Dealt a fair royal hand?


JONATHAN BARDONreviews Crown and Shamrock: Love and Hate Between Ireland and the British MonarchyBy Mary Kenny
New Island, 394pp. €19.99

IN IRELAND the monarchy symbolised many oppressive aspects of English rule, but, Mary Kenny observes, “the institution of ‘the Crown’ and the actual royals (who constituted, above all, a family) were two quite different things in the minds of most people”. This book is an intriguing chronicle of that love-hate relationship between the monarchy and the Irish from the accession of Queen Victoria to our own time.

Kenny correctly concludes that Victoria’s “attitudes to Ireland – now disparaging, now affectionate, now furious, now warm – were of a piece with her ardent and reactive personality”. “Really, they are a terrible people,” she once wrote. The British ruling classes, after all, tended to regard Ireland as a place apart, inhabited by turbulent and backward people, always threatening the violent overthrow of law and order.

Victoria formed a more positive view during her first visit, made in August 1849, at the height of the Famine. She was very moved by the enthusiasm of the great cheering crowds, “laughing, talking shrieking”, which thronged to greet her. She shared Prince Albert’s view that the majority of the Irish could be coaxed out of their “irrational” religious faith. Closely involved in the Dublin Exhibition of 1853, Albert imagined that steam locomotion and the spread of education would wean the Irish away from their rosaries. However, Victoria had no liking for displays of Protestant bigotry. She declared: “I cannot bear to hear the violent abuse of the Catholic religion, which is so painful and so cruel towards many good and innocent Roman Catholics.”

The queen spent only five weeks in Ireland during her four visits to the island, in contrast to a total of seven yearsin Scotland. The truth is that she always found Ireland to be a foreign country, and it was the rising tide of Irish nationalist sentiment, rather than triumphalist Catholicism, that steadily eroded her affection for the Irish people.

The queen was deeply hurt when Dublin Corporation refused to erect on College Green a sculpted bust of her beloved Albert that she donated. The Phoenix Park murders, outrages during the Land War and hostile demonstrations during her golden and diamond jubilees alienated her still further.

Kenny has trawled through the royal archives at Windsor and, while this has provided the reader with some lively extracts, much of this ground has been covered before, most recently by James H Murphy. Her material on monarchs after Victoria is fresher and particularly insightful and entertaining on Edward VII and George V.

Irish Catholics appreciated that Edward VII was the first monarch since the Reformation to attend a Catholic Mass in London and that he visited Pope Pius XI four times. When he went to Maynooth the clerical students adorned the college with Bertie’s racing colours of purple, scarlet and gold, cheering the sporting king all the while.

Kenny’s account of Edward’s 1904 tour of the west in Panhards, Daimlers and a Cadillac – being greeted by 100 men on Connemara ponies at Recess and a welcoming banner at Tully, “Friend of our Pope” – is one of the book’s many high points.

Less cosmopolitan and less colourful, George V preferred his family, stamp collecting and blasting pheasants out of the sky to the horse racing and dalliances with mistresses favoured by his father. He was, however, the most dutiful of kings. During the home-rule crisis the king seized the initiative “to leave nothing undone which lies within my power to save Ireland from Civil Strife”. The Irish conference he called in Buckingham Palace on the eve of the Great War broke up without agreement, but it deserves fuller treatment. Kenny gives due weight, however, to George V’s visit to Belfast in June 1921. The king certainly risked his life in a city then convulsed by vicious intercommunal violence to make a speech (in part composed by himself) to urge all Irishmen “to forgive and forget” – an appeal that led on directly to the IRA truce a fortnight later.

The Treaty of December 1921 created the Irish Free State as a 26-county dominion where monarchical trappings were despised and disparaged. Kenny makes a very convincing case that, for 50 or 60 years after the foundation of the State, the Catholic Church filled the ceremonial and ritual void. She quite rightly describes the 1932 Eucharistic Congress as “just like a royal jubilee”.

The abdication crisis gave Fianna Fáil the perfect opportunity to sever painlessly the last remaining links with the Crown. The wily de Valera carefully avoided any moral condemnation of Edward VIII, but London could do little as he constructed a new constitution that made no reference to the Crown. There was little left to remove when Éire became the Republic of Ireland on Easter Monday 1949 – a remarkably joyless occasion because, after all, Ireland was only three-quarters of a nation once again.

In the ensuing decades what the author describes as “a covert interest in the royal family” in the Republic became ever more open. Kenny entertainingly chronicles this continuing Irish fascination with the British royals. She concludes by reminding readers of the undisturbed playing of God Save the Queenat “the nationally sacred ground” of the GAA at Croke Park in February 2007 and asks: “Should Queen Elizabeth be invited to Ireland?”

Academic historians will be familiar with most of what is to be found in these pages, but Mary Kenny has done a thorough job of filtering out fascinating material from specialist publications and spicing it up with her own findings in the archives and her own recollections. The outcome is a solid, thoughtful and eminently readable book that provides a highly original take on the rocky relationship between Britain and Ireland.

Jonathan Bardon is a historian. His most recent book, A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes, was published by Gill Macmillan last year and is out now in paperback