Mood shifts from fun to sombre as royals visit Famine memorial

‘You’re a bit of a god, aren’t you?’ Prince Harry asks Galway hurler Joe Canning

 

The mood shifted from fun to sombre in a few short hours as the Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, visited Croke Park and the Irish Famine memorial in Dublin.

On the second day of their two-day visit - their first international trip as a married couple - the Duke and Duchess of Sussex followed in the 2011 footsteps of the Prince’s grandmother Queen Elizabeth by paying a visit to Croke Park where the royal couple watched youth exhibition games and met GAA stars.

After meeting President Michael D Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin, the Duke and Duchess were shown around the sports ground where, in November 1920, British forces killed 14 civilians on Bloody Sunday.

This visit was not reflective, looking back at the past, but a joyous occasion celebrating the sporting skills of GAA players, young and old, and the community-based work being carried by the organisation.

Cusack Stand

Prince Harry and Ms Markle were welcomed onto the pitch to loud cheering from children gathered in the Cusack Stand with Colin Regan, former Leitrim footballer and the GAA’s community and health manager.

The Duke spoke at length to Ciarán Harkin and other members of the Dermot Early Youth Initiative that seeks to empower teenage GAA members to contribute more to their club, counties and communities.

“You’ll learn leadership skills, but then sometimes you disappear to other countries, America and the rest of the world. You’re no good there. You have to stay here and help the community,” said Prince Harry.

The Duke inspected a hurley for the first time, asking nine-year-old Tom Whooley from Clonakilty, Co Cork, could he hold the stick. “It’s much lighter than I expected,” said the Prince.

“Is this the first time you’ve played on this grass? What does it mean to you,” he asked.

“Everything,” replied Whooley, later proudly recounting his special encounter with a royal to reporters.

In a carnival atmosphere of a swarm of children and parents from the GAA’s Fun’n’Run, Prince Harry leaned in to say hello to four-year-old Dylan Mahon from Grange Rath, Co Meath, who cheekily pulled his auburn beard. “You might have a beard soon, you never know,” the Duke told him.

Just over an hour into the visit, the couple saw the more senior players, stopping to watch hurler Joe Canning, star of All-Ireland champions Galway line up a few pucks towards the Hill 16 goal.

“No pressure here!” joked Tánaiste Simon Coveney who accompanied the royal couple around the ground.

Wide

The first puck went wide; the second sailed through the posts.

“You’re a bit of a god, aren’t you?” half-joked the Prince.

Addressing the misfired puck with reporters later, Canning acknowledged: “The first one was a disaster alright, wasn’t it? So I had to redeem myself with the second one.”

The Galway star said he did not ask the Prince if he wanted a go; their conversation was dominated by talk of the upcoming World Cup Semi-final between England and Croatia. Prince Harry chose not to copy his father’s example when Prince Charles hit a sliotar on a visit to Kilkenny last year.

“Yeah, he’ll stick to the soccer later on tonight,” said Canning.

Asked whether as “hurling royalty” he might expect an invite to Buckingham Palace, Canning said: “I don’t know about that. I’m far from hurling royalty.”

The royal couple were particularly interested in the amateur side of the GAA game in their conversations.

“They couldn’t really get their head around how we play football full-time and have full-time jobs also,” said Dublin footballer Lyndsey Davey.

There were also comments at the Duchess’s ability to walk the Croke Park pitch in high heels and her skill in putting her weight on her toes to protect the grass.

Donegal footballer Michael Murphy, who also met the royal couple, was taken by the symbolic nature of the visit to a ground with hallowed status in Irish sport and history.

‘Massive’

“It is just massive. It is a great symbol of how our game is moving on here in Ireland,” he said.

After lunch, the royal couple’s entourage pulled up outside the Irish Famine memorial on Dublin’s north quays next to IFSC. They spent a short time walking around the haunting statues of starving Famine victims.

“They definitely became moved,” sculpture Rowan Gillespie, who accompanied them, said afterwards. “Once they walked amongst them, there was very definitely a change as they looked into the faces.”

The sculptor said he and the royal couple were oblivious to IRA slogans “Up the ‘Ra!” and “Tiocfaidh ár lá!” being shouted by hecklers across the Liffey on the south side of the river.

To see members of the royal family from Britain moved by sculptures given how the British Empire were blamed for the Famine “meant a huge amount,” said Gillespie.

Following the couple’s visit to the Famine memorial, the pair arrived to a glowing reception at the CHQ building in Dublin’s Docklands, where Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, Lord Mayor of Dublin Nial Ring, and several others greeted them.

They were taken on a tour of EPIC, Dublin’s Irish Emigration Museum, by its founder Neville Isdell, and the deputy museum director Jessica Traynor.

During a section on global conflicts Irish soldiers had fought in, Harry and Meghan were told about Jenny Hodgers, an Irish-born immigrant who served in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Hodgers had adopted the identity of a man before enlisting, which seemed to enthral the duchess.

‘No airs and graces’

Speaking afterwards, Mr Isdell said the couple had “no airs and graces” and had “done their homework.” The pair were very engaged on the various topics, he said. “They were very interested in the fact that the contribution of the people who left Ireland, how much bigger it was than they had imagined,” he said.

The final stop on the pair’s trip saw them visit Dogpatch Labs, a technology startup hub in the CHQ building. The tech hub is home to CoderDojo, a scheme that gets young people involved in coding, and the couple were shown several projects designed by young people.

Guistina Mizzoni, executive director of CoderDojo, said the couple were “particularly interested in seeing projects built by young girls.” The duchess was “clearly very passionate about women and how we increase female representation,” but so was her husband, Ms Mizzoni said.

During a roundtable discussion on diversity in tech, Ms Mizzoni said Prince Harry stressed the education system needed to change, to better “engage” children when it came to technology and skills like coding.

Speaking during the session about the knowledge gap between parents and children when it comes to technology, Prince Harry joked with participants about his own poor Excel abilities.

One of the coding projects the couple were shown was a website built by Aisling Cowap (13), which promoted girls taking up coding. “They just listened, and they said it was very good, they were really nice,” Aisling said afterwards.

“I was really excited to know that they were coming, and I know Meghan is big into girls and coding, and tech,” she said.

Earlier, the duke and duchess visited the Book of Kells in Trinity College Dublin, and the Long Room of the Old Library. The pair were shown around the college by Trinity Provost Dr Patrick Prendergast, his partner Sheena Brown, and the college librarian Helen Shenton.

Biggest cheers

The Royal couple walked out into the front square of the college shortly before 12.30am, to cheers from crowds gathered along a barrier across the square. The biggest cheers from the crowd were for the duchess, Meghan Markle.

The pair made their way along the barrier, shaking hands and greeting hundreds of people who had come out to see the couple in Dublin.

Patrick O’Neill, wearing a Republic of Ireland football jersey and a pink scarf with Harry and Meghan’s face on it, he described himself as a “big enough” fan.

“I came from Belfast to be here, I met Harry both times he was in Belfast, the second time when he was with Meghan,” he said. He described himself as an “unusual” royal fan, given he came from a republican community in Belfast.

“It just started with Princess Diana. When Harry was 12 going on 13 his mummy died, and when I was 13 my mummy died. So it sort of linked me in with that connection,” he said. “I really love them and the whole history of the monarchy, I just love it,” he said.

He had positioned himself along the barrier, angling for another chance to meet the duke or duchess. But while the duchess came within a few metres, she was shepherded further down the line before he could greet her, he said.

Prince Harry stopped to talk to Cormac (7) and Katie (8) Brady, from Cavan. Cormac said Harry asked him if he was cheering for England on Wednesday night, “and I said yeah.” Cormac, who had red hair like Harry, said the duke “looked cool.”