The Empress’s New Clothes – An Irishman’s Diary about Queen Mary and the costs of being a female royalist in 1911

On the coronation of Queen Mary, her representative in Ireland appealed for donations towards the present of a gown On the coronation of Queen Mary, her representative in Ireland appealed for donations towards the present of a gown

On the coronation of Queen Mary, her representative in Ireland appealed for donations towards the present of a gown On the coronation of Queen Mary, her representative in Ireland appealed for donations towards the present of a gown

 

As mentioned here yesterday, it was a combination of the first World War abroad and revolution at home that brought the curtain down on a once-mighty Irish lace industry, via the destruction of the aristocracy on which it depended.

But there was an early hint of what was to come in 1911 when, on the coronation of Queen Mary, her representative in Ireland appealed for donations towards the present of a gown.

As wife of the Lord Lieutenant, although like him Scottish, the Countess of Aberdeen was effectively “first lady” here.  

And in crowdfunding the gown, she hit on the idea of inviting contributions from Irish namesakes of the queen.

This was a shrewd move, simultaneously appealing to a special-interest group – women called Mary – while not reducing the target audience much below the entire female population at the time.

On the downside, it was also a gift to nationalist wags. Sure enough, a satirical ballad, To the Marys of Ireland, quickly emerged. It was published in Irish Freedom – the most militant of the republican newspapers – under the name Brian na Banban, a pseudonym for poet and future Sinn Féin TD Brian O’Higgins. And it seems to suit the music of My Irish Molly:

“O, Mary dear, and did you hear, our queen is to be crowned?/And to help her buy a hobble skirt the hat is going round./’Twill be of Irish poplin, trimmed with disinfected lace,/To show how warmly and how well she loves the Irish race!”

The necessity for fumigating her majesty’s subjects was a running theme, as another verse illustrates: “O Mary dear, you needn’t fear your penny of your crown/Will bear disease across the seas to healthy London Town;/’Twill be surely disinfected, pasteurised, and washed with care/To banish all the poison of the tainted Irish air.”

But the the punchline concerned the economic gulf between the poor who produced lace and those who wore it: a gulf widened in this case by the appeal to the former to pay for the gown too. Hence the couplet: “The Queen’ll murmur ‘Chawming Emerald Isle! So generous and so green/Its Marys go in rags themselves to decorate their Queen!’”

The year 1911 was an expensive one for Irish royalists, because after the coronation in June, the royal couple visited in July and another present was needed. It wasn’t a gown this time, just a book. But no ordinary book: it was an illuminated manuscript in the style of the Book of Kells, and required £1,873 in donations. 

Accompanying the gift was a message from the queen’s female subjects that might make sensitive modern readers want to throw up, but is nonetheless interesting.  

It began with “the Women of Ireland [...]pondering how best to express to her the greetings of their hearts”.

After some soul-searching, they settled on the metaphor of something all-pervasive in Ireland: “wind”.

Then, just as Queen Mary must have been wondering where they were going with this, they expressed their message in the “four-voiced wind” of Ireland:

“The strong dark wind from the North, the mild white wind from the South, the sad brown wind from the West, the fresh red wind from the East, all mingle their breath, and in unison blow Justice, Love, Mercy, and Courage in a golden shower of hope on the jewelled crown of Queen Mary.”

Florid language aside, the idea was founded in an old folk belief, common to many cultures, that the winds have colours. Indeed, a 10th-century Irish poem, Saltair na Rann, describes the concept in terms of a 12-point wheel, not just the four main directions.

But Flann O’Brien takes the notion much further in his novel The Third Policeman, when he writes of people having “gowns” made from the colour of the prevailing wind at their birth.  

The gowns are very fine, to the point of invisibility, at first. A new one is added every birthday, however, so that the colour deepens with the years, to become in all cases black eventually, presaging death.  

For this reason, it’s more auspicious to have a light-coloured wind at birth, postponing the inevitable.

Maybe Flann’s birth-gown notion was itself rooted in folklore somewhere. If so, the Marys of 1911 missed a trick.  

British royals are notoriously long lived – their natal winds must be very bright – and Queen Mary was no exception.

Had her Irish namesakes presented a gown in her birth colour for the visit, they could simultaneously have had a laugh, evoked a charming folk belief, and saved themselves a fortune.       

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