones in their finery.
You WHAT?” One editor ended up exclaiming, “This shouldn’t have happened!”
But Queen Elizabeth II had no illusions that here was an opportunity; a unique opportunity to seize a moment and make a gesture of great symbolic importance in front of the Irish President and with the participation of the world’s media.
“A Uachtaráin, agus a chairde…” she began.
In doing so, the monarch broke protocol, ignored her own diplomatic advisers and defected (if you can say that of an 85-year-old head of state). The first British monarch to ever pay a state visit to the Republic of Ireland had addressed the gathering in Dublin Castle, the seat of English and later British rule in Ireland from 1204 to 1922, in Irish. And she nailed it, too.
Evidence in the form of an intriguing scrap of paper has now come to light, giving us a glimpse of what was going on behind the scenes.
Former President Mary McAleese herself set the scene in her 2020 memoir, Here’s the story.
In the months leading up to the visit, high-level protocol discussions went back and forth between Dublin and London, with every detail scrutinized. Nothing would be left to chance. When the Queen’s Deputy Private Secretary, Edward Young, came on board, McAleese had three suggestions to add to the official program of events:
- A visit by Queen Elizabeth to the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin, commemorating all those who fought for Irish freedom.
- A visit to Croke Park, including the Hogan Stand, named after young Michael Hogan who was murdered by British soldiers along with 13 others in 1920.
- And a few words in Irish to start the Queen’s speech at her state dinner in Dublin Castle, the only formal speech she was to make here.
McAleese wrote: “One sentence alone could calm so much historical anxiety and resentment at the horrific treatment of the language by the British when they were in power at Dublin Castle.”
Two of these were accepted but the third should not be – too risky – it was decided if she stumbled in her pronunciation it would be picked up by the press and it would make headlines. The proposal was rejected by Buckingham Palace.
She reluctantly did so, but warned him that the plan was “off the table.”
A week before the state visit, former British diplomat Francis Campbell paid a courtesy call to McAleese in Áras an Uachtaráin (both from Northern Ireland, they were students together at Queen’s University Belfast and Campbell had gone to school with McAleese’s younger brother). As he was leaving, Campbell pulled an old envelope and pen from his jacket pocket and persuaded the President to write down the line she would have suggested the Queen should use in her speech. She reluctantly did so, but warned him that the plan was “off the table.” He might give it to Edward Young out of curiosity, but that’s about it.
“A Uachtaráin, agus a chairde (President and Friends)”, wrote McAleese, and then – an almost comical phonetic version: “A ook tar oin (eye/n) aug us a hardje”.
Queen Elizabeth rose at Dublin Castle on May 18, 2011. As she began her speech, “A Uachtaráin, agus a chairde..”, an almost speechless Mary McAleese was caught on camera exclaiming just one word: “Wow.”
The appreciative look between the two women was the picture that made headlines around the world. It was talked about back then; that’s what we’re talking about today.
Francis Campbell is now Vice Chancellor of the University of Notre Dame in Fremantle, Western Australia. Thanks to an introduction from McAleese, he found the envelope for me in a drawer in his desk and was pleased to have it included The President’s Letters: An Unexpected History of Ireland (New Island Books).
A crumpled old envelope with hastily scrawled scribbles in blue ink is arguably the most historic document in the collection
A crumpled old envelope with hastily scrawled scribbles in blue ink is arguably the most historic document in the collection. And it could return to Ireland. Campbell believes it should be archived here and viewed with the rest of the President’s correspondent files.
These files, mostly to be found in the National Archives in Dublin, are full of official documents sent between successive Presidents of Ireland and Heads of State from around the world. Many of the signatures are familiar, whether it’s the artistic flourish of Erskine H. Childers or the distinctive “Mandela”.
And it’s interesting to note how correspondence has evolved over the decades, from the gold-embossed, pen-and-ink formal letters of the 1930s to the text emails of today, one of which, according to his condition, was sent to President Michael D. Higgins Britain visit 2014 begins: “Hey Prez…”
The relationship between Áras an Uachtaráin and Buckingham Palace can be traced in the correspondence between the Queen and no fewer than eight of our nine Presidents to date. She exchanged messages with everyone except our first Uachtaráin na hÉireann, Douglas Hyde.
An early example is the letter of thanks from Elizabeth and the Queen Mother to President Seán T O’Kelly for his condolences on the death of their father, King George VI, in 1952.
There were discussions about the then-President’s attendance at the funeral in London, but then-Taoiseach Éamon de Valera opposed it because part of Ireland “is foreseeably still outside of Irish control”.
In the 1950s and 1960s, correspondence was little more than New Year’s greetings or the odd St. Patrick’s Day message. In the 1970s and 1980s, tensions rose during the riots, particularly at the time of hunger strikes.
But Mary Robinson’s presidency ushered in a new era in relations between the two heads of state. Handwritten messages were added at the end of official correspondence; particularly around Robinson’s visit to Buckingham Palace on May 27, 1993, her 49th birthday.
There are letters from Queen Elizabeth to Robinson and McAleese that end: “Your good friend, Elizabeth R.”
Around President Michael D. Higgins’ state visit to the UK in 2014, the first by an Irish President, the friendship and warmth in the letters exchanged is evident. With the death of Queen Elizabeth and the succession of her son, King Charles III, it will be fascinating to watch how the correspondence develops, although we may have to wait at least 20 years for the release of the State Papers before we receive these letters to read.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/the-private-letters-that-show-how-queen-elizabeth-ii-turned-from-foe-to-friend-and-neighbour-of-ireland-41977851.html The private letters that show how Queen Elizabeth II went from enemy to friend and neighbor to Ireland