Even from a distance it was possible to sense that the past week in Ireland has been extraordinary. An English queen and an American president as bookends between two Tuesdays. That’s hard to top by any standards.
And in the middle of it all, in the hours between the queen’s departure and Barack Obama’s arrival, those who are charged with leading Ireland’s welcome in affairs of state, most especially President Mary McAleese and Taoiseach Enda Kenny, were called upon to lead the tributes to Dr. Garret FitzGerald who died on Thursday.
The former taoiseach spent much of his political life working to improve relations in Ireland, and between Ireland and Britain.
That FitzGerald, whose state funeral took place on Sunday, had a role in paving the way for the queen’s visit is beyond question, and it was sad that his health did not hold out long enough for him to witness the events that took place between Tuesday and Friday.
Nevertheless, the visit will form part of FitzGerald’s considerable political legacy with the Anglo-Irish Agreement in particular being one of the primary events in recent decades that paved the way to the eventual arrival on independent Irish soil of a reigning British monarch.
The royal visit was a personal triumph for President Mary McAleese who was very much the driving force behind the four days of state pomp, and the more restrained populism, which was largely the result of an unprecedented security operation.
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Also in line for credit is McAleese’s predecessor, Mary Robinson, whose term of office witnessed much of the groundwork for last week’s events.
The vagaries of politics presented Enda Kenny with the opportunity to lead the government welcome to both queen and president, though it was his predecessor, Brian Cowen, who started the ball rolling with regard to the day long visit of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
There will be an afterglow to both visits that should last a considerable while and for sure those who are charged with promoting Ireland as a tourists Mecca will be overjoyed by the cornucopia of positive images that have been generated and relayed around the world.
For the Irish people, the week of VIP entertaining has been a distraction from daily economic concerns which the government now has to address in some earnest. It is to be hoped, of course, that the visits will prompt greater interest in Ireland as a tourist destination, not just this year, but in the years to come.
With regard to the queen’s visit, and particularly those moments when Elizabeth directly addressed the troubled history between the two islands, the four days in May have been quite profound and will add greatly to the layers of greeater trust and understanding that have been generated by the peace process.
President Obama’s visit, unfortunately cut a little short by the volcanic ash cloud blowing in form Iceland, was further confirmation that the relationship between the United States and Ireland is about as close as it can get between two countries.
The visit was perhaps a little too short and it can only be hoped that, at some future point, the president will be able to return and delve more deeply into that side of his family that is Irish.
For the time being, however, we have been left with memorable images from Moneygall and Dublin, just as we have been given memorable ones from the queen’s time in Dublin, Kildare, Tipperary and Cork, where the security cordon was eased just enough to allow a little mingling between visitors and hosts.
The queen and her husband enjoyed mostly sunshine. The Obamas had rain and enough wind to remind them of a blustery day in Chicago.
The Irish people, for a week, had an opportunity to remind the world that the phrase “a hundred thousand welcomes” is not an exaggeration.