‘A Uachtaráin, agus a chairde’: Ex-diplomat recalls how Queen Elizabeth’s famous words in Irish ‘almost ended up in the bin’

British diplomat rediscovered a handwritten note used by the queen for the famous introduction to her speech

Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the Republic in 2011 could be summed up in the five short words as Gaeilge that she uttered at the banquet in Dublin Castle: “A Uachtaráin, agus a chairde” (president and friends).

The queen’s phonetically perfect beginning to her historic speech came to exemplify a visit that King Charles III said was one of the highlights of her 70 years on the throne.

The phrase didn’t nearly happen as president Mary McAleese noted in her memoir, Here’s the Story, which was published last year.

During preparations for the visit, Mrs McAleese made the suggestion that the queen would say a few words at the start of her speech in Irish to “set to rest so much historic angst and resentment around the dire treatment of the language by the British when they were in power in Dublin Castle”.


However, British officials appeared to veto it, fearing that if the queen mangled her pronunciation it would be all that would be remembered about her speech. “I left the matter in her majesty’s hands and entirely to her discretion, fully accepting that she would have her own good reasons for or against,” Mrs McAleese recalled.

She later assumed the words were off the agenda, but then Francis Campbell, a Co Down Catholic who was also a British diplomat, came to visit her in Áras an Uachtaráin a week before the visit and they had lunch together.

Mr Campbell asked the then president to write out the words phonetically just in case. He pulled out a piece of paper and she wrote the words out first in Irish and then phonetically – “a ook tar oin aug us a hardje”.

Mrs McAleese had no expectation the queen would ever use them – hence her famous “wow” when the queen actually did use the phrase.

What happened to the piece of paper it was written on? Therein hangs a tale.

After the visit, Mr Campbell wrote a diplomatic note on the visit for the UK foreign office. He considered the document and others as just “rough work notes” and that that the only thing that mattered was the written report he compiled.

He was in a rush, too, as he was due to take up a posting as the British ambassador to Pakistan the following week.

“That could have easily have been thrown in the bin. It’s the professional document, not the handwritten note, that was important,” he said.

He was approached by journalist Flor MacCarthy, the editor of a book, The Presidents’ Letters: An Unexpected History of Ireland, which was published earlier this year. She was told the story by Mrs McAleese and inquired off Mr Campbell as to the whereabouts of the handwritten note.

“I hadn’t given it much thought until Flor contacted me following her chat with Mary. I couldn’t quite remember where it was. It just so happens that for some reason it got caught up in all my notes and that is where I found it,” he said.

Though as a Northern Catholic with a foot in both camps as an Irishman and British diplomat, even he didn’t think much about the historic significance of the document.

“Sometimes you are living through history and you don’t know it. The note has taken on a greater significance, let me put it to you that way.”

Mr Campbell has since left the British diplomatic service and is now the vice-chancellor of the University of Notre Dame in Australia.

He said after the queen’s funeral he will give some consideration to what might happen to the handwritten note. “It may end up in an official archive somewhere,” he said.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times