‘Belfast let itself go with a vengeance’: Reporting the king’s speech, 1921

King George V opened the Northern Parliament on this day 100 years ago, drawing huge crowds onto the streets

Belfast at about noon, June 22nd, 1921. Photograph: National Library of Ireland/Flickr Commons

Belfast at about noon, June 22nd, 1921. Photograph: National Library of Ireland/Flickr Commons

 

Belfast let itself go with a vengeance yesterday when it opened the heart of Ulster to receive its King and Queen.” So begins the main news report in The Irish Times the day after King George V opened the Northern Parliament at Belfast City Hall, on this day 100 years ago.

The visit was hotly anticipated, and the reports from the day’s celebrations in Belfast carry a particular air of jubilance found in Irish Times reports on Royal events in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The reporter did not hold back: clouds threatening rain meant nothing to the gathering crowds, which were impossible to number, because they knew a shower would not ruin the occasion: “It was Ulster’s day, and nothing could be allowed to interfere with its success.”

The king and queen were due to land at Donegall Quay and make their way from there to City Hall – a procession that had reportedly been practised the day previously. The route “ran riot with colour”, according to the Irish Times report, which said Donegall Place “from pavement to chimney, fluttered a message of splendid gaiety to the hovering flock of seagulls, which seemed to have come to spy out the land. Stout wooden barricades were built all along the streets, which were sprinkled liberally with sand.”

The reporter walked from Castle Junction to Donegall Quay, noting as they went a “weary-looking” individual carrying a sign, bidding to save “faithful and infidel” alike. “Women with strident voices cracked jokes across the streets, and everyone seemed to be in the mood for enjoyment. The slightest move provoked a cheer. Now it was a Boys’ Brigade band playing The Harp that Once; now it was an old lady dodging under the arm of a giant constable from Connemara; now it was a brewer’s dray which somehow or other seemed to have lost its bearings . . .”

At City Hall, the press was given a “foretaste of Belfast’s lung power” when a half company of the Ulster Brigade arrived and formed a guard of honour. A keen eye was trained on the various military arrivals, which included a platoon of the Irish Guards headed by a towering, “steel-eyed major” who “treated the worship of the crowd with colossal contempt”.

Page 5 of The Irish Times, June 23rd, 1921
Page 5 of The Irish Times, June 23rd, 1921

Inside the hall, in anticipation of the Royals’ arrival, the “elite of Northern Ireland was passing to and fro”. Among the many attendees were chief secretary Sir Hamar Greenwood, Lady Greenwood, as well as the North’s first prime minister, James Craig, and his cabinet. The crowd also featured an unnamed man who insisted on reading his newspaper until the very last moment, while a life-size portrait of Queen Victoria apparently disapproved of the lightness of it all, seeming “to frown upon such levity”.

At about noon, a roar from outside saw attendees scramble to gain a peek of the approaching guests: “There was a rush for the windows as the Royal visitors entered Donegall Place from High street and ladies of title vied with members of the City Council in their endeavour to catch a first glimpse of the King and Queen.”

Fifteen minutes later, the door swung open to a fanfare of trumpets. The queen came ahead of the king, both preceded by the Lord Lieutenant, who held aloft the Irish sword of state. The queen, in white, was “a picture of healthy vigour, and every inch a Queen”. King George V, meanwhile, was “just a little bit tired”.

Positions were taken and prayers said, after which the King was handed a typewritten copy of his speech – you can read the full text, published in the same edition of The Irish Times, below. The address evidently made an impression on the reporter: “He has an excellent delivery, and his speech made a deep impression on all who heard it . . . Of course, Kings’ speeches are cut and dried – everybody knows that – but there was something in the lone of His Majesty’s voice which lifted his remarks out of the rut of stereotyped utterances.”

When the speech concluded, and after another fanfare of trumpets, the Royals left at about 12:40pm. The day’s events were not over (a luncheon ball immediately followed, and they afterwards left for the Ulster Hall) and the crowds remained outside: “There is something about Kings and Queens which makes the staidest individual throw his hat into the air like a fourth-former, and Belfast yesterday revelled in a wild abandon,” read the report.

THE KING’S SPEECH

The following is the full text of the king’s speech, opening the Northern Parliament on June 22nd, 1921:

“Members of the Senate and of the House of Commons – For all who love Ireland, as I do with all my heart, this is a profoundly moving occasion in Irish history.

“My memories of the Irish people date back to the time when I spent many happy days in Ireland as a midshipman. My affection for the Irish people has been deepened by successive visits since that time, and I have watched with constant sympathy the course of their affairs.

“I could not have allowed myself to give Ireland by deputy alone, my earnest prayers and good wishes in the new era which opens with this ceremony, and I have, therefore come in person, as the Head of the Empire, to inaugurate this Parliament on Irish soil.

“I inaugurate it with deep-felt hope, and I feel assured that you will do your utmost to make it an instrument of happiness and good government for all parts of the community which you represent.

“This is a great and critical occasion in the history of the six counties, but not for the six counties alone, for everything which interests them touches Ireland, and everything which touches Ireland finds an echo in the remotest parts of the Empire.

“Few things are more earnestly desired throughout the English-speaking world than a satisfactory solution of the age-long Irish problems, which for generations embarrassed our forefathers, as they now weigh heavily upon us.

“Most certainly there is no wish nearer My own heart than that every man of Irish birth, whatever be his creed and wherever be his home, should work in co-operation with the free communities on which the British Empire is based.

“I am confident that the important matters entrusted to the control and guidance of the Northern Parliament will be managed with wisdom and moderation; with fairness and due regard to every faith and interest, and with no abatement of that patriotic devotion to the Empire which you proved so gallantly in the Great War.

“Full partnership in the United Kingdom and religious freedom Ireland has long enjoyed. She now has conferred upon her the duty of dealing with all the essential tasks of domestic legislation and government; and I feel no misgiving as to the spirit in which you who stand here to-day will carry out the all-important functions entrusted to your care.

“My hope is broader still. The eyes of the whole Empire are on Ireland to-day – that Empire in which so many nations and races have come together in spite of the ancient feuds, and in which new nations have come to birth within the lifetime of the youngest in this hall. I am emboldened by that thought to look beyond the sorrow and the anxiety which have clouded of late my vision of Irish affairs. I speak from a full heart when I pray that my coming to Ireland to-day may prove to be the first step towards an end of strife amongst her people, whatever their race or creed.

“In that hope, I appeal to all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and to forget, and to join in making for the land which they love a new era of peace, contentment, and goodwill.

“It is my earnest desire that in Southern Ireland, too, there may ere long take place a parallel to what is now passing in this hall; that there a similar occasion may present itself and a similar ceremony be performed. For this the Parliament of the United Kingdom has in the fullest measure provided the powers. For this the Parliament of Ulster is pointing the way.

“The future lies in the hands of my Irish people themselves. May this historic gathering be the prelude of a day in which the Irish people, North and South, under one Parliament or two, as those Parliaments may themselves decide, shall work together in common love for Ireland upon the sure foundations of mutual justice and respect.”

At the conclusion of the speech a flourish of trumpets was sounded, and the King and Queen left the chamber.

Read the original reports here.

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