“We have always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English.”Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill saw a lot during his time in British politics and service. He led England through World War II and, after being defeated in an election in 1945, came back to power in 1951 for another four years. He was right about the Irish. We are all a little odd and do not want to be English. Given the two countries’ history, back to Cromwell, it’s not hard to imagine that the Irish want to be, well, the Irish. It’s who we are. The Great Famine in Ireland lasted from 1845 to 1852 and changed the course of history. While wars ended and treaties were signed, “The Troubles” persisted in the 1970s, so the relationship has always been rocky. So it’s understandable that the Irish, as well as some of the indigenous peoples around the world, might not be crying into their beer over the death of Queen Elizabeth II this past week. Still, nearly all of the press and buzz I’ve seen around her death is overwhelmingly respectful. It seems authentically mournful, even among those who were not big fans of the monarchy as an institution. To my surprise, many are separating the queen, as a daughter, wife, sister, and mother, from her role as the sovereign of the United Kingdom.
All over the world, there are races, tribes, and entire countries that have lived as subjects and colonies of the British Empire. While it’s much smaller now than in the days when it was “the Empire on which the sun never sets,” there are still thousands of Her Majesty’s subjects outside of the British Isles. Yes, technically, the Queen of England “reigned over” these colonies, but it’s important to remember that the queen is a figurehead. Also, a bobblehead, if you’ve seen some of the merch that’s been around this week. Like any death of a well-known leader, politician, or celebrity, there’s near-constant coverage of it, which means there will be lots of tacky memorabilia around in the next few weeks. I know at least three people who are just as Irish as I am who all own at least one cheesy royal family souvenir, be it a wind-up figurine that waves or a tea towel and matching cup and saucer.
With all the crowns, scepters, pomp, and pageantry, the queen doesn’t actually have any political or constitutional power. She wasn’t even registered to vote, as traditionally, members of the royal family stay out of politics, publicly and privately. As a brand, however? She was beloved for her sense of duty, as well as her sense of humor, and I think, at least in her later years, she realized how much people worldwide wanted to connect with her and her family. I have to believe she’d be surprised and likely a bit embarrassed by the outpouring of personal memories so many have of her reign.
In her record-setting 70 years as the queen, she was often at odds with her husband, her children, her public and her household. No one expected that just short of five years into her marriage to Phillip, with two young children to raise, she would have to begin her duties. She was not allowed to have her children take Mountbatten, Phillip’s surname, as their own and instead went with Windsor after pressure from members of Parliament. She could grant some aristocrat a knighthood, with maybe some land and a small castle to go with, but was not allowed to wave one of those big shiny sticks she carries around at ceremonies and give her sister permission to marry the man she loved. She had a fleet of cars, stables full of horses, a private plane, a train and a royal yacht but couldn’t nip out to the pub for a pint or have a date night with her husband at some small café in Soho. Instead, government bureaucrats arranged her social life with carefully orchestrated events. She went on royal tours, leaving her children behind for months because that was the custom. A friend of mine who is British described Queen Elizabeth as a “woman of her time.” Deeply faithful to her role as Head of the Church of England and the duties of The Crown, she did not have the luxury of having a few girlfriends over for bunco and cocktails or popping into Marks and Spencer to pick up a cute pair of sandals.
Now, none of that is tragic; she led a most extraordinary life, getting to go on trips and take part in historical events that the average person could never do. Yet she is being remembered as if she was that favorite aunt we all knew, who was a little dotty at times and not always politically correct. People remember her as a loving grandmother, a doting dog owner, and even a fan of the television show “Twin Peaks.” She often went off script when meeting people. In Scotland once, a tourist remarked to her, “You look just like the Queen!” She replied, “How reassuring.”
Perhaps as her son, King Charles III, takes over the monarchy, the institution might come into a more modern era, addressing the concerns many have over the costs and the purpose of having royals. In the meantime, the fondness for her that many have shown, even those who have no connection to the United Kingdom, is a tiny bit of light in these chaotic times. No wonder we all want to look back kindly at a smiling older lady, who wore bright colors, loved her dogs and will be remembered equally for who she was as a person and what she accomplished in her role as queen. For now, I will have a lovely cuppa tea and maybe even a scone in her honor. That’s guaranteed to have all of my dead Irish relatives spinning in the dirt, but it’s not like I don’t do something every day to cause that. Rest in peace, your Majesty, and thank you for the times you made us smile. We Irish will never be English, but you’ve probably known that all along.