The Duke and Duchess of Sussex met politicians, smiling Dubliners, and rang a peace bell during a whistle-stop tour of the Irish capital on a visit that also acknowledged some of the more “difficult passages” in Anglo-Irish history.
At Áras an Uachtaráin, once the grand abode of British viceroys in Ireland, and now the official residence of President Michael D Higgins, the couple rang the Peace Bell. A symbol of reconciliation, it was unveiled on the 10th anniversary of the Belfast agreement and is suspended between two oak trunks, one from Co Antrim and the other from south Dublin.
Walking through the Áras garden, accompanied by the president, his wife, Sabina, and their two Bernese mountain dogs, Harry and Meghan were shown a young oak, planted by the Queen on her historic first visit to Ireland in 2011.
Outside Trinity College Dublin, an enthusiastic crowd of around 700 had gathered, while inside the royal couple admired the Book of Kells, Ireland’s foremost cultural treasure. “Amazing, beautiful,” Meghan exclaimed at the ninth-century manuscript, which has been described as a masterpiece of western calligraphy. The duchess is a keen calligrapher herself. She is also a book binder, she told senior librarian Helen Shenton as the couple admired the iconic Long Room in the Old Library, with its 200,000 books, and often described as the most beautiful room in Ireland.
A keen feminist, Meghan listened with interest as Shenton, the first female librarian at the Old Library since it was opened in 1752, outlined her plans to add the first female bust to the 37 busts on display of classical writers and philosophers, all of them men. It seemed to strike a chord with the duchess.
Shenton said: “As they were leaving, she said, ‘I’ll come back and look out for that first woman bust.’” In his speech on arriving in Dublin on Tuesday, Harry spoke of the close and “unique” relationship between the UK and Ireland, acknowledging a shared history that was, at times “challenging” and “tragic”. At Croke Park, home of the Gaelic Athletics Association (GAA), where they attended a festival of traditional Irish sports, he and his wife had the opportunity to reflect on “some of those difficult passages in our history”.
Among exhibits on display in its museum were items that bore testimony to the violent birth of the Republic. They included replica jerseys and other items from the original Bloody Sunday, when in just 90 seconds British military forces fired into the crowd at a Gaelic football match, killing 14, on 21 November 1920. It was one of the worst incidents during the savage Irish War of Independence, scarring Anglo-Irish relations for 90 years.
On the banks of the Liffey, they stopped at the Famine Memorial, haunting bronzes of spectral skeletal figures commemorating the mid-19th-century famine caused by a fatal combination of potato blight, land acquisition, corn laws and absentee landlords when Ireland was under a British rule. A million died and a million emigrated.
Sculptor Rowan Gillespie said they were “genuinely and powerfully moved by what they saw”. Meghan was very aware of the impact it had on the Canadian city of Toronto, where she lived, he said. “The city only had 18,000 inhabitants but as those ships came across in their droves, Toronto took in 38,000 disease-ridden, starving famine victims. Meghan was very well informed about this link and Harry knew a great deal too.”
Through the day, football was never far from the conversation. “Is football coming home?” one Irish journalist shouted to Harry at the Áras. “Most definitely,” Harry responded. And, to the crowd in Trinity College’s Parliament Square, Harry asked them: “Are you all cheering for England?”