Why a royal family member at a commemoration of Irish independence would be significant

Opinion: Unlocking Queen Elizabeth’s ‘secret garden’ of Ireland

‘Ultimately, the Anglo-Irish relationship comes down to the narcissism of small differences, to the fact that the English and Irish are alike but not too alike.’ President Michael D Higgins and Queen Elizabeth during the banquet held at Windsor Castle during the State visit of President Higgins. Photograph: Alan Betson

‘Ultimately, the Anglo-Irish relationship comes down to the narcissism of small differences, to the fact that the English and Irish are alike but not too alike.’ President Michael D Higgins and Queen Elizabeth during the banquet held at Windsor Castle during the State visit of President Higgins. Photograph: Alan Betson

Fri, Apr 11, 2014, 12:01

For years the English debated the Irish Question; and the Irish discussed their English Question. Whenever the English came up with a solution, the Irish demurred – and were accused of changing the question.

Nowadays, England increasingly feels itself to be like a British colony. It encourages the Scots to flirt with a home rule parliament as a way of exploring this hidden option for itself (Tony Blair wrote such a possibility into the Belfast Agreement, which speaks of “devolved institutions” not just in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales but “if appropriate, elsewhere in the United Kingdom”).

England flies the flag of St George at sporting events more often than the Union Jack. Its writers talk of the English, not the British, novel. They want their nation once again. In the Victorian age the English saw Ireland as a futuristic zone in which such heady ideas as the disestablishment of church and state or the expropriation of the landlord class could be tried out. These two ideas proved so radical, in the event, that they have yet to be fully implemented in England.

Ireland has been for years and still is England’s Unconscious. But in the intervening period, England itself has often functioned as a laboratory for those elements repressed from official Irish life: landless labourer, unemployed worker, unmarried mother.

All of this gives added poignancy to President Michael D Higgins’s brilliant comment last Tuesday that the shadow (or negative side) may also function as a safeguard (or positive protector).

Ultimately, the Anglo-Irish relationship comes down to the narcissism of small differences, to the fact that the English and Irish are alike but not too alike. For centuries, Irish intellectuals in England were available as analysts of its foibles. From Goldsmith to Wilde, from Spike Milligan to Tony Clare, they functioned as commentators, comedians and psychotherapists. If their critiques seemed valid, well and good; if they went too close to the bone, their sponsors could be patted on the head as feckless Paddies being whimsical yet again. One result is that much of what is called English comedy is an invention of the Irish – who seem to do much better at it in England than they have ever done here.

At home, we write tragedy; over there, comedies. Hence the English tendency to equate Irish and comical. Of course, the fabled Irish Joke tells us less about the inherent foolishness of Irish persons than about the English stand-up’s persistent and poignant desire once in his life to say something funny.

Official England has longed to see itself as rational, analytical and measured, and so it cast the surrounding peoples (Celts as well as French) as irrational, impulsive and sentimental. The Irish over time learned how to internalise these ideas, substituting more positive words for the negatives – for irrational, say emotional; for impulse-ridden, say spontaneous; for sentimental read warm-hearted. And the result was a national revival.

Powerful stereotypes
The fact that the Irish could also be as devious and calculating as all out-groups must learn to be, or that the sheer wealth of many English allowed them to indulge their sentiments, was neither here nor there. The powerful stereotypes usually preceded people to the actual human encounter between English and Irish, which then threw all these truisms into question. Vices are often national and virtues personal – in individual encounters our peoples frequently liked, even loved, one another.

For the current English queen, Ireland was indeed the Unconscious, a sort of “secret garden”, locked and impenetrable, like those gardens which teased the minds of girls in classic children’s novels of the Victorian and Edwardian period. Elizabeth Windsor had visited half the countries on the planet, but was forbidden by security officials from entering the ultimate mystery of the neighbouring island, home of all those horsey people whose world she loved. By the time she prevailed against more cautious advisers, she was in her 80s; but she had a high old time here, which is all Irish hosts ever ask of a visitor.

Many of our ancestors arrived in England by unapproved routes, as an underclass of economic migrants who were victims of a parasitical aristocracy, as were many English who huddled down beside them in poor suburbs of great cities. These past few days, however, the son of an insurgent republican who slept rough in the fields on his secret missions in Limerick and Clare has himself slept soundly as an honoured guest at Windsor Castle. Before returning today to a house which was once the vice-regal lodge but is now the home of a people’s president.

If a member of the royal family can stand beside him in coming years at a commemoration of Irish independence, this will be significant indeed.

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