History Happens: the Queen’s Visit to Ireland

A rant about those who insist on living in the past.

A drain with two spraypainted yellow spanners on it, indicating it has been checked and sealed
The Gardaí are not known for their street art skills

Last Tuesday, Dublin city finally went back to normal. No crowd barriers, no bridge or road closures, no buses or trains cancelled.

The week before, however, I was effectively besieged at work. Barriers cordoned off the four sides of the block around my office with only small, occasional gaps for pedestrians. Weeks earlier, Gardaí had begun checking every drain and electricity mains access for explosives, and then sealing them with bathroom sealant before marking them with a yellow spanner symbol. Little yellow spanners appeared on every street in the city centre.

All because the Queen of England was coming to town, swiftly followed by Barack Obama. And while the U.S. president drew the crowds on Monday, the Queen’s visit was the more important one to me. Ireland loves welcoming U.S. presidents (especially Democrats): it gets us on the international news, we show off our delightful tourist destinations (céad míle fáilte!), and Guinness get lots of free publicity.

But the Queen has never visited. Why?

Very short answer: history happened.

Longer answer: Because her family used to own the island of Ireland from about the 12th century until 1922. She still technically “owns” Northern Ireland. From 1922, and until very recently, a British Royal visit would’ve been unwelcome and unsafe.

Even now, 13 years after the Good Friday Agreement, the security for the Queen was markedly heavier and more oppressive than for the U.S. president. Obama spoke at a concert in College Green to a crowd of 50,000. During the Queen’s visit, crowds were not allowed to gather on the streets, and she did not meet any members of the public in Dublin. The very small crowds of protestors were kept well away from her route and eyeline. Most Dubliners went about their business as best they could while fervently hoping none of the protestors – mostly “dissident republican” groups, and a small Sinn Féin contingent – did anything stupid to make a show of us in front of the international press. My friends and I entertained ourselves with coming up with alternative dissident groups: I Can’t Believe It’s Not the IRA! Blu-RA: the HD terrorist experience! IRA-lite: your lo-cal terrorist group! And at the heart of it, I was just fervently hoping none of those idiots fucked it up for us.

A poster on a lamp post in Dublin. Text reads: "No British Queen in the city of '16. JOIN THE IRISH FREEDOM CAMP"
This? Hate.

There is a very small, but persistent and vocal, dissident republican movement in Ireland, north and south. Probably most of them “just” deal drugs, but some of them make and hang posters like this. Some of them plant car bombs that kill police. Some of them planted a bomb on a bus heading for Dublin last week. Some of them probably planted the other hoax bombs in and around Dublin city last week. I hate that these people, who persist in living in 1798 or 1916 or 1922 or 1969, are so fucking visible – maybe not to you, but they are to me.

You know what? I’m Irish. I love my country. I love our history, our landscape, our languages, our sense of humour. I’m proud to be Irish, to be an Irish speaker. And I’m perfectly happy with Ireland’s borders as they are. In some ways, for a country with thousands of years of its own unique history, language, music, mythology, and literature, it is odd that the country as it exists now is only a few months older than my grandfather. He was born in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, which erupted after the 1921 Anglo-Irish Agreement which partitioned the island into the Irish Free State – later the Republic – and Northern Ireland. But if my granddad, who at 88 has never known anything but the Republic and North, doesn’t care, why do the people who make these posters and bombs?

I’m Irish and proud of it, and I have an English surname because some ancestor of mine came over here from England in the 1700s. My grandfather’s uncle fought and died for Britain in the First World War. My mother has a Norman surname because some ancestors of hers probably came over with Henry II. My friend Rory’s grandparents were in the IRA. My friend Lisa has an Irish surname and family in China. Our friends and family live, love, and work in the UK, and UK citizens live, love, and work here, too.

By all means, communities sorth and south should continue to advocate for their rights. They should continue to speak out against long-standing discrimination and cultural biases. But these “˜dissidents’ who claim to speak for “the Irish people” haven’t spoken for us, in the Republic, for most of a century. They don’t speak for the Catholic and nationalist communities in the North anymore, either. So I’m asking them, to please, just feck off.

History happens. Countries change, and borders are not fixed.

Let’s be clear: the Queen’s visit is a symbol, and doesn’t start anything that hasn’t been hard-won over the last few decades. It just seals it. And to quote Herself:

…this visit reminds us of the complexity of our history, its many layers and traditions, but also the importance of forbearance and conciliation. Of being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it.

HRH Queen Elizabeth II, at Dublin Castle

(But please, never ask for an “Irish car bomb” in a pub in Ireland. History happens, but it’s still too soon for that.)

6 replies on “History Happens: the Queen’s Visit to Ireland”

Also, because I cannot get enough of this topic, one of my favourite ever verses by Louis MacNeice (another deeply conflicted Irishman), the second half of his poem ‘Dublin’ – evocative of pre-Tiger Dublin, the ghost of which, I think, is very much still around:

She is not an Irish town
And she is not English,
Historic with guns and vermin
And the cold renown
Of a fragment of Church latin,
Of an oratorical phrase.
But oh the days are soft,
Soft enough to forget
The lesson better learnt,
The bullet on the wet
Streets, the crooked deal,
The steel behind the laugh,
The Four Courts burnt.

Fort of the Dane,
Garrison of the Saxon,
Augustan capital
Of a Gaelic nation,
Appropriating all
The alien brought,
You give me time for thought
And by a juggler’s trick
You poise the toppling hour –
O greyness run to flower,
Grey stone, grey water,
And brick upon grey brick.

Go on ye good thing, QoB!!!!

This obviously comes from a very personal perspective, but so-called dissident republicanism as it exists today in the Republic has always bothered me in large part because of the either-or straitjacket in which it places everyone. The history of Ireland ins’t just Catholics versus Protestants; if it was we’d have no Tone, no Parnell, no Yeats. Worse still, I’m neither Catholic nor Protestant, and my mum’s not even Irish, so where do I fit into their world? The short answer, of course, is that I don’t. Like many modern Irish people, I don’t have a place in their typology.

I don’t see why their romanticised version of Irish history is more authentic than mine. Dublin is my city just as much as it is theirs, and anyone who says otherwise can póg mo thóin.

Beautifully said. Thanks so much for this insight. Too often in the States we get a very revolutionary-biased/Republican-slanted perspective on Irish history and current events, and it’s lovely to hear something more balanced (and more representative of what my Irish friends have always said).

Thank you.

Yes, the republican-biased voices seem to be very loud in the US, and apparently lots of US people who base their support of that on their Irish republican heritage are actually descended from the Ulster Scots/Scots-Irish settlers of northern Ireland: quite far removed from the nationalist Catholic image the republicans were careful to cultivate (Wolfe Tone, Parnell etc. notwithstanding…).

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