From Royal Mail red to Free State green …
What is it about visiting heads-of-state? Like the old story about the Dublin buses, nothing happens for ages and then two come at the same time. This week Elizabeth II of England pays an extended visit to Ireland while next week the President of the United States, Barak Obama will make landfall in the Emerald Isle. It is the former which grabs our attention this week. There is a remarkable symmetry about the royal visit — and Co. Kildare is at the centre of such symmetry: in the summer of 1911 George V visited Maynooth College; in the summer of 2011 his grand-daughter is visiting another Co. Kildare location, the National Stud at Tully.
Indeed Kildare was the county most associated with visiting royalty in bygone generations and, with the exception of George V’s visit to the ecclesiastical powerhouse of Maynooth, the other regal visits were in the pursuit of horseflesh. Undoubtedly the most colourful of such visits was Edward VII’s itinerary to Naas and to Punchestown in 1904. The county town surpassed itself with décor and ornamentation guaranteed to catch a King’s eye. The reporter from the Kildare Observer could barely contain his use of superlatives to describe the town’s royal makeover: ‘On the eve of the Royal visit there was colour in Naas. The flags, bannerettes, festoons and arches, were of such a nature as would delight the eye of the most aesthetic.’ The anticipatory fervour was not confined to decorating buildings – there was a fascination among the locals to see the arrival of the royal couple. And they were not to be disappointed. On the big day, the Royal train drew up at the rail station in Naas at precisely 1230. The King and his wife Queen Alexandra were welcomed by a stellar line up of Dukes and Earls. Also finding a place in the welcoming party were the local government officials including Michael Gogarty, Town Clerk; William Staples, Chairman of Naas Urban District Council and Stephen J Brown, Chairman of Kildare County Council. It was the latter who read an address of welcome to the King as he paused at the station before proceeding by coach to the racecourse. The welcome was suitably respectful – it began ‘We the Urban District Council of Naas, take this opportunity to offer our humble homage ….’
Having got the formalities out of the way Mr. Brown helped make the King feel at home by referring to royalty of a previous generation who had left their mark on the locality: ‘we welcome your gracious Majesties to the ancient corporate town of Naas, at one time residence of the Kings of Leinster.’ Of course no local politician could get the opportunity of face-time with a King without making a reference to current affairs: ‘ For centuries our town was an important centre but various circumstances of time, as well as its proximity to the Metropolitan City, have detracted from its prosperity.’ This was an elongated way of saying that Naas people were too ready to hop on the train for the bright lights of Dublin’s fashionable shops, leaving the town’s traders to rue their declining trade.
However Mr. Brown and his Naas council colleagues could not complain too much as at least they had the King and his retinue stopping off in the town. Pity their municipal counterparts in the south of the county, the members of Athy UDC, who had to settle for knowing that the King would be passing through their town on the train on his way to visit Kilkenny as part of his April 1904 itinerary. This posed a knotty protocol problem of how to present an address of welcome to a ‘passing through’ king. The Athy representatives solved this dilemma by posting their address of welcome to the King’s secretary. Whether it was passed on to his majesty or not is not recorded. However on the question of royalty and the post office this column hopes that some of Elizabeth II’s escorting staff might manage to tug at her sleeve and point out one of the postboxes with the cipher of her great-grandfather, Edward VII, still in widespread use in Co. Kildare. There is only one difference between then and now – the boxes are painted Free State green rather than Royal Mail red, and therein lies another long story. Series no: 230.
We break with protocol this week and publish the current article from Liam Kenny in the Leinster Leader of 17 May 2011. Liam compares the historic visit of Elizabeth II to the Irish National Stud and Gilltown Stud in 2011 with that of George V to Maynooth College in 1911, one hundred years ago, and the visit of his predecessor Edward VII to Naas and Punchestown in 1904. As always our thanks to Liam.