Queen makes history on first day of Irish visit

The Queen pays homage to the dead of Ireland's struggle against British rule on a day of monumental significance

• Queen Elizabeth is greeted by Irish President Mary McAleese as she arrives at the Aras an Uachtarain, the official residence of the President of Ireland. Picture: Getty Images

"Where are the lads that stood with me

When history was made?

A Ghra Mo Chroi (love in my heart), I long to see

The boys of the old brigade."

FOR almost three generations it has been sung as a poignant lament for the fallen in the Irish War of Independence. The chorus of The Boys of the Old Brigade asked: "Where are the lads that stood with me when history was made?" Yesterday, the answer was that they lay immortalised in stone, the recipients of a historic bow in Dublin's Garden of Remembrance by a British monarch.

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In the end, all it took to set a fresh seal on eight centuries of conflict was a slight tilt of the head by an elderly lady in a bonnet of pale ivory.

In the Garden of Remembrance, amid a silence broken only by the faint cry of distant protesters, and under the watchful eye of a stone statue signifying rebirth, Her Majesty the Queen took four steps back after laying a wreath, then bowed her head in respect to those martyred in the cause of Ireland's long fight for freedom from British rule.

From Wolf Tone, who led the great rebellion of 1798 and called the monarchy "the root of all Ireland's evils", to James Connolly, executed by a British firing squad while tied to a chair for his part in the Easter uprising of 1916, to those members of the Irish Republican Army who finally prised the Republic of Ireland from the British Empire's grip, the Queen, as head of the British state, yesterday marked all their sacrifice.

It was the most momentous moment in a historic visit that sealed the Republic of Ireland's transformation from abused colony to independent nation and served to draw a line under a difficult 800-year history that included the atrocities of Oliver Cromwell, the Irish famine of the 19th century and "The Troubles". Instead, a bright new narrative was highlighted, one of tourism, trade and the neighbourly support that Britain has extended to Ireland during its current economic difficulties.

As Bertie Ahern, the former prime minister who played a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process, and who attended the wreath-laying ceremony as a member of Ireland's Council of State, said: "Anyone who understands Irish history will understand what we have just seen."

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Yet the symbol of The Troubles was also to be seen in the black balloons released into the sky by protesters angry at the presence of the first British monarch on Irish soil for 100 years, as well as in the bomb left on a bus and the largest security operation in the country's history, which saw the deployment of 6,000 Irish police and defence force personnel at a cost of 26 million. Yet, in terms of symbolism, the Queen's attendance was priceless.

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For 13 years, ever since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Mary McAleese, now the Irish president, had lobbied for an official visit by the Queen. And when she finally arrived yesterday to begin a four-day trip designed to highlight both today's strong British-Irish relations and the success of Northern Ireland peacemaking, she did so in a cloak of emerald green and a dress of St Patrick's blue.

When the Queen and Prince Philip stepped out from a bombproof, bulletproof Range Rover, borrowed from the government of Northern Ireland, at the official residence of the president, the Irish Army artillery units fired a 21-gun salute as a military brass band played God Save the Queen. Overhead flew four fixed-wing, propeller aircraft from the small Irish Air Corps, while the honour guard stood to attention.

The Queen had arrived 100 years after her grandfather, George V, visited Dublin and an Ireland that was still part of the Empire.

After exchanging warm greetings, President McAleese said Britain and Ireland were "determined to make the future a much, much better place". However, the Queen made no comment ahead of her planned speech tonight at Dublin Castle, the former seat of British rule. The Queen signed the visitor's book and planted a tree next to the Peace Bell erected after the Good Friday Agreement.When Queen Victoria visited in 1900, the crowds were huge. In stark contrast, Elizabeth II, her great-granddaughter, was driven through deserted streets closed to the public and flanked by crash barriers and police officers, along the whole route to the Garden of Remembrance.

The 15-minute wreath-laying ceremony was the first major engagement in a carefully planned trip, which will see the Queen today visit Ireland's war dead remembered at Islandbridge, and Croke Park, where 14 civilians were shot dead by British troops in 1920.

The Garden of Remembrance was opened in Easter 1966 to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, when seven signatories to Ireland's Proclamation of Independence, backed by the 1,000-strong Irish Citizen Army, launched a revolution against British rule, beginning with the takeover of the General Post Office in O'Connell Street. It is dedicated to "the memory of all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish freedom".

The Queen's attendance at the garden was a required element of the State visit under diplomatic protocol and would have been unthinkable prior to the Good Friday Agreement. Yet the Queen bowed her head in what was a hugely symbolic and historic act of reconciliation between Britain and the Republic.

As was the playing of the British national anthem while the monarch stood beside President McAleese. Both women stood and listened as the Irish poem, which forms part of the memorial, was read out in Gaelic.

"We saw a vision

In the darkness of despair we saw a vision

We lit the light of hope, And it was not

extinguished, In the desert of discouragement

We saw a vision, We planted the tree of valour,

And it blossomed".

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At one stage two flares were lit and thrown into the air by someone among the fewer than 200 protesters who scuffled with riot police as bottles and cans were thrown by dissident republican supporters, some carrying placards in support of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement - the political wing of the Real IRA.

After the wreath-laying ceremony, the Queen visited Trinity College for a viewing of the Book of Kells, where students and staff cheered her on arrival.

The Queen's engagements continue today with a visit to the Guinness Storehouse and a "windows" tour of Dublin from the Gravity Bar. The monarch will also meet Taoiseach Enda Kenny at Government Buildings, before attending the National War Memorial in Islandbridge, followed by Croke Park.Tonight, at a state dinner at Dublin Castle, the Queen will make her only public address at the banquet, which the president will also address.

Yet for all the historic significance of the event, the mood was perhaps best captured by one man, cornered by a BBC cameracrew who replied: "I'm pretty indifferent, but I'm sure she's a very nice lady, so God Bless Her."

For the overwhelming majority of Irish, the visit was a symbol of a new dawn. As one women said: "This is 2011 and not 1916." The song may still declare:

"T'was long ago we faced the foe,

The old brigade and me,

And by my side they fought and died

That Ireland might be free."

The Republic of Ireland has been free for 90 years and, as the Queen demonstrated yesterday, the foe has now become a friend.