I can now confirm from personal experience that Her Majesty is a pretty nice girl, but she didn’t have a lot to say.
Well, that’s not entirely fair. She didn’t say a lot to me individually, but the fact that she took time to stop to talk at all was remarkable. I was lucky enough to be among approximately 200 academics from Irish universities who were invited to meet the Queen of England in the Long Room of Trinity College Dublin. We were told to expect that she would be briefly introduced to each of us but would continue on without stopping. In fact, she stopped to shake hands and exchange a few words with most of us.
We were lined up along the sides of the beautiful old library, and when the queen entered there was a genuine sense of her presence. The time she was taking to interact with the different guests present meant that it was almost half an hour before she arrived at the group of biologists that I was standing with. As I felt my legs tiring, I was already feeling impressed by the stamina and energy of this 85-year-old lady.
I wasn’t one of those who was in awe of the queen. I would consider myself to have been rather neutral. However, when she got close I was struck by her genuine smile, the life in her eyes, and the fresh glow of her skin. However, this was nothing compared to how impressed I was by her sharp mind. As she chatted to each of us in turn it was clear that she was doing more than nodding and smiling. When Dr. Emmeline Hill, who was standing beside me, told the queen of her research into the genetics of thoroughbred horses and how it relates to racing performance, she was clearly interested and quickly replied that the work was very useful considering how up until now they have only had pedigrees to go on. [Spoiler: she was spot on.] Frankly, I would have forgiven her if she had zoned-out after half an hour of introductions, but she was listening attentively, with her eyes focused on the person she was talking to. I liked her.
When she started her speech on Wednesday night in the Irish language there was palpable surprise and admiration in the audience. She then went on to give a carefully and well crafted speech which delicately acknowledged the past yet looked to the future. I was surprised by how powerful and moving the speech was. This visit has been so masterfully done. What could have been at worst a flash point for violent protest, or, more blandly, a tourist trip, has, I believe, become a significant political and public event. I believe she went much further in her speech than anyone had reasonably expected.
I acknowledge that I’m a chronic optimist, but it does feel like the simple gesture of this lady coming to visit has actually caused us to achieve something, and to (hopefully) finally leave the past behind. I’m surprised even by my own reaction. I never had a problem with her visit, but I was mostly indifferent. It has actually been wonderful, and she has genuinely gone up in my estimation.
I think that in some ways this visit was a test of the maturity and self-confidence of this country. Could we welcome the Queen of England as a respected guest and head of state? or would we wallow in the past? Most people I have spoken to seemed genuinely pleased at her visit and the symbolism for the relationship between the two countries (which in political terms, is already incredibly close). Overall the response I have witnessed has been warm and mature.
I see her now as an impressive and professional stateswoman, even if I’m not in favour of the system by which she was granted her position. I am very happy that I got the chance to shake her hand.