Not for the first time the small village of Newport became a hive of activity because of a visit from the royal family of Monaco. On Wednesday, following in the footsteps of his late mother and father, Prince Albert of Monaco visited the ancestral home of his late mother, Princess Grace, in the west of the county.
Fifty years after the first visit of his parents in 1961, Prince Albert and his fiancée came back to Newport to visit the town from where his great grandfather Peter Kelly emigrated to Philadelphia in 1887. For this writer playing the generation game also took on a personal interest ,as in writing this piece I’m retracing the steps of my own family. At the time of the first visit of Princess Grace and Prince Rainier to Newport in 1961, my late grandfather, Gerard Bracken, was the then editor of the Mayo News newspaper and he covered the visit and indeed played a part in alerting the royal family in Monaco to the roots of Princess Grace’s family in a tiny cottage in Drimurla just outside of the village of Newport. In June of 1995, he wrote a short eight page booklet called Princess Grace: The Newport Connection, which traced the story of the genealogy of the princess, informing the principality of the connection, through her official visit in 1961, and on to her private visits later in 1976 and 1979. A copy of that booklet today is included in the collection of books housed in The Princess Grace Irish Library in the principality, which was founded by the late Princess Grace’s husband Prince Rainier in 1984, two years after her death.
A royal homecoming
This week’s visit of Prince Albert and his soon to be wife Charlene Wittstock to Ireland, once again sparked off calls for something to be done with the ancestral home of Princess Grace. It has fallen into disrepair since 1961 when she visited the area for the first time and visited the cottage which was then owned by Mrs Mulchrone, the princess enjoyed the company of Mrs Mulchrone, who served her tea and a selection of home-made cakes.
So on a wet and dreary afternoon, this writer left Castlebar to make the short trip to Newport to witness the return of royalty to the town for the first time in a number of years. True to the traditions of the intensely proud town that Newport is the people put on a good show, from before the turn off to Drimurla the red and white flag of the Principality of Monaco was fluttering in the breeze on electricity poles and from houses to welcome the royal visitors to this homecoming. Because of the haste in arranging certain aspects of the trip, there was no commitment that a stop off would be made at the old cottage, but as afternoon turned into evening, the sight of gardaí manning the access roads to the cottage signalled the intent of at least a quick stop off.
With the decision to add Newport to the tail end of the official visit only confirmed very late, the Newport Tidy Towns committee had been very busy making sure that the entrance route to the town was as clean as could be for their very special guests. The entrance to Newport House was buzzing with excitement as school children waited patiently for the arrival of the regal visitors. Bunting had been erected, small Irish flags and Monesgasque flags had been given to the school children to wave as they greeted Prince Albert and his entourage. Locals who could remember previous visits by Princess Grace and Prince Rainier swapped stories of pleasant encounters with royalty, in as ordinary day to day encounters from her walking up the steep hill that leads to the church in the town to go to Sunday Mass, or getting her hair set in a local hairdresser’s like any other ordinary person. Others carried photographs of Princess Grace from her visits to the town and shared in memories of meeting her and the buzz it brought to the place in the past.
Through wind and rain they waited
When the appointed time arrived a blast of Garda sirens had the assembled crowd ready for action, the schoolchildren filed up either side of the driveway to welcome the guests, and in a whirl of black Mercedes cars and SUVs they breezed into the palatial surrounds of Newport House, with the prince opening his window on the left hand side of the car to wave to the locals among the dazzle of camera flashes, smiling faces, and waving arms despite the rain that was whipping in off Clew Bay.
The weather did not dampen the spirits of the locals, and anyone who knows anything about the people from this part of the world, knows a little bit of rain would not put them off. And there was a lot of waiting in the rain, from there to the Grainne Uaile pub on Medilcott Street the party moved, where traditional music and beverages were the order of the day, and while space was limited those who got inside were able to enjoy the company of royalty, who by all accounts were happy to meet and greet a number of locals who have kept the flame of honouring their princess alive for the past 50 years . Some might think that working in the media gets you inside access to events like this, as the wind and rain kept blowing in from the Atlantic, it was only wetter and wetter that I and my colleagues got outside, alongside a large number of hardy locals who waited outside to say their farewells to the prince and princess-to-be. While I may not have been privy to the goings on inside the Grainne Uaile, at least one member of my family was, every now and then I'd catch a glimpse of my 91-year-old grandmother inside, waving out the window at me as she enjoyed all the revelry that was going on. When all was said and done and I asked her what was he like, the answer was short and to the point as is her wont, “A lovely man, just like his mother.” While the princess with Newport blood may be gone, the pride that the people of the town that reared her grandfather, in what one of their own went on to become, is still alive and well today.