Much has been written and said to honour the memory and legacy of Queen Elizabeth since her death was announced last week, and it may seem a little late to add to that now. But there was an aspect to the Queen’s reign that I think very few in Canada would have known about or appreciated, and, as an Irishman, I think it is worth remembering.
It will appear odd to some that someone raised in the Republic of Ireland would want to add to the already widespread appreciation of her life and achievements, and perhaps that makes it more important that I try to do so.
It is a well-known fact of history that Ireland and Britain have not had the happiest of relationships, and the British monarchy and political establishment have not always been looked upon with any great warmth and affection in Ireland as a result. But Queen Elizabeth, as in so many other ways, was different. She served her people for over seventy years with real grace and honour, holding to her sense of duty to her God and her people with a dedication that was never less than admirable.
But in 2011 she brought a new level of dignity and a new hope to the people of Britain and Ireland at a time when both nations were seeking to come to terms with that troubled history, particularly following the Good Friday Agreement which brought the possibility of peace to the island of Ireland after decades of violence and strife.
In May of 2011, the Queen and her husband made a State visit to Ireland at the invitation of the Irish President, Mary McAleese, the first visit by a reigning British monarch in a century, the first since Irish independence in 1921. It had to be perfect in every way, there was so much riding on it for the future of both nations. Queen Elizabeth made it perfect. Security, as you can imagine, was intense, and fears of protests and demonstrations added to the uncertainty. On her first day, the Queen and the President visited the Garden of Remembrance, a site dedicated to the memory of those who fought for Irish freedom – freedom from the rule of British monarchs and governments.
The Queen laid a wreath at the monument, then, stepping back, she straightened her back and then bowed before the monument, recognising those memorialised there. That one, simple gesture managed to heal centuries of conflict and distrust in the hearts of so many Irish people. It was incredibly moving and brought tears to many eyes. The following evening, at a State banquet attended by British and Irish politicians, artists, business people and others, the Queen rose to make her remarks to the assembly.
Her first words were given in the Irish language: “A Uachtaráin agus a chairde” [President and friends]. The room broke into spontaneous applause, and President McAleese could be seen mouthing the words, “Oh wow!” two or three times. So simple, so easy to miss, but so symbolic at the same time. The Irish people, for so long seen as lesser people, (“No dogs, no Blacks, no Irish”) heard the Queen acknowledge something essential.
In her speech that night, she said something else that went to healing memories and hurts. ““With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish would have been done differently”, and then, looking up from her text, she added, “or not at all.” There was much else that took place during that visit, but it all added up to a major step forward in establishing a new basis for the relationship between the two nations, and was deeply appreciated then and now. It was not easy for any British monarch to make those steps, and it was against the advice of many of her staff that she did so.
One other incredible event in which Queen Elizabeth took part came as a result of that new foundation laid in Dublin in 2011. The following year, on a visit to Northern Ireland, she met with the leaders of the government there, which included both Unionist and Sinn Fein members. The Deputy First Minister was a man named Martin McGuinness, one time Commander of the Provisional IRA in Derry. When these two symbols of such diverse history and status met and shook hands, something else changed in history. What it took for the two of them to greet each other like that was remarkable. The IRA had murdered the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten, not to mention very many of her soldiers. Martin McGuinness led the IRA in Derry at the time when the British army murdered 14 unarmed and peaceful demonstrators in January of 1972. Both had come a long way to that moment, and it allowed others to follow their example on a journey that is not yet over.
Queen Elizabeth II was an incredible person, given her background, privileges, and position. Whether anyone can build on her legacy remains to be seen, of course. The changes in Canada may be minimal, though when we begin to see her image on our currency replaced by that of the new King, it may begin to sink in that a new era in history has begun with her death.
One last point. Growing up in Ireland through the times of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, we were not spared the violence. When car bombs went off in Dublin in May, 1974, placed with the connivance of the British army, 26 people died, with another 7 being killed in a separate attack in Monaghan. When those 14 were shot in Derry in 1972, I was in the crowd who cheered as we watched the British Embassy in Dublin firebombed and burned to the ground. It is impossible to exaggerate the anger we felt. In that context, the actions of Queen Elizabeth in 2011 can be seen as the pivotal symbols they were.
When we held our all candidates meeting last week, I called for a moment’s silence in honour of the deceased Queen, and in my mind, I saw her bowing her head in the Garden of Remembrance, and shaking hands with Martin McGuinness. There are historic moments and gestures that can change your world.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.