Monday, 10 May 2010

New books: Ireland and the British monarchy

With a state visit to Ireland by Queen Elizabeth II of Britain expected to happen in a not too distant future, Mary Kenny has written the book Crown and Shamrock: Love and Hate Between Ireland and the British Monarchy, which was published by New Island in Dublin last year.
Born in Ireland in 1944, Mary Kenny went to London to work in Fleet Street in the 1960s. Among her journalistic works is Sunday Telegraph’s obituary of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, published twenty years after Kenny was commissioned to write it.
In her work on this book, the author has been able to draw upon her and her family’s experiences in Ireland and Britain during the last century and the book is therefore rich in anecdote, several of which are useful additions to the text. The book might however have benefited from being more analytical.
We do for instance learn that no British monarch has visited Ireland since 1911 and Kenny dedicates the epilogue to a discussion of whether Elizabeth II should be invited to pay a state visit, but the author never really pins down exactly what there is about British-Irish relations that has made this impossible. Perhaps it seems obvious to the author, but is it really that self-evident?
She begins her narrative with the reign of Queen Victoria as she considers the Victorian age to be “the start of modern times” and confines the previous history of the monarchy in Ireland to an introductory chapter. This time-span is in my opinion too short, as the roots for much of the troubles lie not in the reign of Queen Victoria, but at least a century further back.
In what is the most interesting aspect of the book, Kenny charts the development of the British monarchy and Irish political and social history and looks on how these intertwined. Particularly interesting is the way in which she shows how the Catholic Church until some decades ago was some sort of “parallel monarchy” in Ireland, something she exemplifies in many ways, including by showing how the Irish press would often balance a news item about the British royal family with another (often more prominent) about the Catholic Church.
The author also gives us accounts of official royal visits to Ireland, although focusing almost exclusively on the monarchs and the heirs. The presence in the island of other members of the royal family often goes unmentioned, including the Duke of Connaught’s posting to Ireland as commander-in-chief in 1900.
Early in the book Kenny mentions that there were plans for establishing a royal residence in Ireland as late as in the reign of George V, but unfortunately she offers no further details and does not return to the topic. These are two of the things which leave this book somewhat incomplete.
Quotes are sometimes wrongly rendered and there are quite many mistakes and inaccuracies. And her attempts at comparing the Irish situation to other countries do not always work well. For instance she writes that Edward VII’s daughter Maud “had married his Danish brother-in-law, Christian, who became King of Norway as Haakon I” although he was in fact Edward VII’s nephew (or rather Queen Alexandra’s), his name was Carl and he became Haakon VII. She proceeds to tell us that “the Norwegians had democratically voted for their monarchy in order to move away from the imperial relationship with Sweden”, but I am left wondering what “imperial relationship” she is referring to. Certainly both the Swedish and the Norwegian empires were long gone at that time.
All in all this is nevertheless an interesting book, although with certain weaknesses, some of which could quite easily have been rectified.

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