An Irishman's Diary


She was born the very year before Lord Roberts was made Earl of Kandahar, Pretoria and Waterford, to commemorate the two battles he had won in Afghanistan and South Africa and to mark the ancestral home of his family; and she died in the middle of the latest of the Afghan Wars, after the utterly unimaginable had occurred in those two other places.

In the history of the world there has never been such a life lived within such a lifespan. No heavier-than-air aircraft had ever left the ground when she was born, and the overthrow of the last Manchu Empress of China that August of 1900 left just one empress reigning in the world, the grandmother of her future husband. In time she was to succeed Victoria, to become last queen empress in the world, and in the week she died, China hoisted its first unmanned space vehicle into outer space.

Nor was she born to be queen, never mind queen emperor, or queen mother, nor to help guide her country through the most atrocious war the world has ever known, nor to preside over the diminishing sea of red on the map, nor to become loved across her country like nobody in its history, until at vast old age she finally surrendered her life to the call of the clay. Only a churl would deny her magnificence.

Response in Ireland

But what has been refreshing indeed has been the response in Ireland to her death. The Taoiseach read the occasion exactly right by ordering flags to be flown at half-mast, which has sent a remarkably powerful message of friendship both to unionists and the British people. Moreover, RTÉ showed her funeral live; and such coverage of a royal event from Britain not so long ago would have been unthinkable.

And there has been much pride in the Irish involvement at her funeral - at the Irish Guards pall-bearers from Antrim, Limerick and Dublin, and the pipers of the Royal Irish Regiment being so conspicuous as the coffin was borne out of Westminster Abbey.

There could never, ever have been a more haunting rendition of Oft in the Stilly Night, played by some 180 army pipers to the solemn, metronome beat of a single bass drum, the opening bars being repeated time and time again with an almost hypnotic resonance. Goose-pimple time.

It was the greatest funeral London has seen in nearly 40 years. Perhaps there will be one such funeral again, that of her daughter; but after that, who would merit it? And how long will such organisational skills remain? For it was they which produced a spectacle that was as breathtaking as it was complex, something that had to be seen in its entirety in order to understand the point and the power of pageantry, and how extraordinarily good the British are at it.

And there's no point in anyone else trying to imitate this, any more than people can imitate an Irish pub, or a French café, or a Brazilian Mardi Gras, or an American baseball match. There are things which seem to come naturally to some people, and organised pomp is what the British do best. The meticulous timing, the organisation of thousands of people in exotic uniforms, the blend of music and march: these, like curry houses, HP sauce and Gentleman's Relish, are the legacy of empire.

Exotic display

Because this sort of thing is not European but Indian; it is the durbar, the very rare but hugely exotic display which will leave in the imaginations of the governed a sense of the enormous power and majesty of those who are capable of such lavish feats of ceremony. Asian rulers, with innumerable millions of subjects spread over vast distances could not command loyalty by regular visits by a viceroy or some lesser court dignitary, nor by the maintenance of vast and excessively expensive armies.

They ruled instead through their local agents, maharajahs and nabobs, who had their local network of loyalties; and it was these agents who would be assembled for the durbar. They would then return to their far-flung palaces and their distant courts, determined never to disturb the peace and order of those who could arrange such vast ceremonial displays. For pomp is war by other means, pageant a peaceful but decorous statement of military prowess.

So British ceremonial evolved in the Raj, rather like some mysterious beast on a now lost continent, with a different climate and among plants that are now extinct. It will be impossible to replicate that continent, that climate, or to recreate that beast. The one creature survives from that time, that continent, and since it is not possible to breed from it, when it goes, it is gone for ever.

Wondrous accolade

But what a sumptuous, exotic creature it is, a wonder to behold, and every bit as much a triumph of civilisation as grand opera or a glorious cathedral. It emerged from its palatial lair once more this week in order to patrol the very streets of London, which the person it honoured once patrolled, in different and darker hours, 60 years ago and more.

To watch it upon those streets was obligatory, for it is as rarely seen as the unicorn. Now it has returned to where it lives, and it is unlikely to re-emerge in all its full and glorious panoply more than once or twice in the next half-century, as it has appeared only twice in the past half-century. Never has a person deserved the wondrous accolade it bestows as she who was buried on Tuesday.