With her ever-present perspicacity, Wall Street Journal writer Peggy Noonan pinpoints the flurry of furies engulfing the House of Windsor as both family tragedy and institutional catastrophe, two matters of particular program concern here at Cardus.
Oprah Winfrey’s interview with the duke and duchess of Sussex – aka Meghan and Harry – was no mere flutter fest that will flit around Twitter and quickly die like so many tossed off tweets, Noonan argued in last Friday’s column.
“It was history, a full-bore assault on an institution, the British monarchy, that has endured more than 1000 years,” she writes.
The family-secret bombshells dropped by the Sussexes are so devastating, Noonan argued, precisely because they blow away the capacity of the institutional monarchy to continue concealing the family pathologies at its core.
“You are made quite vulnerable when people suddenly see you as weak. What remains of your mystique is lessened when you’re seen as just another group of frightened persons,” Noonan says.
Her most telling point is that she, a staunch Irish American republican and a primary speechwriter for that most Republican of Presidents, Ronald Reagan, sees the prospect of monumental loss following the Windsor familial-institutional collapse.
When the reigning nonagenarian monarch dies, Noonan asks, who and what will replace the sense of constancy Queen Elizabeth II brought the world for the whole of her years on England’s throne?
At any time, but particularly on this Saint Patrick’s Day, it’s a question worth laying against the counter observation of Irish Times columnist Patrick Freyne, for whom the entire Oprah-Meghan-Harry debacle placed the British Royal Family in its proper zany gruesome light.
“Having a monarchy next door is a little like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and has daubed their house with clown murals, displays clown dolls in each window, and has an insatiable desire to hear about and discuss clown-related news stories,” Freyne writes.
“More specifically, for the Irish, it’s like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown,” he adds.
The last seven words clarify Irishness to the exact opposite extent that today’s buffoonish Saint Pat’s hats, fake beards, green beer, and lame jokes told in atrocious stereotypical accents obscure. They bring with that clarity an ability to see a third dimension of the British monarchy that reaches far beyond the troubled family and the cratering institution. It is the reality of colonialism, that sadly overused, misused, and consequently denatured word.
Without question, good – sometimes great good – was done under the rule of the 1000 year monarchy that Peggy Noonan lionizes. Equally, it spent swaths of that same millennium up to its armpits in outright evil. That those evils effectively ended coincident with the post-war coronation of Queen Elizabeth II is important to mention – provided we remind ourselves that the very nature of a hereditary monarchy binds her in both an institutional and a deeply personal way to its history.
Her grandfather, George V, proclaimed the amputation of Ireland into parts north and south. We mark the centenary of that infamous event on May 3 this year, though you would never know it given the stunning silence surrounding what was an unmitigated betrayal of Ireland’s unity, sovereignty. Partition in 1921 violated with casual brutality Ireland’s realization of becoming a nation once again, which it had fought for ceaselessly since the pernicious 1801 Act of Union created the so-called United Kingdom. To gain perspective on just how devastating the act was, imagine Canadian reaction if an alien power had imposed its ideal of division on Canada and Quebec in the wake of the 1980 or 1995 sovereignty referendums.
It doesn’t stop there. George V’s grandmother was the Famine Queen, Victoria, whose reign encompassed a Parliament and a bureaucracy that from 1845 to 1850 was culpable in the democide of a million Irish people by starvation. Only a minority of historians use the word genocide for the horrors that Great Britain inflicted on the Irish during the Great Hunger. But though the preferred historical term is democide, the written record shows famine was regarded as a way to teach the population how to become proper Englishmen.
Does that directly stain the blood of those victims on the hands of Queen Elizabeth II and her family? Of course it does not. But, again, the ontology of hereditary monarchy does place her – and them – in a direct institutional-personal line of descent from those whose guilt remains vivid, and whose sin remains black. The Irish grandfathers to whom Patrick Freyne refers are laid out all down that line.
Some will counter that all such the stuff is a creature of long ago and far-away. They should come with me to the edge of downtown Montreal where the bones of about 6,000 Irish grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers, mothers, children, sisters and brothers lie buried in a mass grave. Their bodies were dumped into the pit after they died in the typhus epidemic that afflicted the coffin ships bearing them to Canada as they fled the famine ravaging their Island home.
Here in Canada, we have only lately begun to acknowledge how 19th century ideals of monarchy were used to cover brutalizing colonialism inflicted on our Indigenous people. In Ireland, the recognition of suffering and exploitation as the constancy (to use Peggy Noonan’s word) of English dominion was top of mind for 800 years. It lasted until the middle of the 20th century for the Republic and, in fact, continues in many ways today as far as the severed North is concerned (see: Brexit).
So, does all this add up to me making an argument for the institutional shift of Canada toward becoming a republic as Ireland did in 1948? Frankly, I don’t need to. Time and history will sweep us there inevitably, and probably much sooner rather than much later.
For as Peggy Noonan perspicaciously points out from her position in a watchtower of the greatest republic in human history, the question that the furies besetting the House of Windsor raise is whether the family will escape with their skins before the institutional walls tumble down around them.
Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, Saint Patrick’s Day might be an ideal time for them to ask the Irish how it feels.
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