The Queen in Dublin: An eyewitness account of history

Hazel Nolan reports from Dublin with an eyewitness account on Day Two of the Queen's historic visit to the Republic of Ireland.

Today is Day Two of the Queen’s historic visit to Ireland; Hazel Nolan reports from Dublin

The Queen of Britain is visiting Ireland from Tuesday 17th to Friday 20th May 2011. It is the first time a British Monarch has visited Ireland in 100 years. During which she will pay visit to some of the most sacred places in Ireland, and in so doing will be entering the most intimate parts of our nation’s psyche.

I remember watching the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998; I was 11 years old. My father told me it was history in the making and it has been burned into my memory ever since.

That was the day when Ireland, having been at a crossroads for so long, took its first step down the road of peace and reconciliation. That road has been a long one.

This week’s visit by the British Monarch is an important landmark along that same path.

The Queen began her visit with a trip to Aras an Uachtaráin. This has been the official residence of the President of Ireland since 1938. Prior to that from 1782 it was acquired for use by the viceroys who oversaw British rule in Ireland until 1922.

There are two moments this week that I think will stand out in my mind, and the mind of most Irish people, forever.

The first was watching the British Monarch being greeted by Mary McAleese, made all the more significant by the fact that Mary McAleese, Uachtarán na hÉireann, born in Belfast, is the first Irish President from Ulster.

That she greeted her as a guest, and for the first time a visitor, is all the more important. Watching the British Monarch sign the guestbook at the Aras was watching history. The last time a British Monarch came to visit Ireland it was to visit their subjects. This time the Queen is an invited guest, duly signing the guestbook at the Aras – one simple act, that holds a significant symbolism.

After signing the visitor’s book the Queen of Britain was invited outside to inspect the best of the Irish forces, while God Save the Queen and Amhrán na bhFiann, the national anthems of the UK & the Republic of Ireland respectively, were played.

Next the Queen was taken to the Garden of Remembrance, situated in the heart of Dublin City. The Garden of Remembrance is dedicated to the memory of all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish freedom. The large memorial sculpture by Oisin Kelly is based on the theme of the ‘Children of Lir’.

The second memorable moment came when, after laying a wreath at the memorial statue, the Queen of Britain bowed down in respect.

I can’t explain what the significance of that means to me as an Irish person. It’s an emotive moment for an Irish person, one that penetrates into the core of our national identity, one even I never thought I would see.

This trip was never going to be one of sweeping jubilation. There have been many voices of opposition, based on opposition to the cost spent on security, that the visit has taken place, while for some the issue of Northern Ireland is still disputed and also based on objection to the principle of monarchy.

There have also been some violent demonstrators, intent on holding on to their own bigotry and hatred with a very narrow view of what it means to be republican. They are a small minority though. The vast majority of people I have spoken to today in Ireland welcome the Queen; not jubilantly, perhaps not even enthusiastically, but respectfully.

Going back to that moment in the Garden of Remembrance, where I watched as a British Monarch bowed to our fallen martyrs, that is something that no one can put a price on. Ireland’s history and identity has for too long been forged against that of Great Britain.

This visit is important because it shows the British Monarch accepting and respecting the sovereignty of the Irish people, as an independent nation. However a far more important aspect to this visit is the opportunity it gives us as a nation, the opportunity to free ourselves from the past, to free ourselves through reconciliation.

Our island of Ireland is based on two peoples. Two peoples that have a shared complex and painful history. Today I watched as the head of states representing both communities on this island walked beside each other as equals. It gives me hope that our two communities can share a future too, one built on respect and reconciliation.

I have never felt freer as an Irish person, than I have today.

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