June 2, 2011
It was remarkable, really. Both visits, Queen Elizabeth’s and President Obama’s, were triumphant victories for the Irish people. What small country has the power to attract as much investment, tourism, and attention as Ireland? This magical island and its people deserve all the good fortune that the United States and the United Kingdom shower upon it.
The Queen of England stayed for four days and President Obama only 12 hours, but each visit had a profound influence on everyday Ireland. The Irish were perfect hosts. President Mary McAleese and Prime Minister Enda Kenny and thousands of administrators, security forces, and protocol experts choreographed a series of events that had a profound impact not only the Irish people but also on men and women of Irish heritage everywhere.
We can only imagine the thousands of planning hours and meetings that preceded the visits. How many times were the queen’s speeches written and re-written? President Obama’s trip to Moneygall, Co. Offaly, had to have been planned to the minute. Who gave him the euros to slap down on the bar to pay for his Guinness and allow him to say, “Don’t ever say the president doesn’t pay for his drinks.”
We can imagine the reaction of the grumpy old men slumped down in their fat upholstered chairs in the back rooms of musty clubs in London and Belfast as they heard the queen repeatedly regret the history of tension and violence between Britain and Ireland.
The queen smiled more broadly and more often than most of her advisers had ever seen, media representatives noted while commenting on her full smiles and happy demeanor. On her trip to Dublin and Cork, each day built on the day before. On one occasion, at an evening performance of Irish artists, as the queen went forward to congratulate the performers, the Irish audience stood and gave her a heartfelt five-minute ovation that surprised and shocked everyone, including the monarch. It seemed that everything that followed reached a higher and higher sense of welcome.
At the Dublin Castle state dinner, with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson attending, the queen said “It is a sad and regrettable reality that through history, our two islands have experienced more than their fair share of heartache, turbulence, and loss. We can never forget those who have died or been injured, or their families.”
At Dublin’s “Garden of Remembrance,” built to honor the Irish rebels who lost their lives in Ireland’s fight for independence from the British crown, the queen and President McAleese each laid a wreath to commemorate the dead.
At Croke Park, where almost a century ago British forces indiscriminately machine-gunned the crowd, killing numerous innocent fans who had come to watch a match, the queen’s visit was welcomed by the infamously anti-British GAA.
With all the good will and stunning success of the queen’s visit it should be remembered that none of this would have happened were it not for the Good Friday agreement bringing peace to Northern Ireland. Unfortunately the Sinn Fein, perhaps the most important part of that achievement, were not participants in the queen’s visit. Gerry Adams issued a statement before she arrived, cautioning against protest and at the end of the visit welcomed much of what the queen had to say. But neither he nor any other person in the Sinn Fein leadership took part in the events.
It should also be recognized the queen’s visit would not have occurred without Mary McAleese and her quiet influence and gracious invitation to the queen. She and her husband Martin have done so much the public will never hear. Even standing at the side of the room or at the queen’s side during all the picture taking, her strength and humility shine through. A sign of that influence was the presence of Jackie McDonald at the dinner in Dublin Castle. Jackie McDonald is chief of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), a loyalist paramilitary and vigilante organization in Belfast, and he was a neighbor of Martin McAleese growing up in North Belfast. They are friends and were central participants in the UDA’s recent cease-fire and decommissioning agreements.
The picture of the 85-year-old queen walking from the helicopter to the famous ruins at the Rock of Cashel, dressed in bright green from head to toe, looking relaxed and very pleased at the end of her visit, is a telling sign of the memorable success of the entire endeavor for both the Irish and the queen.
The Irish Independent newspaper headline announced, “Queen’s historic visit hailed as a massive success,” and the Irish Times newspaper wrote, “The week that Anglophobia died.”
But the Irish were not through. In the following week President Obama, on his way to meetings with European leaders, visited Dublin and the small town of Moneygall to say hello to his relatives. The country was almost shut down during the visit. After stopping at Dublin’s five-star residence, the Merrion Hotel, to freshen up, the president and Michelle Obama first met President McAleese and Prime Minister Kenny at the Irish president’s home in Phoenix Park, then travelled by helicopter to Moneygall 75 miles south of Dublin to visit where his great-great-great-grandfather Fulmouth Kearney emigrated from in 1850. This must have been an incredible scene.
The town (and immediate area) has only about 325 residents, all of whom were clearly delighted that an American president was coming to town. There were banners everywhere, Obama tourist items for sale, and hundreds of security men and women standing guard. The president went to Ollie Hayes’s pub for the traditional pint of Guinness and Michelle joined him with a smaller glass. Then back to Dublin to be welcomed by a huge crowd on College Green just outside the gates of Trinity College.
With crowd estimates ranging from 60,000 to 100,000, Obama gave a generous speech standing behind large panels of bullet- proof glass. Quoting from the Irish Times, he said, “Never has a nation so small inspired so much in another. Irish signatures are on our founding documents. Irish blood was spilled on our battlefields. Irish sweat built our great cities.”
Continuing, he said, “Ours is a proud, enduring, centuries-old relationship; we are bound by history and friendship and shared values. And that’s why I’ve come here today, as an American president, to reaffirm those bonds of affection.”
Using the Irish language to quote his own motto, “Yes We Can,” he finished with “Yes We Can, Yes W Can, Is feider linn.”
At a time when Ireland has lost a bit of momentum Queen Elizabeth’s and President Obama’s visits have done much to lift Irish spirits everywhere.