Welcoming eyes of friendship shine through the pomp

Two nations let out a most hearfelt and longed for sigh of relief

At the end of a very special day, they raised their glasses and toasted the future.

A good future.

One that many Irishmen and women thought they would never see – the queen of England and the President of Ireland raising a glass to each other in the gilded banqueting hall of Windsor Castle.

"We are walking together towards a brighter, more settled future," said Queen Elizabeth.


Honoured guest
"However long it may have taken, Your Majesty, I can assure you that this first state visit of a President of Ireland to the United Kingdom is a very visible sign of the warmth and maturity of our relationship between our two countries," said her honoured guest.

They represent two countries transforming “shadow to shelter”, as the President put it.

This was the happiest of occasions. You could sense it from the queen and from the President.

It was two nations letting out a most heartfelt and longed for sigh of relief.

This was the best mutual admiration society ever. All that was missing was the theme tune from Neighbours .

Here’s the queen again in full sash and tiara mode: “We, the Irish and British, are becoming good and dependable neighbours and better friends; finally shedding our inhibitions about seeing the best in each other.”

And here’s Michael D and his white-tie and tails, thanking his host for “the kind of generosity reflected in your words this evening that encourages us to embrace the best version of each other”.

Michael D made us feel proud yesterday. And we felt proud for him too.

Like when he stood in the Houses of Parliament in Westminster and talked of his father who fought for Irish independence, yet spoke so eloquently of moving on from the past.

In homes all over Ireland last night, people will have wondered had they heard it right when her majesty said, “My family and my government will stand alongside you, Mr President, and your Ministers, throughout the anniversaries of the war and of the events that led to the creation of the Irish Free State.”

Speeches for the history books.

With full royal ceremony to cement them in.

Although, as so often happens when friends finally settle down, the quiet moments resonate most.

First the boisterous show and then the solemn substance.

It came to pass in Dublin three years ago, when Queen Elizabeth laid a wreath in the stilly silence of the Garden of Remembrance.

And again yesterday in Westminster Abbey, when President Michael D Higgins paused by the entrance to St George's Chapel to pay his respects to Lord Mountbatten.

As if to underline the symbolism of the act, the Great West Doors swung open and bathed the scene in light as the President and his wife Sabina took their places.

Completing the circle. But not quite. That was achieved at last night’s white-tie state banquet in Windsor Castle where the Irish guest of honour told his royal host: “This present occasion, which completes a circle begun by your historic visit three years ago, marks the welcome transformation in relations between our countries over recent years.”

Michael D raised his glass in a toast “to valued neighbours whose friendship we truly cherish”.

Grand celebration
It was a grand celebration last night, in every sense of the word. A meeting of friends. "The shadow of our past has become the shelter of our present," he said, nearing the end of a sparkling first day of lyrical flourishes.

The day began at the Irish Embassy in London, and the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall kindly escorted the honoured guests from London to Windsor Castle, with Charles delivering Michael D bang on time for his historic midday rendezvous with the queen.

The ceremonial welcome took place at a special pavilion on a road on the outskirts of the town. The principals arrived by limousine and left by carriage, with the 275-strong Household Cavalry leading the way.

It was a stirring sight – the plumes and swords and glinting breastplates, men in velvet kneebreeches and men in tricorn hats and bowler hats, the swords, maces, swagger sticks and one officer, known as the “Silver Stick in Waiting”, cutting quite a dash.

This was history according to schedule.

At the appointed hour, the queen moved towards the front of the dias to greet her guest. President Higgins stepped from his car and mounted the steps. When they shook hands, church bells rang, a 21-gun salute rang out from Windsor and 41 cannons went off in Hyde Park for good measure.

Then the Irish national anthem.

With Michael D standing there proudly, chest out, and the guns still sounding in the distance, some of us were feeling just a little weepy.

They moved off in procession through the town – the queen and President, the Duke of Edinburgh and Sabina and look, there's Prince Charles in an open carriage with Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, and him waving and looking like he was born to it.

A crowd always turns out to see the pageantry on occasions like this. And while neither England, nor London, came to a standstill for this hugely important occasion to us, there was still a sizeable Irish contingent in Windsor.

James Nolan and Gerry Arthur were heading along to stand outside the Three Brewers pub and watch the President of Ireland pass. James is originally from outside Athenry and is 40 years in Britain. He worked in Heathrow most of his life.

Gerry is originally from Ballycarr in Clare and is 44 years in England. "I'm from the same village as the President" he tells us. "I went to school with him." And was he smart? "Ah, he was clever, I can tell ya!"

They both married Irish girls.

“I think this is very historic and I hope it goes off well. It’s given the Irish community a huge boost,” said Gerry. “But I don’t know what to think about Martin McGuinness,” added James.

Down the road a little, Maura Hoskins, originally from Carlow but now living in Maidenhead, has her folding chair and is waiting for her sister Sadie Reddy, living in London, to come back from WH Smith with safety pins to stop their flag from blowing away from the barrier.

Maura is 50 years away and Sadie is 52 years gone. “We go back and forth all the time. It’s still home,” says Maura.

“We just never though we’d see an Irish President sit with the queen in one of her nice homes. I’m so excited about it.”

The sisters, both mothers of three, say it’ll be “emotional”.

Up at the castle, there is more ceremony. And a new jacket from the President for Domhnall, mascot of the Irish Guards.

The band plays some of Moore’s melodies.

As the town clears, there are a lot of English-tinged Irish accents about. Lots of Irish-looking faces. (And that's not counting the hordes from RTÉ. Marty Morrissey must be the only man left in Montrose.)

London-based barrister Lorcan Walsh left Mayo over 25 years ago. He does a lot of work for Irish charities in his spare time.

“This is a big day for a lot of the Irish here. It’s a day of maturity for the Irish community – no longer in the background, but holding their head high.”

Lorcan has a Mayo flag to hold high too, and his 11-year-old London-born son John is wearing his Mayo jersey.

In the the afternoon, the visit to Westminster Abbey begins with reflection at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior and ends at the brass memorial to Mountbatten. In between, there is a visit to Poets' Corner.

Then to the Houses of Parliament. “Mr President, you could not be more welcome here than you are today,” the speaker of the House of Commons says. “You are a renaissance man for a renaissance era in UK/Irish politics”, says the speaker of the House of Lords.

In a wonderful address, Michael D speaks of “A closeness that once seemed unachievable.”

This theme continues to the banquet in the eye-watering opulence of Windsor, where leading lights of the Irish diaspora, along with some homegrown stars, dine at a table the length of an airport runway. A total of 77 people sitting opposite each other, with three at each end. Charles and Camilla both have special cushions at their backs.

But for all the lavish hospitality, the pomp and ceremony, the vintage wines and the gowns, the VIP guests and grandeur, it’s that theme of friendship which shines forth.

And long may it continue.