A peculiarly British institution

THE Royal Christmas Message is a peculiarly British institution. It was first proposed by Scotsman John Reith, the father of UK broadcasting, in 1922 but King George V dismissed radio as mere entertainment with no value as a tool of statecraft. It was a decade before he was persuaded to change his mind. The first Message was written by Rudyard Kipling and heard by 20 million people around the world. There was no Message in 1938 because of the abdication of Edward VIII. The speech impediment that afflicted his successor, George VI, was the subject of a splendid feature film in 2010 which laid bare the dreadful snobbery of the Royal court in 1939.

His daughter Queen Elizabeth II delivered her first Message in 1952 and it had become a television institution by 1957. However it returned to radio in 1963 because she was expecting Prince Edward and there was uproar in 1969 when no Message was broadcast at all. The Palace issued a hasty written statement assuring the nation the programme would return in 1970. Northern Ireland got its first mention in 1972 and the Remembrance Day bomb in Enniskillen prompted an appeal for tolerance and forgiveness in 1987.

In its early years the Message was delivered live but these days it is recorded well in advance. The Queen has earned the title ‘one-take-Windsor’ because she unfailingly plays her part without error. However on one occasion the Message had to be re-recorded because of a chirping bird in the garden at Buckingham palace. Unlike the Queen’s Speech to parliament, which outlines a government’s legislative plans, the Christmas Message to the nation is a lightweight affair. The monarch’s constitutional position does not permit her to express a personal political opinion, so expect no more than the usual expressions of festive goodwill, global concern and perhaps a titbit of Royal family gossip as you munch the mince pies and enjoy her 67th broadcast.

Her Majesty has discharged this duty to the Commonwealth under every prime minister since Winston Churchill. Pay no attention to those idle commentators who speculate that this year may be her last Message or that it is an imperial anachronism with little appeal outside of a misguided merry England. There are many in Ireland who will tune-in to listen to the broadcast and not just those in unionist circles in the north where the monarchy is a sacred institution. Outside of hard line republican circles there remains a residue of regard for Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family throughout this island. She has visited Northern Ireland 24 times and spoke Irish in Dublin Castle during a state visit to the republic in 2011. It was the first royal visit since Irish independence and is considered a key moment in cementing more cordial relations between Ireland and the UK. She shook hands with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness in 2012 when he was Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.

The attitudes and the peoples of Ireland and Britain have long been intertwined. The Duke of Wellington was an Irishman and thousands of the troops he commanded at Waterloo were from this island. Thousands more fought for the King during The Great War and some of Britain’s greatest military leaders during the Second World War were Irish. Field marshal Bernard Montgomery was raised at the family home of Frenchpark in Donegal, field marshal Alan Brooke was one of the Fighting Brookes of Fermanagh and field marshal Harold Alexander was of plantation stock from Tyrone. Paddy Mayne from Newtownards was a founder of the SAS and Brendan Bracken from Tipperary was one of Winston Churchill’s most trusted advisers. Andy Hart, project manager for the proposed Royal Irish museum in Belfast, tells me many Irishmen from the Republic are still serving with British forces today including the most dangerous postings like Afghanistan.

British politics has long been influenced by Ireland and you only have to read the latest news to understand that Brexit will be shaped fundamentally by the needs of the Irish north and south. Even the British conservative party is nicknamed the Tory party after the old Irish word ‘torai’ which means an outlaw. While place names in the south, such as Queenstown and Kingstown, were changed after independence some Royal institutions survived. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is a charity which provides a life-saving service all around the Irish coast though its headquarters are at Poole in Dorset. The Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin is regarded as the single most important artists’ organisation in the history of Irish art. The Royal Irish Academy in Dublin is a meeting place for top academics from across the arts and sciences and undertakes valuable research projects. The Royal Dublin Society owes its origins to the drive for a better understanding of agriculture. It holds an annual spring show but also provides a venue for concerts, exhibitions and lectures at Ballsbridge.

There are many Irish people who have enjoyed enormous success in Britain even becoming national treasures like Val Doonican, Terry Wogan and Bob Geldof. Some have accepted honours from the Queen. Many English people have settled quite happily in the Republic including Tony Blair’s father-in-law Tony Booth who died here in 2017. The complexity of relations between the peoples of these islands is endlessly fascinating and those who believe in stereotypes are narrow-minded fools. Acceptance of duality has of course come at a price for many. The great novelist Elizabeth Bowen came from Anglo-Irish stock in Cork. She said she only felt at home on the Holyhead ferry because in Britain she was treated as Irish and in Ireland she was treated as British. Richard Harris, the great thespian from Limerick, said he could never understand the English newspapers. “When I was nominated for an Oscar they described me as a great British actor. When I was up for drunken driving I was always an Irish actor.”

Like the Queen’s Christmas Message, British attitudes to Ireland and Irish attitudes to Britain are peculiar institutions.

© Maurice Neill 2019