President Michael D Higgins has paid tribute to the Irish community in Britain for consolidating “an enduring friendship between our two countries”.
Speaking last night during a concert celebrating Irish culture at the Royal Albert Hall in London, Mr Higgins paid tribute to the “fidelity” the community had shown to Ireland over many years and “the contribution you have made to the development of Britain”.
“You remain a cherished member of the Irish family,” he said. “On a night like this, it is great to be Irish. And it is even better to share it in the company of our friends in Britain.”
About 5,000 people attended the event – some 2,500 were invited guests and the remaining tickets were sold to the public for £10 each, with the proceeds going to the Irish Youth Federation.
The night, organised by Culture Ireland and curated by Philip King, began with renditions of Amhránn na bhFiann and God Save the Queen .
Musicians Conor O'Brien and Steve Nieve collaborated with Elvis Costello on his song Shipbuilding . Glen Hansard and Lisa Hannigan duetted on the Oscar-winning song Falling Slowly , while singer Imelda May sang Kentish Town Waltz accompanied by Darren Higham and John Sheahan of The Dubliners. Arguably the loudest cheer of the night came when Hansard led a group rendition of The Auld Triangle , which ended with the audience standing to join the chorus.
Actor Fiona Shaw recited The Minstrel Boy by Thomas Moore, author Joseph O'Connor read from his novel The Thrill of It All ; and broadcaster Olivia O'Leary read a well-received essay on Anglo-Irish relations in which she said: "It's official, we're allowed to like the British now".
Television presenter Dermot O’Leary was master of ceremonies for the event, which also featured musician Paul Brady, Eurovision-winning vocalist Eimear Quinn, the West String Quartet, The Gloaming and the Band of the Irish Guards.
Mr Higgins said the celebration demonstrated “once again the importance of culture in general and, in particular, the depth and richness of our Irish cultural tradition”. He said he was “delighted” that Prince and Princess Michael of Kent had joined him and his wife Sabina for the concert.
"We all hope that they will have been sufficiently entertained to transmit a positive review to the queen," he said. "What we have seen and heard also shows how deeply interwoven are the wider cultures of these islands, and how they have influenced and enriched each other."
Also in attendance were Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his wife Fionnuala; Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and his wife Carol; Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness; Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan; Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald; former British prime minister John Major; and Irish Ambassador Daniel Mulhall.
Arriving for the concert, former Irish diplomat Seán Donlon said the success of the visit owed much to the President and his predecessors, the royal family and the wider British system. “They eventually saw it was in their interest and our interest to put things on an even keel. It has been a remarkable turnaround in my professional lifetime,” he said.
Mr Donlon said he had seen many “low points” in Anglo-Irish relations such as when Ireland withdrew its ambassador in 1972 and “came very close to breaking off diplomatic relations”. “I was involved in putting things back on an even keel with the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985 and now to see the high point is an extraordinary development,” he said.
Mr Donlon said Mr Higgins’s speeches at the House of Commons and Guildhall were “very well-chosen” as he had “succeeded in selecting the right points and has not shied away from the negatives but has overall emphasised the positives”.
John Giltenan, a Limerick native living in London since the late 1980s, said the state visit had been “fantastic, a real milestone”.
“I was particularly moved by the reception and hospitality accorded to him at Windsor and I was very touched by the President’s visit to Westminster Abbey where they laid the wreath to the Unknown Soldier,” he said.
Claire Creedon, a Co Cork native who has been working in London with Bord Bia since July, said she was particularly impressed with the queen's speech at Windsor Castle on Tuesday night. "It was really well-delivered and honest and genuine and I think our President's response to it was equally so and it's significant and you can see they both have a close relationship."