WE tend to forget that, 100 years ago, it wasn’t just the proposed partition of this island that riled Éamon de Valera and sparked a painful and tragic civil war.
What exercised Dev and the naysayers just as much about the Treaty agreed by Michael Collins and his colleagues was the fact that it also contained an Oath of Allegiance to King George V as head of the Commonwealth.
Supporters of the Treaty felt that partition was a necessary evil, and a united island could be achieved in the future — while clearly believing they could utter a few words of fealty to the British monarch as they presumably kept their fingers crossed behind their back.
But Dev and his ilk felt no republican worth his salt could pay verbal homage to the royals, so the die was cast.
This kind of split-personality approach to Britain’s royalty — half doffing the cap, half wanting to cut off their heads — has long been with us, and predates the events of a century ago.
On the one hand, we read about the immense gatherings who greeted and acclaimed Queen Victoria on her visits to Ireland in the 19th century.
Her successor, King Edward, visited Cork in 1903 and you may have seen photos of the bunting and Union Jack flags decked out in the city that greeted him. The Cork Examiner reported that the city was “thronged with people not only from all parts of Munster, but thousands of strangers such as are usually found in the wake of Royalty”.
You could even make the argument that great Irish freedom fighters such as Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell were royalists in their day.
And everyone in Cork will surely remember the greeting we gave to Queen Elizabeth II when she came here almost a decade ago. It’s said by Palace insiders that the feeling was mutual.
On the other hand, there is a strong anti-royalist tradition in Ireland that is partly down to the admittedly distasteful principle of having people born into privilege, and partly down to the fact that Britain’s Royal Family symbolised that country’s iron fist rule on this island for several centuries.
Even when British monarchs lost their constitutional power and were in effect figureheads, much like our Presidents, they still copped plenty of Emerald Isle animosity; hence Queen Victoria is dubbed the ‘Famine Queen’ even though she had no control of her country’s actions at that time.
Growing up in England, I saw this Irish animosity to the Royals at first hand. When Prince Charles and Princess Diana wed, my (English) mother couldn’t wait to buy the commemorative official mugs to add to her proud royal collection, while my (Irish) father threw his hands to the air in exasperation and wondered what all the fuss was about.
Interestingly, in the wake of independence, Ireland officially snubbed the coronations of both King George VI in 1937 and Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. George, father of the present queen, was informed that Ireland’s absence was not a slight to him personally; it was an expression of the Irish “attitude towards his office” as “the titular head and front of a foreign system” that Ireland had recently “broken down”.
Interestingly, two years earlier, a statue of Victoria at UCC had been taken down and buried in the President’s garden, a strong sign of anti-royalist sentiment.
The decision by Ireland not to send a representative to the coronation of Elizabeth in 1953 came from that old republican warhorse Dev, then Taoiseach. He took umbrage at the fact the new Queen’s titles would include “Northern Ireland”.
Antipathy — indeed, hostility — to that event extended to the public at large. Pathé newsreels of Elizabeth’s coronation were not shown in cinemas in the Republic after a group called the ‘Anti-Partition League’ threatened to bomb any which ran them.
Bomb threats were also received by the Irish Times after it showed a news photograph of Elizabeth in its front office window in Cork — the newspaper swiftly withdrew the picture.
I was reminded of Ireland’s love-hate attitude to the British monarchy this week, when I began — belatedly, I have to admit — watching the acclaimed TV series The Crown.
It’s been a hit on Netflix for several years and the latest series featuring Charles and Diana and Margaret Thatcher has attracted much controversy.
Watching it gives you an inkling not just of why the TV series has been so successful, but why the Royal Family have been box office attractions for so long, both on their own island, and in republics like the U.S and here.
Sure, it’s an absurdity in this day and age to imagine someone can be born to be a monarch, but when you strip that away, what you are left with is an ordinary family to whom extraordinary things continually happen.
One aspect of series one — covering the death of George V and the coronation of his daughter Elizabeth — that really struck me was how history can turn on its head in the blink of an eye.
Elizabeth would never have been Queen if her uncle hadn’t abdicated to wed an American divorcee. As she returned home from Kenya upon hearing of her father’s death, I pondered what would have happened if her plane had crashed. Her young son Charles would have inherited the throne!
Royal life is always only a freak of nature, a pregnancy, or a death away from being turned on its head, making it the ultimate soap opera for outsiders.
Even before social media, the tabloids kept the storylines flowing and the public interest piqued. One of the most fascinating aspects of Diana’s famous Panorama interview, broadcast 25 years ago yesterday, was that every tabloid ‘exclusive’ about her was proved correct, despite the Palace denials.
The Royals are like a human zoo, in which every human frailty and error — from wearing a Nazi uniform at a fancy dress party, to cheating on your wife — is magnified a thousandfold.
And we still say that these people were born into a life of privilege! Some privilege.
Given the choice, I would much rather be born into an ordinary family than a royal one, where every marriage and divorce, every birth and death, is public property.