March 16

Crown and Shamrock: So Close, Yet So Far Away


[ It is most  appropriate that on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day we publish Simon Frame’s review of Mary Kenny’s excellent book, Crown and Shamrock  referred to in an earlier column, “Will Ireland be won over by The Queen during her State Visit?” 16 May 2011 ]

“May the union of hearts endure in the family”

The above quotation comes from the dedication in Mary Kenny’s book Crown and Shamrock: love and hate between the Ireland and the British Monarchy which I now review in time for St Patricks Day.

Mary Kenny represents the best of modern Irish journalism and academia. She was a founding member of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement and a writer for such publications as the Irish Independent, the Times and the Spectator. From a traditional Irish Catholic family she is married to an Englishman and spends her time between Eire and the UK. Mary Kenny was the writer best positioned – nay destined – to write this work.

For reasons of disclosure I admit I am an unabashed fan of this work and its author.  In 2008 when I was on a trip to the UK I was offered the chance to see her award winning play ‘Allegiance’ about an invented and purely fictional meeting between Winston Churchill (played by the actor Mel Smith) and Michael Collins (played by the talented Irish-German film-star Michael Fassbender) and set on the eve of the end of the Anglo-Irish War of the early 1920’s. To my subsequent but great regret I had to decline.

Much has been written, on both sides of the divide, about the Crown as a legal institution and the Irish people as the body politic of the nation, but this work is one of the most important studies of Anglo-Irish relations through the prism of the Monarchy and Royal Family on the one hand and the Irish people on the other.

Mary Kenny and her work bestride those divides and take a fresh and innovative look at the relationship between the Crown and the (Irish) people, and more importantly their dual histories.

As someone of both Catholic and Protestant Irish heritage myself I look at the failure of British policy in Ireland, the extremism of Irish republicans over the many decades and the lack foresight on both sides, and I cannot help but mourn the loss of Ireland from the Royal Realms and the Commonwealth. Ireland is truly the lost sister of the Commonwealth family.

Reading Mary’s sober and well researched book, I’m glad to see that I was not alone in my views. Mary Kenny is scrupulously neutral in any argument about Monarchism vs. Republicanism, but her work makes clear that Monarchism is a system based firmly in constitutionalism but also renewal through the family element. We have seen this recently with the surge of popularity given the recent marriage of Prince William of Wales of Catherine Middleton.

Whilst it is easy to romanticise the past, it is far more important to study it and draw lessons from it. I have always thought of modern Britain and Ireland like the branches of a great fig tree:  the branches have diverged but its trunk and roots are completely linked. There are no constitutional connections between the United Kingdom and the republic of Ireland today, but the social, cultural, family, defence and business connections between the two nations are now thoroughly, and probably irrevocably, interwoven.

Anecdotally when back in 1996 I spent a week in the Republic of Ireland sailing at Royal Cork Week, I asked an official at the event why a republic would still have a ‘Royal’ sailing week? She responded that the UK government paid for Ireland’s coastal emergency services and that it was to honour this that Ireland had kept the ‘Royal’ honour for both the Cork Sailing Club and for Irelands most prestigious sailing event.

…from Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth….

The chapters of this book, available from the Book Depository, are divided into the reigns of Monarchs from Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II. There is “brief history” of Anglo-Irish relations upto the reign of Queen Victoria, but the theme of family in Ireland is mirrored in the fact that this works charts relations between Irish people and the Irish Crown from roughly the time the Monarchy was remodelled around the family unit during the era of Victoria and her consort Albert.

Chapter One is entitled Victoria: Great Empress or Famine Queen and highlights the thoroughly reciprocal love-hate relationship between the Queen and her Irish subjects. It also looks at the root of Irish-American antagonism to Great Britain, this is despite the fact that for Irishman in Australia, Canada and in New Zealand that their narrative was often one of loyalty and enterprise.

It was during Queen Victoria’s reign that some of the most strident efforts towards Home Rule for Ireland were made, with wiser heads such a Charles Parnell arguing for an independent Ireland with the Crown retained. Indeed Mary Kenny quotes the famous Irish Catholic nationalist Daniel O’Connell who described the Monarchy as a “golden link”.

For Australian readers it will be interesting to note that the statue that stands outside the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney was originally designed for – and rested in – the forecourt of Leinster House in Dublin where the Dail or parliament of the Irish Free State and later Republic is now housed.

This can be noted on the statue in one small but telling feature, hardly discernable for the average Sydneysider walking past the statue: Queen Victoria wears the collar, badge, star and sash of the Irish Order of Chivalry, the Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick on her person.

As someone of Irish heritage I do enjoy seeing here in Sydney a statue, not of the Queen of Great Britain and Empress of India, but of the Queen of Ireland in her regalia with the harp and shamrock motifs plain to see for all. Indeed as an Australian of Irish heritage I, and any other Australian, can well sympathise with James Joyce’s evaluation of  the then late Edward VII in 1914: “He’s fond of a glass of grog, and he’s a bit of rake perhaps, but he’s a good sportsman!”

The next chapter is about Edward VII or “popish Ned” the nickname bestowed by Northern Protestants on Edward VII. This was given to the King because of his thoroughly correct and well mannered behaviour shown towards past Pontiffs when he had visited Rome during his travels. But it also reflects the King’s view that he didn’t view his subjects along sectarian divides.  Edward VII was known for advancing the careers of those who showed talent whether they were of Jewish, Catholic or Protestant faith. Indeed a hall mark of the Monarchy since the time of the Queen Victoria has been a tolerance and encouragement of religious diversity both within Great Britain and her then Empire.

…Crown Jewels…


When studying the reign of Edward VII Mary Kenny looks into a another fascinating but as yet unexplained and unsolved chapter of the Monarchy in Ireland with the theft of “Irish Crown Jewels”. These were the jewelled insignia of the Order of St Patrick which were for Royal use only. These jewels had been in the Crowns possession since the time of George III.

The story of the theft, the investigation(or lack thereof) and the subsequent conspiracy theories – as Mary Kenny notes – continue to stimulate debate and media comment  both written and online to this very day about this murky crime.

The period of the reign of Edward VII had in fact been the last chance for Ireland to receive Home Rule and become a dominion of Great Britain ie for the Crown to remain an Irish institution. This was before the radicalism of Sinn Fein and their more brutal leftist ideology came to the fore.


In the next chapter, George V: Revolution and Partition we see Great Britain and Ireland go their separate ways, despite the fact they were symbolically linked by the Crown much to the resentment of Irish republicans who launched a civil war, killing many of their own countryman in an attempt to get their own way. The last flourish of Monarchy in Ireland was the “fabulously, ceremonial” visit in the beautiful Irish Summer of 1911 by George V and Queen Mary who took their two eldest children with them – a wise move in a country in which family is everything.

On that visit Their Majesties were received courteously at the centre of Irish Catholic learning at Maynooth College, by one Danial Mannix, the future Archbishop Mannix, who is rightly regarded as one of the most influential Australians of all time.

Mary Kenny points out that the Royal Visit of 1911 was copied almost completely by the Irish Free State when in 1932 they hosted the Catholic Church’s Eucharist Congress. The honours bestowed on the visiting prelates were based on those for members of the Royal Family at past events.

Kenny has a more serious look at the governmental and political climate in when she analyses the rise of the Catholic Church in Ireland, with its pageantry and symbolism, actually filled the void left by the absence of the Monarchy and the Viceregal Court in Dublin. She also strays into perhaps what is for some controversial territory by questioning the Catholic churches role in Ireland and the rise in its influence, while constitutional and democratic symbols – such as the Crown  – were disregarded. When discussing an Irish republican she notes that he “had no difficulty in bending a knee to Bishop; but had great difficulty at saluting a King.” A perceptive observation on her part.

What is most interesting in the narrative is that Mary Kenny shows us that the Irish people seemed to have an affinity with the Royal Family. This was due to the importance that Irish society stressed on family as an institution in its own right, and one which the Royal family – in both in a constitutional and moral sense – was the ultimate expression of. When in our country the Prime Minister of the day, Paul Keating touched upon his Irish Catholic heritage he seemed to link his republicanism and republic cause to that most base of political strategies: sectarianism.

…Catholics and the Australian Crown…

Much to the shock of many, including the likes of Mr Keating no doubt, ACM found that some of its most stalwart supporters weren’t ‘WASPs’ (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) at all, but rather people who had come to Australia from failed states, those states who’s leaders had indulged sectarian or racial politics.

This was – to his surprise – something that ACM’s Director of the time and a man of the Roman Catholic faith himself, one Tony Abbott admitted in interviews. In Mr Keating’s case his style of government was overwhelmingly rejected in 1996, as was his pipe dream of a republic in 1999.

The reign of Elizabeth II covers in part the ‘The Troubles’, that period in Northern Ireland – and the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland – when sectarianism led to violence and terrorism. As Mary Kenny notes, once again the Royal Family as a family were as close to the suffering of any Protestant or Catholic family in Ireland when Lord Mountbatten, who was a cousin of the Queen and the uncle of Prince Philip was assassinated in 1979.

Lord Mountbatten used to holiday in the Republic of Ireland and the IRA saw him as a high profile target. Lord Mountbatten and three others innocents were murdered in the terrorist atrocity. Crown and Shamrock was originally published in 2009. As such the Epilogue of this book covered the question: would the Queen ever visit Ireland? The writer argued very correctly that the Queen wanted to visit Ireland to help normalise relations and that such a visit would be a coming of age for the Irish Republic: a mark of parity between the UK and Eire.

What was interesting is that Kenny also made points in this epilogue about the fact that the narrative of the Irish Republic is not exclusively republican.  Indeed perhaps somewhat cheekily this author – who was at one time a left wing radical – wistfully questions whether the break between the Crown and the Irish people is indeed final.

Of course Mary’s views turned out to be absolutely correct as the Queens visit to Ireland last year proved. As such, and as a fan of the book, I can only hope one day we see a new edition to this book where Ms Kenny evaluates the visit to Ireland by one of the world’s most popular and respected Heads of State. This book is thoroughly researched and referenced which is always the mark of the good author.

Crown and Shamrock adds another spectrum to our understanding of the institution, that is the Constitutional Monarchy, that we serve and protect. As well as hoping that there is another edition of this book in the future I would hope that one day there is a chapter in this work – or the subject of another work maybe –  that talks of the experiences of those Irish men and woman – both Catholic and Protestant – who moved to countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand and who continued to be subjects of the Crown.

For their story, surely just as much as the stories of any citizen of Dublin, Cork or Belfast is a story of Ireland and the Monarchy.

Crown and Shamrock, love and hate between Ireland and the British Monarchy by Mary Kenny is available from the Book Depository for $23.65, which includes free delivery. All prices are at the time of writing this review.

By following the above links and purchasing the book, your buy will help benefit ACM directly, and as with all orders from the Book Depository postage is free.


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