Turtle Bunbury

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By Turtle Bunbury

Leeson Street Bridge, Dublin, April 4th 1900.

Thomas Pile, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, took his seat and glanced anxiously around. At either side sat his allies in Dublin Corporation, the 32 men who taken his side when he had proposed giving a formal welcome to Queen Victoria. Absent were the 22 Corporation members who, loyal to Irish nationalism, had opposed Pile’s motion. Also missing was James Egan, the man to whom the Corporation had entrusted the civic sword. Egan, a lifelong Fenian, had refused to present the sword to the Queen and resigned.[i]

It had been a trying period for Irish nationalism, not least because Pile himself, a wealthy Dublin fishmonger, had been elected as a Nationalist.[ii]

Pile threw his eyes skywards and looked at the massive 70 foot high tower billowing in the breeze above his head. The tower was a hasty construction, a timber frame covered in canvas and then painted to look like a 15th century stone castle. But then again nearly everything about Queen Victoria’s visit to Dublin had been hasty.

The Royal visit of 1900 became the subject of renewed focus ahead of Queen Elizabeth II's visit of May 2011. A file of 200 previously unseen letters, memos and telegrams relating to the event also emerged. The file, which is in the possession of ‘an Irishman living in the United States’, includes missives from staff at the Office of Public Works, Dublin Castle (the headquarters of British rule in Ireland) and the Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) Harbour Commissioners. It was due to be sold by Whyte’s auctioneers on Saturday April 16th 2011 with an asking price of €400-€600. However, in a curious twist, the State’s OPW intervened at the last minute, claiming the file had been taken illegally and that it was effectively State property.

Much of the content of the file has already become public knowledge in recent weeks. They reveal the true extent of the chaos behind the Queen’s visit, along with worries about the high cost of the decorations and security.

It was, the Queen said, her own idea. She had not visited Ireland for 39 years. And while she normally spent April in the French Riviera, the 81-year-old widow felt an informal sojourn in Dublin would be good for her health.[iii]

The announcement caught everybody off guard. The Queen was known to be deeply uneasy about Ireland. In 1849, an Irishman tried to assassinate her and in the 1870s, she was greatly upset when the Fenians tried to blow up a statue of her beloved Albert which stood outside Leinster House.[iv]

But Her Majesty was coming to Ireland and there was less than three weeks to prepare.

As the OPW file reveals, one of the biggest headaches for the organizers of the visit was the whereabouts of the Royal yacht, the Victoria and Albert, which seemingly vanished just days before the Queen’s departure for Ireland.[v] When the OPW contacted the British Admiralty in London for details, they were informed that the Royal yacht was already in Dublin. After 48 hours of much confusion, the Admiralty admitted that, unbeknownst to them, the yacht was in fact anchored off the south east of England.[vi]

The OPW also got into a considerable flap over the construction of a new wooden pier and pavilion at Kingstown pier (Dun Laoghaire) where the Queen would take her first steps. The carpentry was deemed ‘most unsatisfactory.’ However, the builders insisted they had done ‘their best under circumstances of exceptional pressure’ and refused to accede to demands that they reduce their bill.

There were also grave concerns over the ‘very high’ cost of decorations for the pier, which were provided by the Switzer department store on Grafton Street. The Harbour Commissioners were also much perturbed when a Southampton flag maker refused to supply the requisite flags because ‘we are so busy.’

At 2:15pm on Tuesday 3rd April, the Royal yacht dropped anchor in Dun Laoghaire harbour. At that precise moment, one hundred canons boomed out across Dublin Bay.[vii] The exceptional quality of the craft in the harbour that afternoon was something of an optical illusion; the OPW file details a wily plan to fill the harbour with ‘better class yachts’ ahead of the Royal visit.

As the Queen slept on board the yacht that night, the sky over Dublin exploded into the greatest fireworks display the city had yet seen.[viii] The following morning, she stepped onshore at Kingstown and was ushered straight into the pavilion to meet the first of many groups of Ireland’s dignitaries.[ix]

Everything had to be just so. According to the OPW file, the chairman of the Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford Railway Company was instructed to ‘minimize the whistling of the engines and the noise from shunting while Her Majesty was at Kingstown.’ The mailboats in the harbour were likewise requested to refrain from sounding their steam horns ‘except in case of absolute necessity.’

The Queen then set off in a convoy of four Royal carriages on a nine-mile journey from Dun Laoghaire to Phoenix Park, via Leeson Street Bridge. By all accounts, the ‘endless streets full of enthusiastic people’ (as she marvelled in her diary) presented an extraordinary spectacle. This trip was all about giving Dublin – and Dubliners – a sense of imperial identity, to make sure that every onlooker felt a part of this British-led world and that the little old woman in the Royal carriage was not just the Queen but their Queen.

Every council on the south side had gone to much cost and effort to ensure their area was in shipshape order. Bunting criss-crossed every street. Union Jacks fluttered on rooftops and gates. Royal mottos and emblems graced every pedestal and pillar. Multi-coloured bulbs were strewn across banks and factories. And all along the way, huge crowds gathered to watch and cheer, to wave their scarves and handkerchiefs and throw their hats in the air. It was, The Times claimed, ‘a display of loyalty absolutely unparalleled in the records of public rejoicing’ with marching bands and hundreds of scarlet-dressed cavalry adding to the wonderfully choreographed sense of occasion.[x]

Not everyone agreed. Those who cheered were lambasted as traitors by W.B. Yeats. Others questioned why the Queen was not shown the city’s northside where upwards of 200,000 slum-dwellers were living in abject poverty.[xi]

A large element of Irish nationalists also did not buy into the concept that the Queen’s visit was for the good of her health. Maud Gonne maintained the Queen had taken ‘a shamrock into her withered hand’ solely to stimulate recruitment of Irish soldiers into the British Army.[xii] Thousands of Irishmen had already died in the war then raging between Britain and the Boers in South Africa.

In 1899, Gonne and Arthur Griffith co-founded the Irish Transvaal Committee.[xiii] Amongst their high calibre members were Yeats, James Connolly, Michael Davitt, Willie Redmond and the veteran Fenian John O’Leary. Over the ensuing months they held a number of pro-Boer rallies in Dublin which had led to a notable decline in the numbers volunteering for service.

For the Queen’s visit, there was a large increase in military and police presence in the city. There was to be zero tolerance for protests, particularly from the Irish Transvaal Committee. When Gonne and her supporters gathered for a torchlight procession on the night the Queen reached Dublin, they were charged by baton-wielding Dublin Metropolitan Police and reputedly sent fleeing with faces ‘as black as those of Christy Minstrels.’[xiv]

The following day, The United Irishman, a Nationalist newspaper edited by Griffith, published an article by Gonne called ‘The Famine Queen’ in which she castigated the ‘vile and selfish’ monarch for presiding over an ‘organised famine.’ The police managed to seize most copies of the paper early that morning. Griffith’s office was raided and, as an indirect consequence of Gonne’s article, the future founder of Sinn Fein was sentenced to two weeks imprisonment.[xv]

Dublin Corporation also posed a possible security problem when 22 of the 54 members voted against welcoming the Queen.[xvi] However, with Lord Mayor Pile at the head, the majority of the Corporation towed the line, content with the idea of Home Rule and Ireland remaining part of the Empire.

At Leeson Street Bridge, the Queen’s representative formally requested permission to enter the city. The Lord Mayor duly offered ‘a most hearty welcome’ and Victoria was presented with the civic sword and the ancient city keys.[xvii]

The Queen stayed at the Vice-Regal Lodge for the next twenty nights, riding around Phoenix Park in a pony-chair most days, visiting a series of schools, convents, hospitals and aristocratic mansions in between. On April 7th she attended a ‘Patriotic Children’s Treat’ in the park where 52,000 children were given sandwiches, biscuits and fruit. (The following July, Gonne retaliated by organising a pro-Boer fete attended by nearly 30,000.)

For monarchy and imperialism, the Queen’s three-week visit was a massive success despite the odds.[xviii] Even the Freeman’s Journal admired ‘the pluck of the little old lady’ who had ‘conquered her repugnance towards Ireland in order to put in a stroke for her Army, her Empire and her Throne.’

Queen Victoria departed from Kingstown in glorious sunshine on 26th April.[xix] To Lord Mayor Pile she said, 'I am very sorry to leave Ireland. I have had an extremely pleasant time.' She died less than a year later, on 22 January 1901.


[i] A dozen beefeaters in scarlet costumes stood by the mock castle gates. On a stand nearby were seated the Lord Mayor and the other members of the Dublin Corporation who had agreed to welcome the Queen. A bugler sounded his horn. And then the ceremony got underway as the Athlone Pursuivant of Arms (the assistant to the Ulster King of Arms) rode up to the city gate and knocked on them. The Lord Mayor nodded and the gates opened. The man said, ‘My Lord Mayor of Dublin, I seek admission to the City of Dublin for her Most Gracious Majesty the Queen,’ he said. Pile duly stood up and replied, On behalf of the city of Dublin, I desire to tender to the Queen a most hearty welcome to her Majesty's ancient city, and on the arrival of Her Majesty the city gates shall be thrown open on the instant’. And the keys were duly presented, a dozen 10 inch long keys on an iron chain, placed in a golden casket upon a green poplin cushion.

The Grand Canal bridge at Leeson Street was the point of the city boundary at which the Queen, having passed through the townships of Pembroke and Rathmines, was to enter Dublin.

[ii] Thomas Devereux Pile was an auctioneer, wholesale fish and game salesman and an ice merchant. He was subsequently elevated to the peerage as Baron Kenilworth.

[iii] In the middle of March, Lord Cadogan, Her Majesty’s Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, called a press conference at Dublin castle and revealed the plan.

At this time her son the Duke of Connaught was commander-in-chief of the British Army in Ireland and was an intimate of Leonie Leslie, wife of Sir John Leslie of Castle Leslie and an aunt of Winston Churchill.

[iv] In 1849, while she was heavily pregnant with her seventh child, she had narrowly avoided assassination by an Irish farm labourer from Adare. In the 1870s, the Fenians had tried to blow up a statue of her beloved Albert which stood outside Leinster House.

[v] There was much to suggest her visit would be a disaster. The Queen herself was in the last year of her life. Many were rankled that it had been 39 years since her last visit. And an increasing sway of Irish public opinion was turning against the British Empire as news leaked of the brutal treatment of Boer women and children in the South African War.

[vi] She sailed for Ireland on the 100th anniversary of the Act of Union.

[vii] On Sunday 1st of April, three days before the Queen’s arrival, “a splendid fleet appeared in Dublin Bay, embellishing that fine expanse of water to the delight of Kingstown and all the coast townships.”

According to one imperially minded witness Michael J.F. McCarthy, the city of Dublin ‘presented an appearance of rejoicing and expectation never before equalled.’

[viii] When night fell over Dun Laoghaire, all the craft in the harbour - and the Royal fleet beyond - were illuminated by electricity and gas, as well as a massive fireworks display.

[ix] She was greeted by Lord Cadogan who walked her to the Royal carriage, via a meeting with the township board of Kingstown where she was presented with a bouquet by the Chairman’s daughter. The Queen Victoria fountain in Dun Laogahire was formally opened at this time also.

Security was tight: every berth in the harbour be “examined by divers”.

[x] The Queen set off for Dublin in the last of four carriages, accompanied by two of her daughters, Princess Christian and Princess Beatrice. “Sailors and soldiers, with military bands at numerous points, lined the nine miles of road from the wharf to the Viceregal Lodge. “Bunting of every description bedecked the highways. But better than naval or military display, more inspiring than the gayest banners, were the kindly faces of innumerable Irish men, women, and children who came out to see the Queen … Most of the residents along the route had erected stands or put up additional balconies in front of their houses to view the procession.’ Such journeys were always hugely impressive and theatrical – a wonderfully choreographed procession of hundreds of beautifully dressed cavalry officers riding on horseback with utter discipline down the streets of the city. The awe-struck crowds hollered and waved handkerchiefs and scarves threw their hats in the air and clapped and cheered.

[xi] Yeats accused anyone who welcomed the Queen of dishonouring Ireland and condoning the ‘crime’ of the Boer War.

[xii] On April 1st the Queen formally created a new regiment called the Irish Guards in honour of those courageous Irishmen serving in the Boer War, particularly at Ladysmith. Indeed, her official reason for visiting Ireland was to thank the Irish soldiers for their loyalty. Others such as Griffith and Maud Gonne held that the Queen had taken ‘a shamrock into her withered hand’ in order to stimulate recruitment into the British Army. WB Yeats was inspired to write to the press complaining that she had a ‘hatred’ of Ireland and that she was symbolic of ‘an empire that is robbing the South African Republics of their liberty, as it robbed Ireland of hers.’ He later used the Queen’s visit, with its recruitment undertones, as the basis for his nationalist play Cathleen Ní Houlihan which premiered at the Abbey in 1904 with Maud Gonne in the title role.

Prince Christian, the Queen’s favourite grandson, was amongst those who later died in the Boer War.

[xiii] The Irish Transvaal Committee was based in the same office on Lower Abbey Street where Griffith would later found Sinn Fein.

[xiv] A special bronze commemorative medal was issued to all officers and men of the Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metropolitan Police. It had an effigy of "Victoria Regina" on one side while, on the reverse, the figure of Erin was to be seen welcoming the Royal Yacht into Kingstown Harbour with the Queen on board.

[xv] While defending Gonne, Griffith became embroiled in a fight with a rival editor and was sentenced to two weeks’ imprisonment for breaching the peace. The United Irishman’s office was raided on 13th April.

According to Michael JF McCarthy, a ‘fountain of wild talk and wild writing … was allowed free play in Ireland immediately prior to and during the royal visit,’ wrote

[xvi] In the weeks before her arrival, there was a heated debate within Dublin corporation as to whether they should give an address of welcome. The more militant Nationalists were dead against, convinced her so-called private visit was a recruitment drive. But ultimately they were overruled by a margin of 32 to 22. And it was the nationalist Thomas Pile, Lord Mayor of Dublin, who greeted Her Majesty. The nationalist press was determined to make it known that not everyone in the city welcomed the monarch.

[xvii] The Lord Mayor replied ‘On behalf of the city of Dublin, I desire to tender to the Queen a most hearty welcome to her Majesty's ancient city, and on the arrival of Her Majesty the city gates shall be thrown open on the instant.’ The Queen then met the leading players of Dublin Corporation, telling them, ‘I come to this fair country to seek change and rest, and to revisit scenes which recall to my mind - amongst thoughts of the losses which years must bring - the heartiest recollections of the warm-hearted welcome given to my beloved husband and children.’ She then proceeded for a late lunch with Lord and Lady Cadogan in the Viceregal Lodge (now the American Ambassador’s residence) before taking a drive around Phoenix Park before dusk fell. The journey from Dun Laoghaire took two hours and 22 minutes. She did not venture into the slum-heavy nationalist-inclined northside, even bypassing O’Connell Street.

[xviii] During the three weeks she stayed in Ireland, there does not appear to have been any major incident or threat of violence aside from the Irish Transvaal Committee’s protest on April 4th. That same night Dublin was illuminated like never before and many of the leading citizens rented special electrical tramcars so they could tour the city by night and behold the illumination and the huge crowds.

On April 5th she drove around Phoenix Park in a pony chair. On April 6th she visited Drumcondra and Cabra. That same day, Maud Gonne published her scathing article in the United Nationalist. On April 7th, she was treated to the spectacle of 52,000 children gathered in Phoenix Park for a ‘Patriotic Children’s treat’, a picnic of sandwiches, biscuits and fruit donated by Dublin firms. The event was not without controversy with some priests openly condemning Catholic parents who took their children along. The following July, the revolutionary Maud Gonne and the Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) famously organised a pro-Boer children’s fete in Clonturk Park attended by nearly 30,000 children whom she addressed, urging them to never take a job in the British Army.

On April 8th, she drove through Phoenix Park again and on the 9th she took a drive through central Dublin, while her daughter Princess Christian laid the foundation stone for the City of Dublin Hospital in Upper Baggot Street.

On Tuesday April 10th, the Queen visited Lucan and the Strawberry Beds, while her daughter Princess Beatrice visited the Children’s Hospital on Temple Street. She also visited the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham where an aged veteran of the Afghan War of 1839 presented her with a nosegay.

She remained in Dublin for the Easter weekend, calling in at Dublin Castle on the Saturday, attending church at the Vice-regal Lodge’s private chapel on Sunday and visiting the village of Clondalkin on the Monday.

On Tuesday 17th, the Queen visited the Meath and Adelaide Hospitals, which she describe as being ‘situated in the very poorest part of the town’, as well as the convent of the Sacred Heart at Mount Anville where they sang ‘God Save the Queen’. This was a nod to middle class Irish Catholics and she later visited two more Catholic boarding schools, Loretto and Castleknock. Irish Catholics were still second-class citizens in certain aspects; Archbishop Walsh made himself scarce and many priests were vocal in their condemnation.

On the 18th, she went to see Lord Annally at Luttrellstown and that night she dined at St. Anne’s with Lord and Lady Ardilaun; Cardinal Logue was among the select guests.

On the 20th she went to the Loreto Convent in Rathfarnham and on the 21st she called in at the Artane Industrial School before attending a great military review in the Phoenix Park conducted by Prince Arthur. (On April 23rd, Douglas Hyde addressed a crowd in Loughrea and complained of the rapid Anglicisation of the country and the loss of the Irish language).

On the 24th she was at both the Mater Misericordiae Hospital and the Mason’s Schools in Ballsbridge. And on the 25th, her last day, she took it easy and went for another drive around Phoenix Park.

At the end of 1900, the Royal Dublin Society proposed erecting a statue of Queen Victoria for Dublin which they emphasized would be a personal tribute to her rather than a glorification of the crown. It was unveiled on Leinster Lawn in 1908 beside John Henry Foley but was later sold to Sydney.

The visit inspired Percy French to write ‘The Queen’s After-dinner Speech.

[xix] Abdul Karim, her turbaned Indian attendant, was by her side and a large bunch of shamrocks on her breast. She was soon steaming out of the harbour amidst a street of warships, and the great naval procession disappeared over the horizon.