Prince Charles’s recent visit to Ireland had an uncanny similarity to that of his ancestor King George IV in 1822. Both controversial figures at home, they found an affinity with Ireland and its people. Just as the Queen’s earlier visit to Ireland had been world news so too would Prince Charles’s trip prove to be a big hit with the Irish public wherever he went.
Arriving by plane Charles immediately declared that he found a ‘magic about Ireland that is totally unique’ and that having had ‘the privilege of coming to Ireland in 1995 and then again in 2002’ he was always overwhelmed and ‘so deeply touched by the extraordinary kindness, the welcome and indeed the fun of being in Ireland’. This from a man whose favourite uncle had been murdered by Irish Republicans.
Charles’s other speeches in Ireland were astonishing for their warmth and praise for the people: ‘Apart from anything else, the chance of plenty of good jokes and laughter make the whole difference to life, he added. ‘You raise our spirits in so many ways. After all, the Irish have made a unique and important contribution to Britain – a wonderful warmth of laughter, spontaneity and imagination. Neither Ireland nor Britain enjoys such a deep and broad engagement with any other country. Our current, blessed era of friendship and cooperation is not, however, founded on pretending that the past did not happen. We all have regrets. As my mother said at Dublin Castle, with the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all’.
In saying this Charles was completely sober, unlike George IV, who arrived at Howth Harbour a few miles from Dublin late on the afternoon of 12 August 1821, obviously the worse for drink. His welcome was both boisterous and sincere and it was soon clear, not least to the King, that the Irish looked upon him in a far more favourable light than did his English subjects. So there could hardly have been a more auspicious start to the royal visit than this and the King set off for Dublin already convinced that the Irish were the finest people in Europe.
Astonishingly, given that the Great Irish Rising had occurred little more than twenty years earlier, not a single soldier lined the route as the royal cavalcade passed. By now George had pinned a huge bunch of shamrock to his hat, which he repeatedly pointed to with one hand whilst placing the other sentimentally over his heart. At Viceregal Lodge the King’s servants leapt down and attempted to close the gates on the following crowd but the King waved them angrily aside and beckoned the cheering mob to follow him all way up to the house. Stepping from his carriage onto the lawn, he made a short but jolly speech, concluding, ‘I assure you my dear friends, I have an Irish heart and will this night give proof of my affection towards you in bumpers of whiskey punch!’. The near delirious crowd urged him not to stint himself on the measures.
The next day even the Irish papers, usually highly critical of the English, were wildly enthusiastic about the royal visit. Many remembered that as Prince of Wales he had shown his sympathy for Ireland and that his Carlton House faction in parliament had often voted in support of the twelve Irish members. More importantly, he had openly opposed the military coercion of the Irish people in 1797 when, as the country had stood on the brink of rebellion, he had written a prophetic warning to the then Prime Minister, William Pitt, that although ‘a strong military force may secure temporary advantages, no force can long coerce a nation of four million people united in sentiments and interests. I must once more most earnestly recommend conciliatory measures and I abjure you to pause on the awful brink of civil war and to avert its fateful consequences.’
The rest of the King’s visit was passed in near euphoria wherever he went and, in an encounter similar to that of Prince Charles with the IRA leader, Gerry Adams, George was introduced to Lord Cloncurry, an Irish peer who had been imprisoned in the Tower of London for supporting the United Irishmen in the Rebellion. Cloncurry approached the King and shook his hand before suggesting ‘a waiver of all bygones’ and then warmly inviting him to visit his house.
So it continued and as George prepared to leave Ireland he was informed that the Irish people had been so moved by his visit that there was a proposal in Dublin to build him a palace there. Yet the most surprising event was the arrival at the dock of Daniel O’Connell, the undisputed leader of Catholic, Nationalist Ireland. Kneeling respectfully, O’Connell presented George with a crown of laurel leaves. affected by this unexpected tribute, the King replied, ‘I never felt sensations of more delight than since I came to Ireland’.
The less sentimental English politicians agreed that although the royal visit to Ireland had been a great personal success it would lead only to a temporary improvement in relations. Yet the Irish poet,Tom Moore, spoke for many of his fellow countrymen when he declared that from now he was a confirmed monarchist. Many of the ordinary Irish shared Moore’s admiration for the King. To the Irish he had proved that he was a man of charm whose graciousness, kind heart and good manners had appealed to their own instinctive good nature.
Read more about the royal visit and the complex and likeable character of one of Britain’s most controversial kings in The King and the Vice Queen
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