When the king came to town

Edward VII's visit to Glaway in 1903 revealed much about contemporary Irish attitudes towards the British presence, the monarchy, and Irish independence

King Edward VII was known as ‘Peacemaker’ for his role in fostering good relations between Britain and France, he was renowned for his politeness and good manners, and throughout the continent he was affectionately called the ‘Uncle of Europe’.

That popularity however did not necessarily extend to Ireland, a nation that had never been content to submit to British domination, not even in Galway, once infamously dubbed “the most Shoneen town in Ireland”.

Edward VII’s visit to Ireland in 1903 revealed much that is fascinating about Irish attitudes towards the British presence, the monarchy, and Irish independence, and Galway was a place where all of this came together with fascinating and sometimes humorous results.

The visit was also a cue for much pomp and pageantry, protests, a near strike, and some cute hoorism to make a quick buck out of the visit.

Edward VII’s great-granddaughter, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II will pay an official State visit to the Republic next week, but what happened when Edward visited Galway more than a century ago? What happened during his visit? What did Galwegians make of the monarch? And what was its legacy?

How to receive a royal?

Edward VII was no stranger to Ireland. As the Prince of Wales he had often visited Galway and Mayo to go hunting, and being a well known ladies’ man, he had also acquired a certain notoriety for enjoying the night life of Dublin.

He became king in 1901 following the death of Queen Victoria and two years later undertook an official visit to Ireland.

“The idea for the visit would have come from Edward’s own inclinations, the British government, and from the broader context of ‘Killing Home Rule with Kindness’,” says Dr John Cunningham, lecturer in history at NUI, Galway. “Also a few years previously his mother had come and that visit had not gone well.”

Victoria was still held in dim regard by many Irish people at this time as ‘The Famine Queen’, and many of the country’s leading intellectuals and artists, such as WB Yeats, Maude Gonne, and George Moore, as well as many Nationalist MPs, staged prominent protests against the visit. The British monarchy were keen for better PR this time around.

“Edward VII was seen differently,” says Dr Cunningham. “He was seen as a friend of Ireland and as being well disposed to the country.”

As a result there was a mixed reactions in Ireland as to how to respond to the royal visit. Unionists were thrilled. Republicans, radicals, and some Nationalist MPs were opposed outright to the visit. More moderate Nationalists felt the king should be received cordially and respectfully, but that there should be “no bowing and scraping” or any kind of obsequiousness towards him.

'Newspapers of the time were filled with adverts from locals who were renting out their windows at 5s a head to anyone who wanted a good viewing point to see the king'

The main opposition was led by the umbrella group, The National Council, and Galway took a lead in this regard with Loughrea’s Edward Martyn, a prominent playwright and cultural activist, being among the group’s leaders, along with Maude Gonne and Arthur Griffith.

All these diverse views could be found in Galway city and county. The Galway County Council had a Nationalist majority and decided it would ignore the visit. The Galway Urban Council (forerunner of the Galway City Council ) was however the site of some turbulent and bad tempered exchanges over the event.

“There were divisions, shouting, and name calling at the meetings over the royal visit, which were reported in horrified tones by the Galway Express, the Unionist paper,” says Dr Cunningham. “It was eventually decided by eight votes to four that the council would take part in the official welcome and the chair James O’Donoghue read a welcome speech for the king.”

There was also pragmatism (and a little opportunism ) behind views that the visit as potentially good for the city.

“It was felt the visit would draw attention to Galway and its attractions, benefit tourism, and local produce,” says Dr Cunningham. “Moons gave Edward’s wife, Queen Alexandra, a Claddagh cloak. The idea was that she would wear it in London and be known to have it and that the ‘fashionistas’ would go out and buy them.

“Galway needed a boost. It was on a downward spiral. The population had fallen in every census since the Famine and was down to 13,000 people. The docks was not doing much business, the distillery was on its last legs. It was in a poor condition.”

However Galway royalists were not satisfied to leave the running of the event in councillors hands and formed a citizens committee to oversee things. The committee undertook a collection to raise funds for viewing stands, flags, and bunting, and hired people to put them up around the city - but here they ran into problems.

“There were large and enthusiastic crowds, and there were discussions about who cheered the loudest, the people in the Claddagh or the city centre”

Given the unemployment in Galway, the work was welcome, but many workers would not take the job at any price. The terms for working weekdays was three shillings a day, judged fairly good by the standards of the time, but there would also be Sunday work and this proved a sticking point.

The men were offered 10s for Sunday work but they refused demanding the rate be £1 (or 20s ). At first the committee refused but when the men downed tools and went on strike - the strike itself may only have lasted an hour - there were discussions and a compromise of 15s for Sundays was agreed.

Making money from the event was a big drive for Galwegians at the time. Given that Edward VII was the biggest celebrity of his day it was understandable that his visit should attract the crowds. As Dr Cunningham points out, the newspapers of the time were filled with adverts from locals who were renting out their windows at 5s a head, etc, to anyone who wanted a good viewing point to see the king as he came through the city.

One ad from the Galway Express reads: ‘Windows to let at Raven Terrace - Five windows to let during the passing of the Royal Procession at Raven Terrace. These windows command a double view of the Procession and are to be let on moderate terms. Apply to Mrs Casey.’

Edward VII in Galway

Edward arrived in Killary Harbour aboard the royal yacht on July 29 1903 where he was met by large crowds of onlookers. A nine-car motorcade then brought the king and his wife through Tully, Letterfrack, and Kylemore where they visited the castle, now Kylemore Abbey, before continuing to Recess along the Inagh Valley. Afterwards they lunched at the Railway Hotel before taking the train from Ballinahinch to Galway city.

When Edward arrived in the city for the procession on Thursday, the streets were festooned with bunting and Union Jacks. There were also banners proclaiming ‘He loves the Green Isle and his Love is recorded’, on the top of Williamsgate Street and ‘Welcome to the Citie of the Tribes’ across Dillon’s Jewellers (now the Galway Camera Shop ) and Moons (now Brown Thomas ).

Special viewing stands were erected throughout the route of the procession. The public stand at Eyre Square contained more than 500 people and there were further stands at the railway station, the Bridge Mills, and the docks. Several hundred police were brought in to provide security.

Crowds of people thronged the streets to see the king and queen being brought through the city in an open topped, horse drawn, carriage, and this allowed Galwegians to get a much closer look at the royals than would be permitted today.

The procession began at 4am, beginning at Eyre Square and continuing down Shop Street, across O’Brien’s Bridge, down Dominick Street towards the Jesuit Church, and past the Claddagh, to the docks via the Wolfe Tone Bridge. From the docks the royal couple embarked on the yacht and departed from Galway.

“There were large and enthusiastic crowds,” says Dr Cunningham, “and there were discussions about who cheered the loudest, the people in the Claddagh or the city centre.”

So does the enthusiasm with which the king was greeted show that Ireland at this time was pro-royal and a content member of the Empire or was it more a case of people just wanting to have a look at the international celebrity?

“The visit reveals the complexities of people’s attitudes and the conflicting attitudes that could be within the same person,” says Dr Cunningham. “A couple of years earlier Galway had elected a Unionist MP for the city, but this came after years of parachute candidates with no connection to Galway, being put up for them. In this by election the people wanted someone local.

“In 1902 a by-election was held again and this time Galwegians elected Arthur Lynch, a Clareman, and a radical, religious sceptic, who was fighting in South Africa in The Boer War with the Boers against the British. When he returned to Ireland he was arrested but it was rumoured in Galway that the king would announce a royal pardon for him during his visit. He didn’t, but the pardon did come later.”

A lasting legacy?

Edward’s visit had proven a success. The Galway Express of August 1 1903 declared the visit “without doubt the most remarkable and successful part of their Majesties present tour through Ireland”.

However in terms of a long term impact and legacy it did nothing to halt the progress of Irish Nationalism and the independence movement.

“Edward died in 1910 and there was little comment about it in the local press,” says Dr Cunningham. “You would have expected there to be something if the visit had really had an impact. James O’Donoghue was knighted by Edward and strutted around the town as Sir James. He even wrote down ‘Knight’ as his occupation in the 1911 census, but he had become a figure of fun for Nationalists.

“At the national level, the Sinn Féin party emerged out of The National Council which protested against the visit and Galway elected a Sinn Féin councillor, Thomas Walsh, a university medical lecturer, only a couple of years after the visit.”


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