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"We were a bit worried about the curtsy" - Olivia O' Leary's ode to the Queen

The broadcaster and journalist gave a speech fit for a Queen at the Convention Centre in Dublin last night. There was applause for the memory of the late Garret FitzGerald and a standing ovation for her majesty.

The Queen takes in the show at the Dublin Convention Centre last night
The Queen takes in the show at the Dublin Convention Centre last night
Image: Carl de Souza/PA Wire/Press Association Images

OLIVIA O’LEARY’s speech on the Queen’s visit has been pinpointed as one of the highlights of last night’s gala event in the Convention Centre in Dublin. The broadcaster and journalist was invited to write an essay on the trip, and she joined the likes of Mary Byrne, Westlife, Eimear Quinn and Riverdance in entertaining the Queen, Prince Philip, President Mary McAleese and more than 2,000 invited guests.

Gay Byrne, the MC for the evening introduced the speech as a “way of expressing our thoughts and reactions to this most happy of happy weeks”, which he said was a “tricky sort of thing to get right” before introducing the “very-loved” Olivia O’ Leary.

O’ Leary began by confessing some fears about greeting the Queen:

We were a little bit worried about the curtsy. I met a government minister in the last few days who was up to high do. “I will not curtsy”, she said between gritted teeth, “I will not”. A sigh of relief went around official female Ireland when it was revealed that only the Queen’s own subjects are expected to curtsy. Because for those of us who live in the Irish Republic, after all, the bowing of the knee has massive symbolism as once did the playing of the British national anthem on Irish soil.

During the visit of the Queen’s great-grandfather, Edward VII, over a hundred years ago, my grandfather and his friend, medical students at the then Catholic University Medical School, lay on top of the organ in Trinity College in order to stop the playing of God Save the King. And, for their pains, according to my mother, they were thrown in jail for a whole night.

So, hearing the same British national anthem played so often over the last few days by our army bands, hearing an Irish army officer call a guard of honour to attention don Bhanríon Eilis, there was a frission, a sense of something old being laid to rest and something new beginning.

Yes, of course we’re talking only about symbols, but think of international rugby matches, and think of John Hayes, Ireland’s 19 stone tighthead prop, known as The Bull, sobbing his way through the Irish national anthem and ask yourself about the power of symbols.

And remember too, as I do, that only 20 years ago Irish presidents never visited Britain, never attended the memorial day service. The shadow of Northern Ireland hung over the relationship until successive Irish and British premiers realised that if you could cement the British-Irish relationship you could start to bring peace to Northern Ireland. And nobody I think will mind if I mention one particular name on the day that’s in it. Dr. Garret FitzGerald who died today (interrupted by applause) who spent his life opening doors for us to Europe, to Northern Ireland and to Britain, and whose legacy we can see all around us during these historic few days.

Presidents Robinson and McAleese did their bit, as did Queen Elizabeth, and this week’s visit is a symbol of how far they’ve brought us, but also maybe how far we still have to go. Because, we’re delighted to see the Queen but she’ll probably never really know. She’ll never know how much because we’re so determined still maybe even metaphorically, not to curtsy. We want to be friends, but oh, we don’t want to be seen in any way to bow the knee.

The post box that I post my letters in in Dun Laoghaire has only a thin green coat of paint over the old red crown. We’re still so sensitive. And yet here’s a petite smiling woman with her tall husband, a grandmother, paying respect to our traditions, from the moment she stepped off the plane in her wonderful green outfit, making her way valiantly around all the symbols of our shared past, our shared present in an attempt to build a friendship of equals. She made it seem so very normal and our president, for anyone worried about unseemly deference, gave her a welcome which was very warm and very Irish and very proud (interrupted by applause).

And of course the symbolism of this visit is massive because this is the Queen whose face is on the British stamps and the coins and the banknotes, suddenly alive to us in Croke Park and the Garden of Remembrance and Islandbridge, cautiously viewing a pint of Guinness, pronouncing in that inimitable voice her cupla focail.

At the train station this morning people were chatting on the platform about her speech, about how she got the ‘h’ just right in ‘a chairde’. Already, on a rock station in Dublin, they’re running her voice saying ‘agus a chairde’ as a jingle. This could be big.

But she’s more than a symbol. She’s the Queen that most of us have known most of our lives. She’s the woman who knows and loves horses as we do, and who met trainers and jockeys and horses at the National Stud today as she will at Coolmore tomorrow. And who for years rode side saddle herself at the Trooping of the Colour as we waited, fascinated, to see if she might fall off. But, she never did. The Queen does not slip.

So, it wasn’t just any Queen. This is the Queen we want to come. Not just for what she represents, but for herself. As she passed by yesterday, she waved at one excited youngster who I think caught the mood for all of us. “It’s the Queen!” she said, “oh my God, it’s the actual Queen!”.

O’Leary’s speech received a warm response from the TV Twitter audience with @Leo_Traynor commenting that “watching tonight’s event I couldn’t help thinking that one of the few people with the gravitas and decorum of Mary McAleese is Olivia O’Leary”, a sentiment which was echoed by @PowersFlowers who said “I wouldn’t mind Olivia O’Leary as our next president: she’s smart, diplomatic, grounded and funny”.

The Queen received a standing ovation when she took to the stage to greet Gay Byrne and the evening’s performers. She apparently needed no introduction to X-Factor star Mary Byrne, recognising her as the singer from the TV talent show, before exiting stage right with applause ringing in her ears.

Watch Olivia O’Leary’s speech (from 22.35) and the rest of the Convention Centre concert on the RTE Player>

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About the author:

Emer McLysaght

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