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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
Alamy Stock Photo A balcony in Brighton decorated for the Coronation of King Charles.

'A complicated history': Why are so many Irish people fascinated by the British Royal family?

Many Irish people will join in with millions globally to take in the coronation of King Charles tomorrow.

MILLIONS OF PEOPLE around the world will take in the coronation of King Charles III tomorrow, including many here in Ireland.

RTÉ One will devote four hours of coverage to the coronation on Saturday morning, something which was raised in the Dáil this week by People Before Profit’s Paul Murphy.

Speaking in the Dáil on Thursday, Murphy asked: “Why on earth is our state broadcaster spending four hours on a Saturday displaying this so-called coronation?”

So what is it that drives Ireland’s fascination with the royals?

‘It’s a word that fits’

“I’ve been lingering on the word ‘fascination’,” said John O’Connor, an assistant professor in Clinical Psychology with Trinity College Dublin when asked that question.

“There’s a kind of childlike quality to the way we see things as children, and that capacity to become fascinated remains with us as adults,” notes O’Connor.

“I think ‘fascination’ is a word that fits very well with our relationship with royalty.”

Speaking to The Journal, O’Connor said the Irish people are sometimes “fascinated with the royal family despite ourselves in a way”.

“There’s something almost deeply mythological about the idea of this kind of divine rule that, even if our minds are opposed to the existence of such a caste within our societies, there is an almost archetypal kind of attraction to it,” said O’Connor.

“Royalty and celebrity can also be almost like a sample of humanity… and we’re allowed to look in on it.

“Part of the contract is that we are permitted as spectators and on the other side, people permit our intrusion. There is a kind of social contract that is very powerful.

“We see that with the papacy too, and with religion in general, this kind of contract between the masses and a very tight, small elite.”

The royal family exists in a strange realm of celebrity. While many people look up to and want to emulate the likes of the Kardashians, very few, if any, people in Ireland want the life that Charles leads.

“In Ireland, it would be unthinkable to ourselves that we might wish to emulate the Royals, though in the UK, with some people there is a sense of emulation,” said O’Connor.

“We can never look at anything with just one mind and often we look at it with very contrasting minds,” he adds.

Sometimes, the very things that we most object to are things that we also have an interest in. It’s hard not to have the two sides of that coin.”

He also noted that as children, we grow up with the “mythology of being a prince or princess and there’s some kind of progression that happens to make the idea of coronation very attractive”.

“This captivation for children continues for adults, we have similar kinds of fantasies in a way that are covered with ‘adult logic’.”

But while O’Connor feels that many people will have “at least a side glance to what is happening”, most will not “allow ourselves to be fully captivated by it”.

‘Humans aren’t simple’

Ireland has a more fraught relationship with the British monarchy than most, but O’Connor says these things are “always more complicated than ‘yes’ or ‘no’”.

“As humans, we’re not simple. Our allegiances aren’t everything,” said O’Connor.

“In Ireland, a colonial past and the sense of injury and hurt have been the emotional situation.

“But I wonder at some level do we partly side-line that or if there is something new happening that further removes us from that kind of historical reality in a sense.”

O’Connor said part of this is a “maturing”.

“We are a little bit more confident in our nationhood and we can look at what is happening in the UK with a little more understanding in some ways and recognise that they can have their own ways.”


O’Connor also notes that part of the fascination is driven by recent scandals and with “looking in and seeing what is happening between the people on this stage”.

“There are elements of the contemporary that come into this, with the conflicts between the royals and the family in general, that means we’re looking in on with an inquiring eye as well and not entirely falling for it.”

He adds that it is a “normal thing” to follow the royals.

“There is something understandably intriguing about pageantry at that level,” O’Connor told The Journal.

“Everyone is being exposed to it across the world, and there is a kind of sense that we’re all engaged in this together.

“There’s a general escapism in that and we can lose ourselves for a moment and be taken up with something that’s taking place on another stage.”

‘Genuine interest’

Tom Felle is the head of journalism and communication at the University of Galway.

While he told The Journal that there’s a proportion of Irish people for whom the royals are simply celebrities, he added: “There’s a genuine interest and fascination in the royal family and in all things royal in Ireland and there has been pretty much for all time.

“Go back 120 years to queen Victoria and at that time we were part of the United Kingdom,” said Felle.

“She was welcomed here in Dublin with a kind of ticker tape parade, so it’s not unusual that that continues.”

Felle notes that the “royals are celebrities” and adds that if you “understand them in that sort of culture” then the fascination with them is “perfectly understandable”.

“We’re all social animals, we all spend our time consumed by various media, and the royals have tapped into that,” said Felle.

They’ve been part of the saturation coverage in magazines and news media for a long time.

“Part of this is psychology and para-social behaviour, where people really do get emotionally invested in the lives of celebrities.

“That’s explained by the anatomy of virtually everyone online, we look for escapism and to live vicariously through other people. It’s why people are interested in sport or why we like to know all about celebrities.

“The soap opera way they live their lives has always been part of the interest and the fascination with their family and that’s not changed, if anything it’s become even more intense in recent years.”

But while many are fascinated with Harry and Meghan, and with Diana before them, Felle notes that the fascination with Charles isn’t quite so strong.

“This is not necessarily scientific,” said Felle, “but I had a quick look on Google Trends.

“Harry and Meghan beat William by a distance, and while we can’t judge whether that’s positive or negative sentiment, the interest in terms of Google searches in Ireland is very much for Harry and Meghan.

“William comes next, but a long way down from that is Charles.

“So the Coronation is just another one of these events in the soap opera life of the royal family and people are interested in it generally, but I think there’s a great degree of difference in the interest between Charles and Harry and Meghan.”

When asked if this lack of interest in Charles could be damaging for the future of the monarchy, Felle said that while there are fewer and fewer monarchies globally, the “British monarchy is probably the strongest of them all”.

However, he said that the “Commonwealth was held together by the Queen, and now that she’s gone, you’re certainly going to see the end of that empire, slowly but surely, one by one”.

“During the last years of Elizabeth’s reign, we saw some pretty disastrous visits by the Royals, particularly to Jamaica in recent years,” notes Felle.

It’s been reported in the UK this week that Jamaica could hold a referendum on becoming a republic as early as next year. 

“Jamaica is looking to write a new constitution… which will sever ties with the monarch as our head of state,” Jamaica’s minister for legal and constitutional affairs Marlene Malahoo Forte told Sky News.

“Time to say goodbye,” she added. 

Speaking to The Journal, Felle said: “So I think it’s inevitable that the Commonwealth will probably shrink under Charles’ reign.

“Whether or not it leads to the immediate demise of the monarchy, I don’t see that.

“I think English people are very attached to the royal family, they believe that it’s part of their culture, their traditions.”

‘Slick media machine’

While it is much easier for other countries to follow the twists and turns of the royal family, Felle said that it is “certainly fraught” here.

Felle adds that the royal family benefits from a “very sophisticated, very slick media machine”.

“They’ve understood for a long, long time that the way to stay in the public mind is to stay on the news pages.

“That’s part of the great schism between Harry and the rest of the family, that he said that he’s not interested in being part of that anymore.”

Felle said a “complicit media in the UK” has helped achieve this end.

“I’m not saying that they don’t get criticised, but they don’t get criticised to the extent that others might be.”

‘Deep seated hatred’

TCD’s John O’Connor spoke of a “maturing” of relations and this can be evidenced by Sinn Féin vice president and Northern leader Michelle O’Neill attending the coronation.

While Tom Felle acknowledges that “for some people, there’s a deep-seated hatred, you might call it, towards the royal family”, he too sees a maturation in our approach to them.

Felle told The Journal: “For very many people, they don’t care that much about them and they believe in the republic and the idea that all of us are created equally and we should elect a president and this idea of hereditary lineage and being appointed a monarch is, for many people, anathema to democracy.

“For many Irish republicans, you can’t avoid the royal family, it’s there and in your face. But if you live in Northern Ireland and I think Michelle O’Neill is a good example of this, there’s been a maturing of Irish republicanism in the last quarter century, where you can be republican and not be offended by another person’s traditions and another person’s values on the same island.

“I think the decision by Michelle O’Neill to go to the coronation was an important one. It demonstrated a maturity, in the same way that Martin McGuinness showed maturity when he met with queen Elizabeth.”

Felle said as First Minister Designate in the North, Michelle O’Neill “represents all the people in Northern Ireland and in that context, it is right for her to accept that invitation to go”.

“I don’t think that makes her less of a republican,” adds Felle.

“I think many republicans would say that their interest in the royal family is akin to their interest in Manchester United players or Jurgen Klopp, it’s a bit of fun but they don’t take it seriously and it doesn’t diminish their views on wanting to determine their own destiny on the island of Ireland and being united.

“Irish republicanism has matured and is comfortable in its own skin because of the past 25 years.”

‘Striking a balance’

Meanwhile, Felle told The Journal that the Irish media in general “does a good job of striking a balance in its coverage”.

“It’s one of the big stories of the week,” said Felle, “but not the only one and there are many other issues.

“It will certainly make front page picture news at the weekend but it will get the coverage that it probably deserves in Ireland, no more or less.”

However, he said the same won’t be able to be said for the UK if the coverage of the death of queen Elizabeth is anything to go by.

“That was a good example of where there really wasn’t balanced coverage in the UK,” said Felle.

There were questions to be asked of her reign, the mistakes and missteps and so on, that really weren’t reported.

“I think the Irish media probably are that bit more distanced, and of course there will be tabloid fodder in who’s wearing what and there’s going to be a certain amount of celebrity watching at the coronation.

“But I think by and large, the Irish media do a reasonably good job. There are other more important, pressing issues in Ireland right now, with housing and health care being the obvious ones.

“I think this will get its fair share of coverage, but I don’t see that it’s going to take over the newspapers.

“I don’t foresee RTÉ giving over an entire episode of the news to it, in the way that Joe Biden visiting Ireland did get wall-to-wall coverage.

“So I think it will get some coverage certainly, but I don’t think it will be over the top.”

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