The arrival of British royalty on Irish shores in recent times is generally greeted with genuine interest and curiosity, along with a sense of welcome and respect, while extreme nationalists must smile and bear it.
But this has not always been the case. The most extraordinary demonstration of all, which gained by far the most publicity, took place during the visit of King Edward VII, in July 1903. Maude Gonne MacBride, famous for her beauty and her radical nationalist ideas, suspended her sub- clothes at her bedroom window. to protest against the king’s visit. It’s unlikely that anything else was discussed on this royal occasion in Dublin but Miss Gonne’s outrageous treatment for her intimate attire.
That said, it is interesting to see the reactions to two royal visits to Ireland at the turn of the last century when so much was changing in the national and political life of that country. The announcement of Queen Victoria’s visit to Dublin in 1900 immediately followed the recognition that Irish soldiers serving in the British Army could wear the shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day.
This left Irish parliamentary party leader John Redmond, who was due to respond to the proposed visit, in a dilemma. On the one hand, he did not want to antagonize the British press which he hoped would support his Home Rule ambitions, but at the same time he knew that radical nationalists would be furious at the visit. A politician and a gentleman, he welcomed the wearing of trefoil and, as for the visit, he was neither against it nor enthusiastically for it.
Several black petticoats
The next royal visit was that of Victoria’s eldest son, Edward VII, and his wife Queen Alexandria, in the summer of 1903, which prompted Miss Gonne’s protest. The campaign for Home Rule was now the dominant political issue, spurred by two important land laws that empowered tenants to own the land they had farmed for generations by paying rent to landlords. Even so, the majority of Dubliners at the time were Unionists, and again the dilemma arose as to whether the radical nationalists should be allowed to spoil the day, or whether the many Unionists should be allowed to display their loyalty to the union of the two nations with an impressive display of flags, banners and receptions. The king’s visit coincided with the death of Pope Leo XIII, in recognition of which the sea of Union Jack flags and colorful buntings were marred in places by black flags.
Miss Gonne, whose beauty was legendary, the muse of the poet WB Yeats, who described her as
‘tall, bronze-haired, bronze-eyed, with a complexion…bright, like that of the apple blossom’, resided in the verdant glades of Coulson Avenue in upperclass Rathgar. The majority of the foyers were festooned with Union Jacks, against which Miss Gonne hung several black petticoats from her upstairs windows to the absolute fury of her neighbours. What followed was an unseemly sight of neighbors protesting outside his house, while his “robust housekeeper” and members of “Cumann na Gaedheal” rallied in his defense. It has been described as the “Battle of Coulson Avenue”. Miss Gonne protested that she was flying black out of respect for the late Pope Leo.
“Friend of the Pope”
By contrast, the King’s visit to Connemara was full of Irish charm and natural courtesy. Edward was a smart man and was surely aware that Ireland was undergoing drastic change and that the Irish peasant, once the butt of music hall jokes, was finally getting his due. The law of the land was changing in his favor.
For a few days, the King and his Queen shunned the formal receptions prepared in Dublin and elsewhere, and arrived in the royal yacht at Leenane quay, in the heart of Connemara, on Wednesday July 29, to the cheers of thousands of spectators. “A crowd of school children overlooking the wharf, sang God save the King, the refrain was taken up by adults and echoed above the waters. The scene was picturesque, impressive, cordial and loyal in every way.
They were greeted with a welcoming address by the Reverend Curran CC, and the local Rector, Reverend O’Connell, to which Her Majesty replied: “Gentlemen, the Queen and I are most grateful for your faithful welcome to this most most picturesque of our estates.. We are confident that we shall greatly enjoy our visit to your region, which we have not yet seen, but whose natural beauty we have often heard of. I am very pleased with the spirit of progress and industrial activity which prevails among you, and the Queen and I unite in the hope that all your anticipations for the future will be abundantly realized.
Visitors passed by Leenane “which has been nicely decorated for the occasion”. On the way to recreation they passed through Tully, where a large crowd had gathered. “An arch spanned the road, bearing the words ‘A Friend of the Pope,’ and at each a Roman Catholic clergyman stood waving a red flag.” Arches have also been erected at Kylemore and Letterfrack. “At various places along the route cheering crowds and country people gathered.
But if the royal party thought they were going for a gentle stroll through majestic scenery and smiling crowds, they must have been alarmed when a sudden avalanche of men and boys, some 40 in number, shouting, laughing, bumping into each other as they rushed to the road, jumping over ditches. They were dressed in rags and rags, black cloaks, flannels, or home-made cloths, mounted on farm horses, draft horses, ponies, and donkeys of all sizes and descriptions. Some had saddles, others didn’t; some had reins and others had straw ropes. The king’s reaction is not recorded; but he asked to see the organizer of O’Loughlin’s Royal Connemara Mixed Cavalry. Bursting with pride, JJ stepped forward and “cut a deep bow.”
According to local legend, the King was supposed to have observed: “That of all the courtiers he ever had about him, none of them ever bowed so ‘iligently as Mr. Johnny O’Loughlin’ .”
The queen has not been overlooked either. There were cries of “Long live the queen!” The riders escorted the royal party to the Hotel de Recess where they had lunch. Immediately, O’Loughlin’s Mixed Royal Connemara Cavalry formed a cordon around the hotel to protect the royal party from intruders during their meal.
After lunch the couple, ‘preceded by the cavalcade on horseback’, visited the marble quarries of Lissoughter, and at one point the royal carriage had to be pushed up a steep and narrow road by the excited men of the cavalry escort, who dismounted for the task, encouraged by the cheers of others. The royal train left recess for Galway at 4.15pm, where the streets were adorned with flags and bunting, and not a petticoat in sight.
JJ O’Loughlin was a local figure, with big ambitions for himself and his family. He began his business career by opening a small boutique that sold boots, shirts, groceries, and hardware. He has prospered enormously. He was a kind-hearted man and, during the lean years, he never refused to loan a sack of potatoes or a ‘yella male’ to his neighbors when they needed it. He mainly operated a credit business. After each local fair, he collected what he could from his debtors. If they had no money, he would gladly accept in exchange eggs, fish, chickens or pigs. He sent his pretty daughters to good schools, and realizing that he could not expect them to return to the old cottage, and to fulfill the ambitions he had for them, he set out to build a large house, adding a few rooms for travellers.
Angling in Connemara lakes at this time was excellent. His rooms were never empty. The crowning achievement came when the Lord Lieutenant himself, no less, stopped there for three days. When he left, he gave JJ a signed photograph. The house immediately became a hotel and the name The Viceroy’s Rest hung proudly on its door. As the good Lord Lieutenant’s career progressed, the name changed to The Zetland Arms, which sounds rather grand, albeit exotic.
Interpret the landscape
The above story was gently told by the late Tim Robinson in his captivating book ‘Connemara: Listening to the Wind’. In the past, a handful of Englishmen helped Ireland discover its hidden worlds and treasures. Dr Robin Flower who traveled to the Blasket Islands off the west coast of Kerry in the 1930s and 1940s and translated Tomás Ó Crohan’s The Islandman; and closer to home, the interesting George Thomson of the University of Galway, who befriended Muiris O’Sullivan, also a member of the Blaskets, and pushed him to write Twenty Years A-Growing . These two scholars introduced the world to the literature of these small islands, the last of the ancient European oral tradition of storytelling. Their stories would have been lost without the encouragement of these men.
The Aran Islands have had a score and more of Irish and Mainland artists and writers, and scholars, eager to collect, portray and catalog the stories and folklore of the islanders; but no one has interpreted the Aran landscape with as much imagination as Tim Robinson.
A Cambridge-educated Yorkshireman, Tim has managed to combine his passion for art with the mathematical precision required for map making. He met Máiréad, from County Wexford, at Camden Art’s Centre, where she was director. They married in Islington in 1959, and after a visit to the Aran Islands in the summer of 1972, prompted by Máiréad’s viewing of Robert Flaherty’s dramatic documentary Man of Aran, they both agreed to give up the living in London and moving immediately to Aran.
In the early 1970s Tim walked and re-crossed Aran, sometimes cycling, which for many is mostly a weathered but living landscape; and reproduces, on superbly drawn maps, its ancient ways, its sacred wells, its houses and its abandoned villages.
Turning over the bones of all he saw, he generously returned to us in a series of beautifully written books and maps, the secret language of place names (Tim and Máiréad became fluent Irish speakers), mythologies they represented and the stories of the people he met along the way, and those who passed by and left their mark. He first explored with his artist’s eye, the Aran Islands; then the Burren and finally Connemara. After more than 40 years, this mammoth undertaking has been beautifully realized, culminating in the library of books and maps they have produced.
Next week: More stories and locations from Tim Robinson’s travels: Kylemore’s Extraordinary Mitchell Henry.
NOTES: Sources include Irish Historical Studies No 124 1999, Beyond the Twelve Bens – A history of Clifden and District, by Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill, and Tim Robinson’s Listening to the Wind, published by Penguin books, 2000.