John Bruton has an abiding memory of the then Prince Charles’s first official visit to Ireland in June 1995.
People were overwhelmingly welcoming,” says Bruton, who was Taoiseach at the time. “Irish people have a less formal attitude to monarchs — we’re not a monarchy but a republic, after all — and he was addressed by his first name. And that was done in a very positive, friendly way by the crowds.”
He believes the absence of deference may have helped Charles feel more relaxed in this country. “I think he quite liked it,” he says, “that informality.”
The Irish welcome was, perhaps, epitomised by Bernie Fitzgerald, a 63-year-old mother-of-five from Kilbarrack in Dublin. When she met Charles on a carefully marshalled ‘walkabout’ in the city centre, she told him, in charming Dublinese: “Give me an auld kiss!” The prince obliged. “He loved it,” she told the RTÉ cameras afterwards. “He stayed in my arm for ages.”
It was the first state visit of a member of the British royal family since independence and there had been concerns on both sides in advance. But the trip — in which Charles visited several Dublin landmarks, including Trinity College, as well as Newgrange and Butterstream Gardens in Bruton’s constituency of Meath — was deemed a success and would lay the path for future visits.
“I think the visit was very significant,” Bruton says. “At that particular moment, the IRA were not actually killing people. They declared that they were on a ceasefire and that facilitated the visit. As we know, they went back to murder later.
“There was a window of opportunity for him to come. My understand was he was pretty keen to do it.”
British diplomatic papers from that first visit — released years later — reported that Charles managed to “out-charm the Irish”.
According to a memo written by the British ambassador to Ireland, Veronica Sutherland, his visit significantly helped Anglo-Irish relations: “Not only did he so visibly touch the hearts of everyone he met and spoke to, but he also created an opportunity for the Taoiseach to use his quite different oratorical skills to move the peace process forward.”
Bruton says the 1995 visit “symbolised an improvement in relations”, not just in his term as taoiseach, but under my predecessor, Albert Reynolds, too.
“The Downing Street Declaration of December 1993, where the two governments agreed a common approach to resolving the issues of Northern Ireland, laid the foundation for the peace process and it created the conditions where visits like this could take place,” he says. “Prince Charles coming to Ireland symbolized something as much as being something.”
The visit was deemed such a success that Clarence House — Charles’s London residence and headquarters while Prince of Wales — secretly planned another visit to the republic the following summer. It was abandoned over fears for his safety due to renewed paramilitary tensions in 1996.
Few, Bruton included, could have imagined just how frequently Charles would visit the country in subsequent years. A regular guest at the Irish Center in London, in 2015 he said it was his wish to visit every county in Ireland. By the Independent‘s reckoning, he has been to 21 counties north and south. Just 11 remain, although, as King Charles III, there may be fewer opportunities to come to Ireland as often as before.
He first visited the island, formally, in 1961 when as a 13-year-old he joined his parents, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, on a state visit to Belfast.
Due to security fears, he would not return to Northern Ireland in an official capacity until 1979, the year his beloved grand-uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was killed by an IRA bomb in Mullaghmore, Co Sligo.
He returned to the North a third time, in 1987, this time in the company of his then wife, Diana, Princess of Wales.
With the advent of the peace process, Charles has made up for lost time. It is thought that this week’s visit to Belfast and Hillsborough was his 40th official visit to Northern Ireland.
He had long expressed an interest in visiting the Republic but security fears kept him away, formally. Although it has not been officially acknowledged, it is thought that he first visited the state in a private capacity in 1992. A keen angler, he fished on the Shannon and spent some time in Castleconnell, rural Co Limerick.
This year, the Limerick Leader reported that a local establishment, the Castle Oaks House Hotel, had invited him back to relive his ‘secret’ fishing trip and sent on a copy of a photo taken of him on the Shannon, fishing rod in hand. Clarence House thanked the hotel for the offer, but declined.
Three years later, when he made that momentous first official visit, private time was built into his itinerary and he went to Delphi, Co Mayo, to fish there. Bruton recalls that he also painted while staying in the beautiful Mayo landscape. Charles has long been a keen watercolor artist.
Gary Murphy, professor of politics at Dublin City University, believes that Charles’s visit to Mullaghmore in Sligo in 2015 marked a turning point in his relations with this country. “It was an act of extraordinary commitment to peace and reconciliation. He had been very close to Mountbatten — who had been something of a father figure to him — and the appalling atrocity of his death would have hurt Charles deeply at the time.”
Lord Mountbatten had summered in Ireland for years — and owned the Gothic mansion Classiebawn Castle, in the shadow of Benbulben mountain. He was killed, along with three others, including a 15-year-old schoolboy, when his boat was blown up not far from the Mullaghmore shore.
Charles and Camilla — who has been by his side on all subsequent visits to Ireland — were said to be greatly moved by the welcome they received at Mullaghmore. Since then, they have visited here almost every year — and were moved to say in 2020 that they were disappointed that the pandemic had upended plans to visit Ireland that year too.
Murphy believes Charles’s affection for Ireland is genuine. “He does seem to have a nice touch with people for the most part and I think the fact that the affection is reciprocated carries some weight in a time when relations between Ireland and Britain are not at their best.
“Since Brexit, there has unquestionably been a significant worsening of relations. The tensions that it has shown up have caught everyone unawares — and it’s one of the tragedies of Brexit — but the fact that he keeps coming back is a reflection of someone who wants to see good relations between two neighboring states. It will be interesting to see if he gets here quite as much now he is king.”
The well-known hotelier Noel Cunningham met Charles and Camilla on a state visit to Donegal in 2016. With the exception of two protesters, the couple were warmly welcomed to the county.
Cunningham is convinced that Charles is especially fond of his Irish trips. “He told me personally that it had been his mother’s dearest wish to visit the Republic of Ireland. There was almost a suggestion that she was coming to put some wrongs right as best she could.
“I really get a sense that when he comes here, he is trying to carry on his mother’s work, to build relations and show that Ireland can be an even greater friend to the UK.”
Cunningham has a fond memory of meeting Charles at Donegal Castle and says he is much more down to earth and playful than many might imagine.
“He knows that Ireland isn’t a two-bit poor cousin,” he adds. “He sees Ireland for what we are: a modern, go-ahead, successful country punching above our weight.
“There’s no doubt to me that he loves Ireland and he loves to visit Ireland. He’s enchanted by the Irish people and, politically, socially and from a tourist perspective, there are a whole raft of ways that we can use [the visits] to our advantage without in any way being mercenary.”
Tourism Ireland has long believed that successful royal visits encourage British people to holiday in Ireland.
It is thought that Waterford city and Cashel, Co Tipperary, received a boost in visitor numbers from the UK this summer as a result of Charles and Camilla’s most recent trip here. There was also a significant upswing in UK numbers to Ireland after the queen’s 2011 visit. It is a sign of the frequency of Charles’s visits that the official tour of Waterford and Tipperary this March didn’t generate the sort of publicity that previous trips had done.
While here, the couple met the family of Ashling Murphy, the Offaly schoolteacher who was killed while exercising near her home at the start of the year. On the same trip, Camilla — a lover of horses — visited Henry de Bromhead’s Co Waterford stables.
Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, a historian at Trinity College Dublin, says official visits from Charles in 1995 and 2002 “were hugely important in paving the way for the even more significant visit of Queen Elizabeth here in 2011”.
“Historically,” she says, “it’s very unusual for ruling monarchs or kings or queens-to-be to visit Ireland. Apart from Queen Victoria and George V, and before that James II, few have come here. The fact that he [Charles] comes to the Republic with such regularity is unusual.
“He’s extremely well placed to progress peace and reconciliation-type activities because he’s built up such warm friendships with many political figures here, especially President Higgins. I was in London for a term last year and I was struck by the number of times he visits the Irish Embassy — I mean, he’s in and out of there every couple of weeks.”
Ohlmeyer says Charles has been keen to use his Irish visits to meet those traditionally opposed to monarchy. “It was on that trip that he shook Gerry Adams’s hand, at the University of Galway. When he spoke at Hillsborough this week, he said his mother had tried to bring together those who history had separated and was determined on healing long-held hurt. You get the sense that he wants to pick up that and continue the work that she began.
“He clearly knows his history and he is very interested in Irish history and is very aware of the sensitivities involved. From the perspective of a historian, we have a monarch who is well informed and is very keen to make a difference, and I think that’s a very powerful combination.”
John Bruton is hopeful that Charles’s relationship with Ireland can continue now he is king.
“He is a human being and his visiting Ireland as a human being paying tribute to other human beings in this country is personal. And the personal trumps the political a lot of the time. There can be political differences — and there are profound political differences at the moment — between the Irish and British governments, but those do not extend to the person, to the monarch.
“What his trips here do remind us all of are our personal links to people in Britain. My own grandchildren are in England and that’s true of many families. Charles coming here reminds us of our personal links, which, in a way, transcend political differences.”