The arrival of British royalty on Irish shores in recent times, is usually greeted with genuine interest and curiosity, and a sense of welcome and respect, while extreme nationalists have to grin and bear it.
But that was not always the case. The most extraordinary protest of all, which won by far the most publicity, happened during the the visit of King Edward VII, in July 1903. Maude Gonne MacBride, famous for her beauty and radical nationalist ideas, hung her underwear out of her bedroom window in protest at the King’s visit. It is unlikely that nothing else was discussed on this royal occasion in Dublin, but Miss Gonne’s outrageous treatment of her intimate garments.
That said, it is interesting to see reactions to two royal visits to Ireland, at the beginning of the last century when so much was changing in the national and political life of this 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.
It left the leader of the Irish parliamentary party, John Redmond, who was expected to respond to the proposed visit, in a bit of a quandary. On the one hand he did not want to antagonise the British press which, he hoped would support in his Home Rule ambitions, but at the same time he knew that radical nationalists would be furious at the visit. Being a politician, and a gentleman, he welcomed the wearing of the shamrock, and, as for the visit, he was neither against it, nor enthusiastically in favour.
Several black petticoats
The next royal visit was by Victoria’s eldest son, Edward VII and his consort Queen Alexandria, in the summer of 1903, that sparked Miss Gonne’s protest. The campaign for self-government (Home Rule ) was now the dominant political issue, spurred on by two significant Land Acts which gave tenants the means to own the land which they had farmed for generations paying rent to landlords. Even so the majority of Dubliners at the time were unionist, and again the quandary arose as to whether the radical nationalists should be allowed to spoil the day, or should the many unionists be allowed to display their loyalty to the union of the two nations with a mighty display of flags, bunting and receptions. The king’s visit coincided with the death of Pope Leo XIII, in acknowledgement of which the sea of Union Jack flags and colourful bunting was 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…luminous, like that of apple-blossom’, resided in the leafyglades of Coulson Avenue, in upper-class Rathgar. The majority of households were festooned with Union Jacks, against which Miss Gonne hung several black petticoats out of her upstairs windows to the absolute fury of her neighbours. What followed was an unseemly spectacle of neighbours protesting outside her home, while her ‘sturdy housekeeper’ and members ‘from Cumann na Gaedheal’ gathered in her defence. It was 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’
In contrast, the king’s visit to Connemara was full of Irish charm and natural courtesy. Edward was an intelligent man, and was surely aware that Ireland was undergoing a radical change, and that the Irish peasant, once the butt of music hall jokes, was at last receiving his rightful due. The law of the land was changing in his favour.
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 schoolchildren overlooking the quay, sang God save the King, the refrain was taken up by adults and rang over the waters. The scene was picturesque, impressive, cordial and loyal in every respect.’
They were greeted with an address of welcome by Rev Curran CC, and the local Rector Rev O’Connell, to which his majesty replied: ‘Gentlemen, the Queen and I are most grateful to your loyal welcome to this most picturesque part of our demesnes. We are confident that we will greatly enjoy our visit to your district, which we have not previously seen, but of whose natural beauty we have often heard. I am very pleased at the spirit of progress and industrial activity which is among you, and the Queen and myself join in hoping that all your anticipations for the future will be abundantly fulfilled.’
The visitors passed through Leenane ‘which was handsomely decorated for the occasion’. On the way to Recess they passed through Tully, where a large crowd assembled. ‘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 were also erected at Kylemore and Letterfrack. ‘At various points along the road cheering crowds and country people gathered.
But if the royal party thought they were in for a gentle ride through majestic scenery and smiling crowds they must have been alarmed when a sudden avalanche of men and boys, about 40 in number, yelling, laughing, knocking each other as they rushed towards the road, leaping over the ditches. They were dressed in rags and tatters, black coats, flannels or home-made stuffs, riding on farm-horses, cart-horses, ponies, and donkeys of all sizes and descriptions. Some with saddles, others had none; some had reins, and some had straw ropes. The King's reaction is not recorded; but he did ask to see the organiser of the O'Loughlin's Royal Connemara Mixed Cavalry. Bursting with pride JJ stepped forward and "made a most profound obeisance."
According to local legend, the King was supposed to have observed: 'That of all the courtiers he ever had standing around him not one of them ever made such ‘an iligant bow as Mr Johnny O'Loughlin.’
Nor was the queen neglected. There were cries of ‘Long live the queen!’ The riders escorted the royal group to the hotel at Recess where they lunched. Immediately O’Loughlin’s Royal Connemara Mixed Cavalry formed a cordon round the hotel to secure the Royal party from intruders during their meal.
After lunch, the couple ‘preceded by the mounted cavalcade,’ visited the marble quarries at Lissoughter, and at one point the Royal carriage had to be pushed up a steep and narrow road by the excited men of the escorting cavalry, who dismounted for the task, urged on with cries of encouragement from the others. The Royal train left Recess for Galway at 4.15 pm, where the streets were festooned with flags and bunting, and not a petticoat in sight.
The Zetland Arms
J J O'Loughlin was a local character, who had great ambitions for himself and his family. He began his business career by opening a small shop which sold boots, shirts, groceries, and hardware. It hugely prospered. He was a kind-hearted man, and in the lean years he never refused the loan of a bag of potatoes or 'yella male' to his neighbours when they were in need. He operated mainly a credit business. After every local fair he would collect what he could from his debtors. If they hadn't the money he would cheerfully accept eggs, fish, chickens or pigs in exchange. He sent his pretty daughters to good schools, and realising he could not expect them to come home to the old thatched cottage, and to fulfil the ambitions he had for them, he set about building a large house, adding a few bedrooms for travellers.
Angling in the Connemara lakes in those days was excellent. His rooms were never empty. The crowning success came when the Lord Lieutenant himself, no less, stopped there for three days. On his departure he presented JJ with a signed photograph. The house immediately became a hotel, and the name The Viceroy's Rest was proudly hung over its door. As the good Lord Lieutenant's career progressed, the name changed to the rather grand sounding, if exotic, The Zetland Arms.
Interpreted the landscape
The above story was gently retold by the late Tim Robinson in his absorbing book ‘Connemara: Listening to the Wind’. In past times a handful of Englishmen have helped Ireland see its hidden worlds and treasures. Dr Robin Flower who went to the Blasket Islands off the west Kerry coast in the 1930s and 40s and translated Tomás Ó Crohan's The Islandman; and closer to home the interesting George Thomson of Galway University, who befriended Muiris O'Sullivan, also on the Blaskets, and urged him to write Twenty Years A-Growing. These two scholars introduced the world to the literature of those small islands, the last of the ancient European oral tradition of story telling. Their stories would have been lost but for the encouragement of these men.
The Aran Islands have had a score and more of Irish and continental artists and writers, and academics, willing to collect, portray and catalogue the stories and folklore of the islanders; but no one interpreted the Aran landscape as imaginatively as Tim Robinson.
A Cambridge educated Yorkshireman, Tim managed to combine his passion for art with the mathematical precision that map making required. He met Máiréad, who was originally from county Wexford, at the Camden Art’s Centre, where she was manager. They married in Islington in 1959, and following a visit to the Aran Islands in the summer of 1972, prompted by Máiréad’s viewing of Robert Flaherty’s drama documentary Man of Aran, they both agreed to abandon life in London and move to Aran immediately.
In the early 1970s Tim crossed and recrossed Aran on foot, sometimes on a bicycle, what to many is mainly a weather-scarred but living landscape; and reproduced, in exquisitely drawn maps, its ancient pathways, holy wells, and deserted houses and villages.
Turning over the bones of all that he saw, he generously gave us back in a series of beautifully written books and maps, the secret language of place names (Tim and Máiréad became fluent Irish speakers ), the mythologies that they represented, and the stories of the people he met along the way, and those who had passed who had left their mark. First he explored with his artist’s eye, the Aran Islands; then the Burren and finally Connemara. After more than 40 years this gigantic undertaking was magnificently achieved, culminating in the library of books and maps they produced.
Next week: More stories and places from Tim Robinson’s journeys: The extraordinary Mitchell Henry of Kylemore.
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.
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