What is it like to be an Irish person who has made their home in England when the Queen has died? By Belinda Vigors
Answer: Complicated. Complicated ambivalence.
Hours before her death was officially announced I turned my TV on to be greeted by BBC journalists fumbling over their words as they did their best, through a string of incoherent and disjointed sentences, to say “The Queen is dying” without ever saying those words.
“Typical”, I raged. This is so typical of hierarchical British institutions who always infantilise the general public, treat them like ‘small children’ who need to be kept in the dark for ‘their own good’.
In that moment, I felt she had already passed. That I was watching a carefully coordinated stage play being acted out in real time — Act one: break the news slowly to the public. Begin, gently, with details of declining health, then introduce that ‘she’s dying’ but, under no circumstances report that she is, that would be too much. Finally, announce her passing once all the required chess pieces are in place.
I sat and raged at the lack of humanness in it all. How fake it felt to me; the messy, fierce rawness of death muffled behind the carefully arranged pageantry of the years in the planning “Operation London Bridge”. Every possible aspect of this moment, from how her death would be announced to how the nation would ‘officially’ mourn prepped and primed, ready to go. The stage was set, and the play had begun.
In my moment of rage and pessimism, I bashed off a glib Whatsapp to a close friend with Royalist leanings:
“So that’s it then….. the queen’s done…. Well, they’re pretending she’s not dead for now so the protocol machine can catch up… but I think it’s quite obvious she is…. New postage stamps on the way!”
“That’s the most Irish you’ve ever been”, followed by a laughing emoji.
I suppose she meant my insincerity and my cynicism, and an underlying expectation that ‘of course you’re going to react that way; you’re Irish’.
How are you supposed to feel as an Irish person when the Queen dies? If Twitter is anything to go by currently, then buoyant.
But when you are an Irish person who has chosen to make Britain your home, it’s so much more complicated than that. Rather than ‘good riddance’ to ‘her and all the colonial oppression she stood for’, I need to be more granular about it.
This morning the phrase “Can you separate the art from the artist?” came to mind. “Can I separate the woman from the monarch?”.
Quite simply, I must.
Right now, I have people around me I care about deeply who are sad, genuinely deeply sad and experiencing grief. I care about them, so I care about their grief. I cannot, and do not, feel grief or sadness for the passing of a British monarch. But to be able to engage with those around me, and compassionately witness what they are experiencing I have to separate the woman from the institution. To engage with her as a human; to understand the loss of a life that meant so much to many people, especially when that meaning is one I have never been able to understand or access.
What is it like being an Irish person who has made Britain their home when the monarch dies?
Last night as the BBC’s queue of “here’s one I made earlier” (i.e. for this exact moment) documentaries about the life of “Our Queen” rolled onto my TV, I began to gain a sense of the gravitas of the moment. This is a hugely significant moment in world history, and I am in its direct wake, experiencing it in the country it is the most significant to. As I oscillated between feeling ‘the ick’ and rage at the ridiculous inauthenticity of (obviously) pre-recorded scenes where interviewees were forced to speak about the Queen in the past tense, a thought struck me; this is the real end of the empire.
Some historians count the end of the British Empire from when India got independence in 1947, others mark it with Hong Kong was emancipated from British rule in 1997. But that is just the story of the physical ending of the British Empire; it never left ideologically but lived on deeply intwined in British identity.
Ultimately, this is what makes the Queen’s death so significant to Irish people and all the other nations and cultures colonised by the British Empire. Her death creates a ‘legitimate’ space within which the sentiments and qualities of an old form of British imperialism —the type they normally keep under wraps for reasons of political correctness— gets celebrated. It is this that triggers us and our colonial woundings deeply. I sit and watch as the institutional machine of monarchy carefully curates every aspect of this historical moment, —crafting the narrative, reinforcing a veneer of majesty and reverence— aghast how none of my British friends and family seem to recognise it as a constructed reality. But maybe my Irishness makes me too sensitive to it all. And this is the fundamental difference, the thing that separates me from them in this moment. My cultural background gives me an intense mistrust of the pomp and ceremony; they need it, for them it is right and apt.
As I mused on the thought that this is the true end of the British Empire, with the death of its “constant”; a woman who imbued an ideal of Britishness not much changed since the reign of Queen Victoria, my thoughts turned to the bigger picture. How many have described the times we currently live in as the end of the empires, the collapse of civilisation as we have come know it. This just seemed, to me, to be another event in that wider happening. The rise and fall of civilisation and empires is so consistent across the entirety of known human history that Margaret Wheatley calls it “The true DNA of our species”. If you want to know how far into the collapse we are, look no further than the words of Sir John Glubb, who developed the “Six ages of a civilisations’ growth and collapse”:
“The life-expectation of a great nation, it appears, commences with a violent, and usually unforeseen, outburst of energy, and ends in a lowering of moral standards, cynicism, pessimism and frivolity”.
I know I am not the only one expressing cynicism and pessimism as the usual framework of the institutional machine of the British monarchy rolls out. It just doesn’t fit with where we’re at as a species anymore; it is a bygone era.
But no empire goes down easily; that we are witnessing one of the last great upsurges of British imperialism right now couldn’t have been made more evident than in the speech given by Prime Minister Liz Truss, following the announcement of the Queen’s passing:
“And with the passing of the second Elizabethan age, we usher in a new era in the magnificent history of our great country, – exactly as Her Majesty would have wished – by saying the words…God save the King”
Yes, it is an interesting time to be an Irish person in Britain; forgive me if I’m a bit cynical about notions of “new eras” and “magnificent histories”. For the next few weeks at least, “separating the art from the artist” must be my mantra.