‘Hang it, you can’t keep smiling all the time’: The truth about coronations, according to King George VI

An intimate conversation between King George VI and the then Irish ambassador reveals what he really thought about de Valera – and the ordeal of coronations

The presence of Irish political leaders at the coronation of King Charles in Westminster Abbey tomorrow is a welcome sign of good neighbourly relations between the two countries. It will be the first time since Daniel O’Connell attended Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838 that the leaders of Irish nationalism have been present at the coronation of a British monarch.

It is only fitting that the President and the Taoiseach should attend the ceremony, given that King Charles and his mother before him did everything they could to foster good relations between the people of Britain and Ireland, even when the governments of the two countries were at loggerheads, most recently during the Brexit negotiations. The decision of Sinn Féin’s Northern leader and potential first minister, Michelle O’Neill, to attend is a symbolically important gesture which recognises the British identity of a significant proportion of the population in Northern Ireland.

The presence of Irish nationalist politicians in Westminster Abbey tomorrow reflects a sea change in attitudes on this island. Back in the first decade of the 20th century, Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond refused to attend the coronation of King Edward VII and George V in protest at the failure to grant Home Rule.

As political leader of an independent State, Éamon de Valera declined invitations to attend the coronation of Edward VIII, George VI and Queen Elizabeth II. Relations were so bad in 1953 that newsreel of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation was not shown in cinemas here, following threats by republicans to bomb any venue that featured it, and there was minimal coverage in Irish media.


The hostility of Irish leaders to the monarchy was not reciprocated. King George V played an important role in bringing a negotiated settlement to the War of Independence. His speech at the opening of the Northern Ireland parliament in 1922 appealing for “all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and forget, and to join in making for the land which they love a new era of peace contentment, and goodwill” pave the way for the truce.

The king told [Irish ambassador] Dulanty that George V had ‘always had a quiet but real admiration for Mr de Valera’

His son George VI, subject of the Academy Award nominated film The King’s Speech, expressed his desire for good relations between the two countries when John Dulanty, the Irish High Commissioner in London – as the Irish ambassador was then termed – met him at Buckingham Palace in June 1937 to explain why de Valera would not be attending his coronation.

The king told Dulanty that George V had “always had a quiet but real admiration for Mr de Valera because the news which reached his father from various sources about the president went to show that however you may differ politically you had to admire the president’s rare gift of natural good manners. Both in Geneva and in London he said the president had widely established this reputation.”

All that is to happen throughout this long ceremony happens to me – everybody else gets off scot free. I have to dress and undress three times and I have to be not only word perfect but... foot perfect

The conversation then turned then to the subject of the coronation and the King expressed his regret that de Valera would not be able to attend. Dulanty explained that the decision to stay away was not a reflection on the King personally but represented a rejection of his office as the titular head of a foreign system from which the Irish State had broken free.

“Here again the King made no demur or contested in any way what I had said. He remarked that he quite understood the present position but he would like to know whether the relations between the two peoples need always be as they were now.”


The king also gave Dulanty an insight into his apprehension about the coronation. “How would you like to pass through throngs of people for four and a half hours and to know that all the time thousands and thousands of people were staring at you?” he asked.

“Hang it, you can’t keep smiling all the time. It is fatiguing too because, as I said to my wife, all that is to happen throughout this long ceremony happens to me – everybody else gets off scot free. I have to dress and undress three times and I have to be not only word perfect but I have also to be foot perfect because if I turn to the left instead of the right the whole show will get hopelessly tangled up.”

The King made a joke of the way he was treated by the newspapers. “According to some of them I am consumptive, I stammer incessantly, I am a dull dog, and in short a complete wreck.” Dulanty reported that this was said with a humorous light in his eye and during their 40-minute conversation George stammered just three times.

“He asked to be remembered to the President, whom he hoped some time he might meet and I was to say that if at any time he could be of help to An Saorstát he was at our service.”

King George VI never fulfilled his desire to meet de Valera but his daughter and grandson made determined efforts to improve relations between the two countries. The presence of the President and Taoiseach at tomorrow’s coronation will be testament to that.