Eight Hundred Years of Oppression and Now This?

17 May 2011

Pete is right to say there’s a definite "resonance" to these pictures. Nevertheless, I suspect that British people’s view of the "historic" significance of Her Majesty the Queen’s visit to the Republic of Ireland is inversely proportionate to one’s experience of Ireland. That is, the more time you have spent in Ireland and the better you know the country the less you are likely to swoon at the sight of a British monarch setting foot in southern Ireland. 

Perhaps I’m extrapolating too much from my own experience and perhaps the over-40s think differently. But my impression strengthened, to be sure, by some of the breathless, hyperbolic BBC coverage is that many British people over-estimate how "controversial" this visit is. Not just the BBC either: The Times’ headline currently screeches "Queen Encounters Ireland Protest". True enough: 100 people turned up to demonstrate just how irrelevant their kind of Republicanism is in the context of modern Ireland. Some protest! You can find professional malcontents anywhere.

Then again, the BBC have form on this. When the English rugby team first played at Croke Park, the coverage suggested this was brave and symbolic and about the laying of ancient ghosts and lord knows what else. Then, last season, when England visited Croke Park for the last time before Irish rugby moved home to Lansdowne Road, wouldn’t you know it but there was a fresh blast of all this nonsense all over again. Blarney and bluster the lot of it.

If your view of Ireland is of a strange land, filled with terrorists and grudge-bearing contrary types who change their question any time anyone looks like answering it, then certainly you’ll probably think the Queen’s visit is of great import. For the rest of us these things were largely settled long ago. Evidently the "peace process" needed some kind of "conclusion" before such a visit could be contemplated at official levels but, if anything, it merely confirms what we already knew: these islands are bound together by culture as well as history and economic self-interest. Affinity matters.

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No official declarations were ever needed to persuade one of this. Even 20 years ago it was clear that whatever their parents or grand-parents may have felt, the younger generation in the Republic saw Britain as just another country, albeit one filled with people not very different from the Irish themselves. That needn’t mean you no longer sing the old rebel tunes, merely that these expressions of Irishness should be understood as symbolic remnants of a past and a struggle that had long since been settled. A ritual, like much else, signifying almost nothing.

Dublin at any rate was too busy getting rich to trouble itself with history-based grievances. A visit from Prince Charles nearly 15 years ago passed off without incident; President Robinson’s decision to honour the Irish First World War dead was more controversial but, by and large, did not occasion serious controversy either. Irish history has been revised so often that the revisionists are themselves due a revision.

Anyway, people were moving-on, as the hackneyed phrase has it, and even the Northern Irish question didn’t really bother or trouble too many people in the Republic. Not above a symbolic level, anyway. Prosperity mattered  because it permitted the growth of confidence and self-belief in an Ireland that, perhaps at long last, had come of age. Despite the recent setbacks, that spirit still endures.

The Queen’s visit, then, is a nice thing but something that confirms what we already knew. Only those unfamiliar with Ireland and the Irish can truly think otherwise. If you think, as you might if you believed the newspapers or some versions of history, the Irish hate the English then you’ll be surprised by this visit’s success. The Irish don’t hate the English, however. By and large and contra Ed West, Anglophobia is an inch wide and not as deep as it is widespread. There may be rivalry and banter but we can be – and are – grown up about these things nowadays.
Still, if the visit persuades London-based commentators of all this then it will have done some good. Normality matters but, really, the Queen’s trip to the Republic is not as Enda Kenny absurdly put it, a "moment of healing" because time and the people themselves did that years ago. Even so, if you feel the need for a symbol for all this then HMQ’s visit will do fine.

Mind you, it was still splendid to see the Union Flag outside Trinity College. Last time that happened UCD students rioted.

UPDATE: In the comments, FF makes a good point. It’s possible, Alex, that you are falling into the same trap. The point about the Queen’s visit is that she doesn’t do controversy. If, years later, she lays a wreath on republican graves it shows just how deeply uncontroversial it’s now become. That’s the point.

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Show comments
  • George

    The dignity of the Irish Republic, still to be realised in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, …

  • Kennybhoy

    Peter from Maidstone wrote:

    “That was life, that is history, get over it.”

    How long precisely, or even approximately, before an event becomes history to be gotten over…?

  • Peter From Maidstone

    Well we do know that the Irish settled on the West coast of Britain. Indeed that is where the Scots come from. They settled in Western Scotland and gradually united with the native Picts.

    Ireland has not been oppressed for 800 years any more than Kent, which used to be a Kingdom 1200 years ago, and was indeed the most important kingdom for a while. History has happened, that’s all. If Irish peasants had it rough for a while then so did English ones. If the Irish suffered a democratic deficit then so did the English.

    That was life, that is history, get over it.

  • andrew kerins

    Over The Top coverage is the default position of the BBC; think Glastonbury.
    That said, the fact that the Queen had not been able to visit the country closest to Britain during a reign of nearly sixty years, makes this visit particularly noteworthy.

  • Archibald

    So the Queen has gone to Ireland, and what a momentous day it is for both our great countries? I’m not sold. I find the whole idea of nationalism a bit of a joke, whatever country it originates from. I can’t decide what depresses me most – the arbitrary drawing of lines in the sand as to when invasion and/or population migration suddenly starts to matter, or the woefully weak interpretation of history to suit one’s argument and define the amazing national character of whatever country’s population is being misled.

    This was fabulously demonstrated on the History of Ireland on the BBC, no doubt screened to coincide with the history unfolding before our eyes today. Ireland, we are told, is not a suppressed country – they are and always have been in the heart of Europe. First we learned the raping, pillaging and settling done by Vikings was too long ago to care about really, although it must have been pretty scary. Then we learned that the Irish had little or no more claim to be Celts than the English, no doubt partly due to those randy Vikings and their Norman cousins, who are up are up next week for more of the same preferential treatment when it comes to being naughty boys, no doubt.

    The highlight for me was an extremely old map showed that the same name on part of Ireland as it did on a part of Wales. No sooner had it been pontificated that this could imply settling from Ireland to the UK just as much as the other way around, were we assuming that this is exactly what had happened, and it was joked that if any apologies were to be made, the first should be by the Irish.

    This drivel and much more besides went along with the program maker’s aim of redefining Ireland as being at the heart of Europe.

    My point – I do have one – is that this is what happens with any history interpreted through the lens of defining national character – you end up with gross distortions of (often) unpalatable facts that future generations can then falsely cling too as what makes them who they are today.

    Perhaps the real step forward we all need to take is the acceptance that everyone’s a bit of a XXXX sometimes, and even if some historical figure really was fearless in battle and won the hearts of a nation with his wise words and strong deeds, that doesn’t have any bearing on the character of the fat idiot eating crisps and watching a program about if from his beer stained sofa, some 300 years later. Then we really can all get on with our lives.

  • John Barrett

    Of course it’s all irrelevant.
    When is the real Queen of Ireland, Angela Merkel going to visit?
    Are there going to be celebrations to comemmorate German support for the Easter Uprising ?

  • Fergus Pickering

    You can bet if it’s anything to do with celts then words, words, bloody words will be what you get. Better than bombs I suppose so pat the leprachauns on the head. And the same thing goes for the Scots in spades. The CONCEIT of them all.

  • disenfranchised

    the bbc is certainly all feverish nonsense. who would listen to a word they have to say about the english and their foreign possessions of the distant, and best forgotten, past…..

  • Alex Massie

    FF: Good point. You may be right…

  • FF

    It’s possible, Alex, that you are falling into the same trap. The point about the Queen’s visit is that she doesn’t do controversy. If, years later, she lays a wreath on republican graves it shows just how deeply uncontroversial it’s now become. That’s the point.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    I too was shocked by the BBC’s take on just how historic this was, and all the unhealed wounds and what have you. Not my experience of going there at all. (I do find Ireland deceptive. You think because they speak English and the brands and shops are the same, you are in the same country, but you are not, it is more foreign to me than, say, Germany)

    Anyway, if the BBC think that, why didn’t they say so when we lent Ireland all that money? All mates and mutual loyalty then. I prefer that version, and today’s coverage must be put down as feverish nonsense.

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