Chutney and jam maker Tracey Toner didn’t know she was meeting royalty until a few hours before King Charles and Queen Camilla arrived at Armagh’s Market Place Theatre on Thursday morning.
“The brief I got was: ‘it’s big, there could be TV cameras, wear your lippy’,” she tells The Irish Times, hooting with laughter.
By noon, the newly crowned British monarch was chatting to Toner about the dandelion jelly she makes in her Markethill kitchen in Co Armagh for the one-woman Lush Larder business she set up before the pandemic.
Mystery had surrounded the identity of those visiting the cathedral city – the ancient pre-Christian capital of Ulster – after a memo was issued by the local council to artisan food producers, musicians and dancers inquiring about their availability on May 25th for a “VIP event”.
Wearing a shirt dress with images of Queen’s Guard soldiers outside Buckingham Palace, Toner chatted with the Royal couple alongside a farming family who dispatch a pallet of their Ballylisk cream cheese to Fortnum & Mason (reportedly the late Queen Elizabeth’s favourite department store in London) every Monday.
On what is the second day of the Royal couple’s visit to the North – their first official trip outside England since the coronation earlier this month – King Charles returned to the theatre that he opened 23 years ago as Prince of Wales.
Prior to his arrival and pre-sound check, Irish dancers are applying make-up beside the Weihong Tu Chinese Dancers who are helping each other into their scarlet satin costumes on the theatre’s ground floor; in a corner two kilted Field Marshal Montgomery pipe band members tap a wooden table with their drumsticks while Bollywood and Scottish Highland dancers practice their routines.
“It’s an inclusivity concert, we’re doing Riverdance with the pipe band and then the Scottish dancers will come on – it’s all about fusion. We’re all a bit nervous but we were delighted to be asked,” says Kathy O’Connor of Trim The Velvet Irish dance school.
Her head tilted upside down combing freshly curled hair, Irish dancer Myfanwy Carville has been up since 6.30am.
“We’ve been practising our routine for months – but haven’t actually met anyone we’re dancing with until this morning so it’s really exciting. It’s not every day you dance before a king and queen,” she says.
It is the 41st visit by Charles to Northern Ireland and the day began with a meeting of the main Christian denominations at the Church of Ireland’s St Patrick’s Cathedral where the congregation listened to the church’s choir – the only voluntary Cathedral choir in Ireland with a history going back to the ninth century.
“I have been a chorister for over 40 years with St Patrick’s,” says Paul Reaney, “my brother was also here this morning and my son came back from Cardiff especially to sing. It was a lovely service, very intimate.”
Sinn Féin MP for Newry and Armagh, Mickey Brady, was among those meeting the king outside the Cathedral:
“He was clued into the election, and said, ‘you’d a good election’. He was asking about Michelle [O’Neill] and said to pass on his regards,” Mr Brady tells The Irish Times.
“For me, it is bizarre to be here today. As an Irish republican, the whole concept of royalty is anathema to me. But it is all part of the reconciliation process.”
Schoolchildren from across the city are lined up to greet the couple as they make their way to the stage to loud applause.
Some of those present were due to sit GCSE exams earlier in the morning – one chorister was to take his physics paper but was given an exemption to sit in this afternoon – and the king quips that if they do not pass, it’s because they are attending his visit.
One of the youngest performers on stage – and who Camilla asks to get a picture with – is 10-year-old Grace Zhong, an award-winning gymnast and dancer from Templepatrick, Co Antrim.
“I only found out last night that the king and queen were visiting and I did my umbrella gymnastic dance. I did feel a wee bit nervous but I’ve done plenty of things in front of lots of people so it was okay. The Queen asked me if I liked dancing and we had a chat.”
As the artisan food stalls are packed up outside the theatre, Toner sits down behind a big basket of Co Armagh Bramley apples:
“I was very surprised at how down-to-earth and interested they were in our produce.
“I was telling them about how I forage for dandelions and how my flavours change with the seasons. We were all there talking to them ... they’re royal but they’re human.”