Obama was great, but the Queen? Unforgettable


When the Queen and the US president visited, we assumed that Obama would take star billing, which made our reaction to Elizabeth II all the more surprising, writes KATHY SHERIDAN

THE VISIT had been talked about for long enough. We thought we were prepared. What we were not prepared for, it seems, was our own visceral reaction to it. As the 85-year-old British monarch, wrapped in green, a hopeful smile and 800 years of bloody history, stepped onto Irish Republican soil, a nation suddenly developed a catch in its throat and dabbed at something in its eye.

In a teary blink, the visit of the US president, the much-anticipated glamour gig of those seven momentous days in May, was reduced to a cheery footnote. Who saw that coming?

It could hardly have been otherwise.

The Queen’s charged, silent, heart-turning little bow to the rebellious old ghosts at the Garden of Remembrance could hardly be compared with the Obamas’ exuberant, rain-lashed gallivant to Moneygall in search of cousin Henry.

Wittingly or otherwise, the timing was inspired. A nation wrung out by the emotional demands of the Queen’s journey and the loss of Dr Garret FitzGerald, had the luxury of turning to president Barack Obama for uncomplicated, unabashed joy and adulation.

The Queen was knowingly stepping onto dangerous ground. As were we. The safe route would have been to avoid occasions of emotion. Anything to avoid scratching old scars.

She did the opposite. That small, respectful bow in the Garden of Remembrance, dedicated to those who died for freedom from the Crown – who would cheerfully have butchered her ancestors given a chance – brought a renewal of national pride in those fierce old ghosts of ours, along with a kind of catharsis.

A day later saw her pay homage to the 49,000 Irish who died fighting for the Crown in foreign wars and then move onto Croke Park, with its powerful Bloody Sunday resonances. GAA president, Christy Cooney, acknowledged “those who have died in this place”, but also told her, “your presence does honour to our place”.

In days studded with such moments, she gave us memorable phrases. At a State banquet in Dublin Castle, wearing a white silk dress adorned with 2,091 hand-sewn embroidered shamrocks, she spoke of “being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it”; she mentioned “things which . . . we would wish had been done differently, or not at all”.

That was after using the cúpla focail to greet the guests: “A Uachtaráin agus a chairde . . .”

“Wow,” went an open-mouthed president Mary McAleese.

During those highly charged days, with each step being measured, literally, politically and historically, we fancied the Queen was smiling more broadly than usual. And so she was, apparently. She was “a much more relaxed and smiley version than we often see . . . her face usually being altogether unable, even after 60 years of trying, to hide boredom or aggravation”, according to The Guardian’sStephen Bates. “She seemed genuinely pleased to be here, tinged maybe with a little relief at the warmth of the welcome and the absence of cogent opposition.”

There were moments of sheer fun, such as a viewing of horse flesh at the National Stud and Coolmore, the brief “will-she-won’t-she” vigil over the poured stout in the Guinness Storehouse, the walkabout in Cork city, the five minute standing ovation at the Convention Centre in Dublin where some spied a tear in her eye. Or perhaps she was just worn out like all the hollow-eyed officials. In any event, when she flew out of the Republic, what she left behind was an unquestionable sense of respect, humility and healing. Not bad going for the crowned figurehead of 800 years of oppression.

And so the stage was cleared for the next act. The US President – “a natural aristocrat . . . emotionally pitch perfect”, in the words of Maureen Gaffney.

A gale force wind driving icy sheets of rain across a prettily rejuvenated Moneygall; the First Lady in a shimmeringly elegant, soaking-wet silk coat (presumably their weather soothsayer is currently in an orange jumpsuit in a secure building); the actual drinking of the Guinness, paid for, in euro, from Barack’s back pocket; the shaking of a thousand icy hands as Michelle thrust another wind-tossed, wailing infant into his arms; the delirious, shivering crowd breaking into song: “If you’re Irish, come into the parlour/ There’s a welcome there for you/ And if your name is Timmy or Barack/ As long as you come from Ireland there’s a welcome on the mat.”

Then back to a rocking, rapturous College Green, where even the madly confused antics and 1,000-yard stares of the US secret service failed to dampen 50,000 spirits (although the same antics would explain the massed high fives among Irish officialdom when the presidential car stalled on a ramp, with a satisfying clunk, on American embassy territory).

“My name is Barack Obama [Pause]. Of the Moneygall Obamas [Pause]. And I’ve come home to find the apostrophe we lost somewhere along the way,” he announced to approving roars.

“Paddywhackery,” hissed a few dissenters.

“Two words. Men. Jealous,” breathed a swooning female.

“He’s gorgeous,” crooned Liz O’Donnell, “he walks like an Egyptian – they have such elegant body movement.”

Best of all, he affirmed us, as Gaeilge, recognising us for the needy little critters that we are: “Your best days are still ahead. Is féidir linn! Yes we can!”

The seven-day national euphoria ended in appropriately dramatic fashion with the presidential party forced to flee the country ahead of schedule due to a threatened ash cloud. Then it was back to real life.

A couple of postscripts: still basking in its two Guinness marketing spectaculars before 2,000 accredited media, Diageo cut 70 jobs from its Irish workforce.

Security costs for the visits, estimated at €20 million, climbed to €36 million. But on the upside, the global coverage was worth around €300 million in advertising, according to research for Fáilte Ireland. And the instant dividend was a 15 per cent rise in tourist numbers.

Is féidir linn!