by jdurney on August 1, 2013

The Visit of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra to Naas in April 1904

Fionnuala Egan

The visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland in 2011 created a buzz of excitement and preparation. It was much the same in 1904 when King Edward and his wife Queen Alexandra visited Naas, in County Kildare. Also known as “Nas Na Riogh” (Naas of the Kings), the town’s name originated from the ancient chieftains who ruled North Leinster from their fortress in the town centre. Naas is also popular with the royalty of a more recent era. Since 1171, ten English monarchs have visited Ireland and all have either visited or travelled through County Kildare.
King Edward’s connection with Kildare began in 1861. He was sent to the Curragh Camp by his mother Queen Victoria. He had little to do in the way of royal duties until her death in 1901 and so indulged his interest in horse-racing, as an owner and betting man.
In this article, I will be discussing his visit to Naas and Punchestown, in 1904. This visit made him the first and only King of England to attend.
The visit was announced early in 1904 and triggered a frenzy of preparation among the elite and merchants of Naas. These preparations began in earnest on April 6th. Leading citizens met at Naas Courthouse. Protestants and Catholics, Loyalists and Home-Rulers all came together to consider how best to welcome the royal visitors. An example of this diversity is that the Rev. A. Murphy, the Catholic curate, and the Rev. W. Elliott, the Church of Ireland minister, were among those “leading citizens” who wished to welcome the King. Mr. William Staples was the chairman of the reception committee.
By the 23nd of April, preparations were “in active progress” according to an article in the "Leinister Leader" which also reveals that the townsfolk were hoping for a positive change in the weather! A fund to pay for the decorations was opened. The contract to erect arches at the Railway Station, the Town Hall and the Ulster Bank was given to a Dublin firm called Switzers.
Similar to Queen Elizabeth’s visit, safety was a concern. 333 Royal Irish Constabulary policemen were drafted into the town. Ironically, they were accommodated on straw-covered floors in the old jail!
The main street was transformed into an extravagant showpiece of imperial loyalty. The town was swathed in bunting, banners and arches bearing royal and loyalist symbols and colours which helped provide a welcoming and colourful look to the town. Every detail for the King’s convenience was looked into; Mr. Percy La Touche wrote to the Urban District Council requesting that they spray water on the streets because of their dusty conditions! A new staircase and horse ring were also especially built at Punchestown.
Nationalist feeling was definitely in the air, evident from the nationalistic paper the "Leinster Leader” which referred to British rule as “a long record of wrongs to be righted.” However this did not deter the townsfolk from wishing to welcome the King to the town as they saw the King as a “good sportsman” coming to try his luck on Irish turf. The newspaper wished the King a “kindly and hospitable reception”. Furthermore, it was likely that the majority of Kildare was not strongly nationalist, as the county was tied economically to the British presence. The county’s rich farmland meant it was home to many Anglo-Irish families, who would have supported the royals. Local historian James Durney also reveals that it was easier to be a unionist in those times, and stick to the “status-quo”.
King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra sailed across the Irish sea to Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire). On 26th April, they travelled by rail to Naas via the Great Southern and Western Railway Company. They were seated in a luxuriously upholstered carriage, the engine decorated with flags and streamers. At the station, they were received respectfully by a large crowd at 12.30 that day as expected. A guard of honour by the Royal Irish Constabulary gave the customary salute, while a band played “God Save the King”.
The royal visit passed off without incident. The King and Queen received a greeting which has been hailed in the "Leinster Leader" as a welcome “whose generosity could not be exceeded if it could be equalled” in all the Empire. "The Kildare Observer’s April 30th, 1904, edition goes as far as to claim that “not one voice was raised against the clamorous greeting given to the Emperor-King and his Consort.”
Mr. Stephen J. Brown, JP, Chairman of Kildare County Council, welcomed the royal couple on behalf of the Urban District Council of Naas. He shared a brief history of the town, explaining that it was once a prominent and important centre of economic activity but unfortunately “various circumstances of time, as well as its proximity to the Metropolitan City have distracted from its importance and prosperity.”
King Edward VII received this address well, expressing his gratitude for the “cordial greetings” and his interest in the history of Naas. He mentioned his many happy days as a soldier in the Curragh Camp and how his previous visits to Punchestown were passed with “keen enjoyment”.
The King ended his reply by proclaiming that it was his earnest wish that Naas would “share to the full in the prosperity which the future has, I trust, in store for Ireland.”
A message that would have been valued, both then and today!
The royal couple travelled in an open coach to Punchestown, escorted by a detachment of mounted police and cheered by crowds and feted by bands as they passed through Naas and onto Punchestown road.
The King had first attended Punchestown, a local horse racecourse, in 1868 as the Prince of Wales. His attendance at that time had boosted the popularity of the track among the fashionable circles of Dublin Castle society, and his 1904 visit had a similarly positive impact. Many distinguished guests visited, such as Princess Victoria, Princess Margaret, the Duchess of Connaught and the Duchess of Devonshire, who accompanied the Queen.
Although one of joy and festivity, the visit also had a long lasting impact on the town. It served to improve the local economy. I interviewed local historian James Durney in relation to this. He reveals that visitors to Naas and Punchestown would have increased considerably due to the Kings popularity. This is confirmed in the 30th April edition of "The Kildare Observer", which stated that "no less than eleven excursion trains crowded with passengers arrived in Naas on Tuesday morning between 8 and 11 o clock. Visitors from the rural districts were numerous." The 333 RIC men would have also spent a significant sum of money in the local community.
Advertisements before the event in newspapers such as the "Leinster Leader" and "The Kildare Observer" frequently referenced the upcoming visit. According to Durney, several firms placed advertisements in the paper who would not have ordinarily have done so, again highlighting the importance of the Kings visit.
Punchestown benefitted from the visit as well, as reported in "The Kildare Observer’s April 30th paper; "from early morning, people had been pouring in from all directions," resulting in "such a gathering as has seldom graced an Irish meeting."
Overall, the royal visit created wealth for the county. The King’s visit might be seen as having revived the economy, and had a long lasting impact – Naas continued to grow and thrive, and today has a population of over 20,000 people.
The local reaction to the Kings death in May 1910 provides a fascinating insight into this impact, as well as to the growth of nationalism.
By this time, nationalist feelings were far more prevalent in the town, and this is evident in the small amount of coverage given to the event by nationalist newspaper, the "Leinster Leader". Its May 14th, 1910 edition primarily focused on th
e dying Irish meat trade.
In extreme contrast, "The Kildare Observer" dedicated two and a half full pages to the report, stating that "perhaps no event in modern history….has plunged the British Empire into such deep sorrow, and, indeed, given cause for regret to the whole world." The newspaper remembered fondly the Kings visit to Naas in 1904, highlighting the importance of this event. It also discussed how the Kings death "led practically to a suspension of the ordinary conduct of affairs".
For example, Naas Petty Sessions, Naas Union, Clane Petty Sessions, Athy Rural District Council, Athy Board of Guardians, County Committee of Agriculture and Naas South Pensions Committee all adjourned their meetings out of respect.
Growing nationalist feelings did provide opposition to this. At the meeting of Naas Petty Sessions, Mr. P. Rourke stated that it was ridiculous to adjourn the board after bringing people long distances there, and he was supported by another dissenter Mr. J. E. O’Grady.
At the meeting of Naas Union, Chairman P. J. Doyle criticized British rule and accepted that "we are on the brink of a Constitutional struggle". However, he did go on to clarify that the memory of the late King, a nationalist sympathiser "will be cherished in Ireland.”
Overall, despite the nationalist objections to British rule, it appears that the King was a figure highly respected by the people of Kildare, nationalist and unionist alike, due to his visit in 1904. This can be summed up from a quote from the "Leinster Leader";
"The popularity of the late monarchy in this country, even amongst those who declare themselves opposed to the prevailing conditions of Irish government has often been demonstrated, but never so profoundly as on the occurrence of the lamented event which has plunged England into mourning and deprived Ireland as a powerful friend."

An essay by Fionnuala Egan on the visit of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra to Naas in April 1904. Our thanks to Fionnuala.

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