‘The Queen is coming’, the delighted RTE reporters and presenters tell us, seemingly thrilled by the prospect of producing several-months-worth of guff, and, who knows, even of being in the same air-space as herself – all in the call of duty, of course. No doubt, celebratory dinner parties with live flat screen coverage of the ‘real’ banquet, are already being planned by society hostesses in the leafy suburbs of Dublin. ‘It is a sign of the growing maturity of our relationship with the Old Enemy’, the commentariat tell us, as if we were, up to now, mere children.
Déjà vu! Yes, the Irish have been here before. When Ms Saxe-Coburg (Elizabeth mark 2 if you prefer) arrives, it will be 114 years after her great-great-granny Victoria came to view her Irish subjects – at least the ones who had survived a long famine over which she presided with a large degree of indifference. Then as now there was sycophantic adulation by some, and sincere, creative and sometimes humourous opposition by many others as well.
Maud Gonne and James Connolly combined in organising public protests. They set up a magic lantern projector in a room in Parnell Street and projected images of famine and eviction scenes across the street to a gable wall, to be seen by a large crowd of protesters in the street. The police baton-charged the crowd and one woman was killed. The protest headed down O’Connell Street, led by a hand-cart on which there was a coffin with the words ‘British Empire’ painted on it. Some protesters carried placards with slogans or with statistics of famine deaths. As they approached O’Connell Bridge the police made to stop them and there was a pitched battle. The coffin was hurled into the Liffey by the protesters to shouts of “Here goes the British Empire. To hell with the British Empire”. Connolly was arrested.
The Ladies Committee of the Patriotic Children’s Treat was formed to organise a picnic for children to counter the officially organised celebrations. Shops and bakeries and such-like contributed cakes, buns, lemonade and sweets for over 25,000 children who attended the picnic in Clonturk Park. Many of those children got their first lesson in politicisation on that day. Writing about it in his newspaper, the Workers’ Republic, James Connolly said:
“Last week we witnessed in Dublin the first political parade of the coming generation…Between twenty-five and thirty thousand children turned out and walked in processional order through the streets of the city, to show the world that British Imperialism had cast no glamour over their young minds…And that in the person of Her Britannic Majesty they recognised only a woman – no better than the mothers who bore them, if as good…It was a great sight to see the little rebels taking possession of the city – a sight more promising for the future of the country than any we can remember.”
Six years later Maud Gonne came up with another novel way of registering her opposition to the visit of King Edward VII. Living in a suburb of Dublin that was staunchly unionist at that time , Rathgar, she contrived to annoy her neighbours by hanging a pair of her black bloomers on a flag pole from a window of her house. Naturally, the police were summoned by the neighbours, but it would have taken a brave man indeed to interfere with Maud Gonne’s knickers.
We should save our rotten tomatoes for the compost, and make omelettes of our eggs. We should hold off the unfurling of our Tricolour and our Starry Plough for better days of celebration and of commemoration. We should instead, while Ms Saxe-Coburg is here, remember Maud Gonne – a great, subversive, republican woman – and emulate her.
Let black bloomers be our banner.