Mary Kenny’s survey of Ireland’s relations with the British monarchy is characteristically breezy, racy and insightful, with a salty strain of anecdote.
Mary Kenny’s survey of Ireland’s relations with the British monarchy is characteristically breezy, racy and insightful, with a salty strain of anecdote. This reflects the secret affection of the Irish bourgeoisie for the royal soap opera, even when this addiction has to be concealed as carefully as a taste for alcohol in a fundamentalist Muslim state. Oddly, her account of secret suburban Catholic covens, communing with royal weddings and jubilees via television, rather trumps my memories of royalist interests among the Protestant (though emphatically not Anglo-Irish) circles of my youth. My intellectually snobbish schoolteacher mother kept a beady eye on royal doings but suspected that ‘they might be rather a stupid family’. She made an exception, oddly, for Princess Margaret, but I think that was on grounds of sartorial style.
Entertaining though it is, Kenny’s book contains far more than anecdote. Constructed as a historical survey, it effectively begins with Queen Victoria; the idea of Ireland becoming a separate Plantagenet kingdom under King John does not feature, though it might have evaded some future historical unpleasantnesses, such as the Elizabethan conquest and colonisation. Much interesting material is pulled out from the Royal Archives and contemporary newspapers, and a more rounded picture of Victoria’s relationship to Ireland emerges. While independent Ireland removed statues of the Queen-Empress from public display in Dublin and Cork (the latter being actually buried underground for several years), Prince Albert remains discreetly ensconced on the Merrion Square side of Dail Eireann, appropriately overseeing the Natural History Museum and the National Gallery: perhaps a symbol of the reconciliation of Ireland with Victorianism that never quite happened.
Irish identification with the empire nonetheless went further than traditional history books supposed, and the part played by middle-class Irish Catholics in imperial adventuring and administration is now receiving its historiographical due. Kenny believes that Victoria had a ‘love-hate relationship’ with Ireland, which is going it a bit; Gladstone’s taking up the cause of Home Rule probably condemned both parties in the ‘Union of Hearts’ to outer darkness. The treatment of Edward VII’s attitude towards the sister isle is, however, convincing and suggestive. He apparently lost his youthful virginity to an Irish cocotte, enjoyed Irish conviviality in his prime, and was warmly welcomed by the ecclesiastical princes of Maynooth, who bedecked their sanctified buildings in his racing colours when he finally visited as King. Kenny thinks this affection was heightened by Edward’s friendly feelings towards Catholicism; perhaps the Irish prelates had vain hopes of a Stuart-style conversion instead of a republican revolution.
The book is particularly astute on the period following 1922, when the new Irish Free State began its ambivalent existence as a restless Dominion of the crown. Kenny’s research unearths some gems from the reports of the Irish High Commissioner John Dulanty, who apparently managed to sustain a very friendly relationship with the British monarchy while Eamon de Valera was doing his best to distance Ireland from the Commonwealth. His adroit use of the Abdication to do so may, according to some imaginative constitutionalists, have left King Edward and Queen Wallis technical monarchs of Ireland. Breaking the link and becoming a Republic a decade later was, ironically, the act of de Valera’s political opponents, notably Sean MacBride: and de Valera would probably have preferred a version of the ‘external association’ relationship which he suggested in 1921, an idea ahead of its time.
But ‘leaving the family’, as George VI sentimentally put it, can never be quite final. Kenny is also a historian of Irish Catholicism, and one of her most suggestive ideas here is that from the 1920s on, the Irish need for public ritual and monarchical glamour was met by Eucharistic Congresses, Marian Years and Papal visits, which recalled and resembled the royal jubilees so enjoyed by the populace and so disapproved of by nationalists before independence. (Visits from Princess Grace of Monaco and JFK also helped fill the gap.) More recent unofficial visits by the Prince of Wales and other members of the family were, Kenny believes, widely welcomed; there was certainly a fair amount of rather skin-crawling badinage with Dublin crowds, but it significantly centred upon the Prince’s marital troubles. In another telling anecdote, Kenny witnessed one Republican woman in Belfast signing the City Hall book of condolence on Princess Diana’s death, while her equally nationalist friend refused — the reason being, as she put it, ‘I’m on Charles’s side’. Even on the Falls Road, vicarious identification with vapid celebrity-culture seems to be replacing ideological enmities. It is hard to decide whether one should be sorry or glad.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 9, 2010Tags: England, History, Ireland, Monarchy, Non-fiction