The Queen’s visits to Ireland
In the first of a series of articles from the archives of the Church of Ireland Gazette looking back over aspects of the Queen’s life and reign, Karen Bushby writes on Her Majesty’s visits to Ireland, north and south:
Her Majesty visited Northern Ireland 25 times as both Princess and as Sovereign, but perhaps no visit was more significant for this island than her first–ever State visit to the Republic in May 2011.
A year later, Her Majesty demonstrated the power a simple handshake can play in reconciliation when she and former IRA commander, the late Martin McGuinness, exchanged just such a handshake at a charity event in Belfast.
Reflecting on Her Majesty’s visit to the Republic, the Church of Ireland Gazette editorial on May 27 2011 stated: “With the Queen’s visit, people across all of this island – with the exception of only a small minority – were surely united in their feelings for one another, perhaps as never before.”
While opinion on the institution of the Monarchy has at times been divided – something that does come across in the columns of the Gazette over the years – those visits by the Queen have brought joy to many, creating memories that will not be forgotten.
There was great sadness when, in October 2021, Queen Elizabeth had to cancel her trip at the last minute, ‘reluctantly’ accepting medical advice to rest.
Her last visit to Northern Ireland was on June 29 2016, when her engagements included a visit to Bushmills to unveil a statue of World War One hero Robert Quigg VC, a lifelong member of Billy Parish Church. She was welcomed by the rector of Billy and Derrykeighan, the late Rev John Anderson, who dedicated the statue in the presence of both the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.
This was just one of many Royal visits recorded in the Church of Ireland Gazette. Here, we flick through the pages to recall some of those events.
CORONATION YOUTH GATHERING
Her first visit as Monarch took place just on July 1 1953, just a month after her Coronation. There was great excitement for many months beforehand. On March 27 1953 in its Connor news section, the Gazette reports: “The CLB (Church Lads’ Brigade) will take part in a Coronation Youth Gathering which is being organised by the Standing Conference of Youth Organisations. This will take place at Balmoral Showgrounds on July 3 1953 on the occasion of the visit to Belfast of Her Majesty and The Duke.”
Even this first visit was not without controversy. The Gazette states (July 3 1953): “Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh are expected to arrive in Northern Ireland on July 1. They will have a mixed reception because of political tension. It is a pity than anti–partitionists cannot be content to make a dignified protest and leave it at that.
“It is our belief that an invitation to the Republic, coupled with the conferring of an honorary degree by Trinity College, Dublin, would do more to remove the border than any number of outrages on cinemas. The recognition of facts as they are is in no sense an admission that they should not be changed.”
It was to be 58 years before that visit to the Republic actually took place.
On July 10 1953, the Gazette notes, with a degree of condemnation: “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II needs all the resilience of youth. Having visited Northern Ireland last week, she reviewed 72,000 ex–servicemen and women in Hyde Park last Sunday.
“How times have changed! No Sunday rest. And no disapproval of its absence. After the Inspection, there was a short service conducted by the Dean of [Ripon].”
In August 1954, Her Majesty was in Belfast to launch the 20,000 ton liner, Southern Cross. Built for the Shaw Saville Company by Messrs Harland and Wolff, and launched at Queen’s Island, the Gazette recounts: “Unfortunately it rained all day, so a happy occasion was somewhat damped,” adding: “The Southern Cross will carry no cargo, and thus sailing schedules will not be delayed.”
Although there is no record of it in the Gazette, Her Majesty visited Carrickfergus in 1961. In July 1966, she was in Belfast to open the Queen Elizabeth Bridge. On this occasion, it was reported in local media that a concrete block was thrown at the royal limousine as it travelled along Great Victoria Street. Her Majesty was apparently ‘unperturbed’ and continued with her duty to open the bridge across the River Lagan named in her honour.
Her Majesty did not return to Northern Ireland for another 11 years, defying IRA threats to ensure the people of the province were part of her Silver Jubilee tour.
A full page in the Gazette was dedicated to the Jubilee on June 10 1977, and this included remarks from the address at the Silver Jubilee Service of Thanksgiving in the Presbyterian Assembly Hall by Archbishop Simms, Church of Ireland Primate, who paid tribute to the Queen’s dedication.
He said the Queen, with ‘characteristic consistency and well–known readiness to help’ had carried out heavy and exacting responsibilities through years of rapid change. It had meant strain.
“The personal influence which she exerts has meant much to an uncounted number of people all over the world, through a period of history in which the developing communications of radio and television have brought her in touch personally with people in a new way.”
Archbishop Simms said the Jubilee provided an opportunity for a new spirit of dedication to ‘move use to a renewal of our lives and a firm resolve to find our way to stability.’
It was 14 years (1991) before Her Majesty returned to Northern Ireland for a fleeting visit to present colours to four of the nine UDR battalions who served in the province. Five more one–day visits followed in 1993, 1995, 1997, 2000 and 2001.
The 1995 visit, where Her Majesty travelled to Armagh to grant the ecclesiastical capital city status, is referenced in the Gazette in an article focused on Simon Beckett, a young parishioner of St Mark’s Parish Church and a member of 1st Armagh Scout Troop, who had the honour of carrying the flag of St Patrick and leading that year’s St Patrick’s Day Parade.
An article published in April 13 2001 under the headline ‘Forum to discuss sectarianism in the Republic of Ireland,’ echoed those words expressed in July 1953 on the potential positive outcome of a Royal visit to the Republic.
“In light of the recent Ireland versus England rugby match at Croke Park, the Church of Ireland Hard Gospel Project and the Trinity Theological Society are jointly organising a forum to discuss the topic ‘Is there sectarianism in the Republic of Ireland?’ … In 2003, the Hard Gospel Scoping Study identified that ’most (but not all) respondents in the Republic believe that sectarianism is a northern issue.’
“However, the Ireland versus England match highlighted the milestones which still need to be passed to reach mature Anglo–Irish relations. Perhaps one outstanding milestone will be the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the Republic.”
Still another 10 years would pass before this visit would occur.
In its issue of February 15 2008, the Gazette shared Buckingham Palace’s announcement the Her Majesty would visit Northern Ireland on Maundy Thursday that year. This was the first time the Office for the Royal Maundy was held outside England and Wales.
The event was previewed at length: “The royal visit will include the annual – and ancient – Maundy Thursday royal ceremonies at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh. The Queen will present 82 men and 82 women with the traditional Maundy purses, representing her 82nd year.”
Speaking to the Gazette, the Dean of Armagh, the Very Rev Patrick Rooke, said: “It is a great honour for us in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, that the Queen has chosen to come here to distribute the Royal Maundy. Apart from St David’s Cathedral in Wales in 1982, this is the only occasion when this ancient ceremony has been held outside England.
“I am greatly encouraged that the recipients have been nominated by each of the four Church leaders and thus all 164 represent a cross–section of the community from throughout Northern Ireland.
“My regret is that the cathedral is not twice the size to hold the many who are pleading for tickets…It is an exciting and challenging time, but we are aware that this is an historic event which will bring much pleasure to those involved.”
When the Queen finally visited the Republic in 2011, the Gazette leader column spoke of the hope and confidence that visit had given to the island of Ireland moving forward.
“A mark of a mature and confident democracy is not merely the tolerance, but also the respect and affection it shows for its nearest and best neighbours, welcoming and offering warm and generous hospitality. This is, indeed, what happened with the official visit of Queen Elizabeth to the Republic of Ireland, only days ahead of President Obama…
“With the Queen’s visit, people across all of this island – with the exception of only a small minority – were surely united in their feelings for one another, perhaps as never before.
“As the Archbishop of Armagh was reported by The Irish Times, commenting following the banquet at Dublin Castle at which both the President and the Queen had spoken most movingly, for the vast majority of people ‘it was time for this day, and they were glad to see it happen.’
“Notwithstanding all the efforts, time itself has now been shown to be a great healer in Ireland. That realisation gives added hope and confidence as all of us move forward into our future as people increasingly of one heart.
The joy in the royal visit was itself a most effective voicing of ‘stop’ to those who would return us to days of bitterness and violence.
“Over the next 10 years, we face a series of centenary commemorations on this island… With all the weight of history, the Queen, the President, and the organizers of the royal visit showed courage, maturity and dignity in the choice of places for the visit, including Croke Park, the Garden of Remembrance and the War Memorial Gardens.”
The commentary continues: “The Queen’s Irish sojourn – a culmination of all the advances in British–Irish relations of recent years and in the peace process in Northern Ireland – brought much reflection on past events. Benefiting from looking to the past depends on having the humility to learn the lessons it has to teach and the willingness to remember with purity of thought.”
A year later, in June 2012, Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh were in Enniskillen for an ecumenical Service of Thanksgiving in St Macartin’s Cathedral to mark the first day of a two–day Royal visit to Northern Ireland.
As we have indicated, Her Majesty’s last visit to Northern Ireland was in June 29 2016 when she unveiled the statue of Robert Quigg who had received the Victoria Cross for his actions at the Battle of the Somme.
This article began with a reflection that the many visits by Her Majesty over the years had created unforgettable memories, a sentiment shared by the Rev John Anderson, rector of Billy Parish, who hosted Her Majesty that day in Bushmills. John, who tragically died from Covid–19 in April 2021 aged just 46, said at the time: “It was a great occasion and I was glad to be part of it. I will always remember when I look at the statue of Robert Quigg that it was I who dedicated it in the presence of the Queen.”
As we mourn Her Majesty, we know the memories of those who met her in person, and those who watched her grow from a young princess into the Sovereign she was, will live on.