Princess Diana's funeral was a complicated occasion in far away Fermanaghby prospect / October 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in October 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
A small boy careered into his parent’s bedroom and said: “Diana’s dead.” I said nothing and attempted to sleep on. My wife struggled into her dressing gown, disappeared, and a few seconds later was back, shaking me frantically with the news, fresh from Paris, of the crash. The next day, Monday, 1st September, I had to get to north Belfast for nine o’clock; the traffic in the city was horrendous, so I took the back route via west Belfast. In Beechmount, the paint-smeared, fort-like police station flew the Union flag at half mast, but otherwise it was tricolours in every direction, as far as the eye could see. Nothing here, I thought, to emulate what had already started in Britain. No books of condolences or piles of flowers. The elimination of the Crown from Ireland has always been assiduously sought by Republicans. From the argy-bargy in the 1920s about the oath of allegiance, through to the foundation of the republic in 1948, it did not seem to matter to De Valera et al. that Ireland was tied to sterling, that Ireland’s principal trading partner was Britain, or that the civil service, especially its upper echelons, was composed of appointees of the ancien regime. No-what mattered more than anything was the removal of all Crown connections. And this spirit is still with us. When they went to the first round of talks on 15th September, Sinn Fein were arguing for a 32-county republic, Ireland, a monarchy-free zone. That same Monday evening, on the way back home to Enniskillen where I live, I passed through a little village of the other persuasion-only Red Hand of Ulster flags there as far as the eye could see. I noticed a flagpole had gone up, muddy earth and a daub of wet concrete around the base, and the Union flag at half mast. It had not been there when I had passed in the morning. Now it was. Tuesday I went to the local sports centre; nicely printed special notices on the counter. As a mark of respect, in view of the funeral, the place would be closed on Saturday, it said. A cluster of lantern-jawed men in the corner were passing one of these communications from hand to hand and simultaneously guffawing and grumbling. They could not believe it; this was ridiculous; she was not their princess; why should they be deprived of their Saturday morning footie because of her? And was Diana not the honorary colonel of some British regiment? Had she not come over and driven around in a tank, fetchingly dressed in army fatigues? She had indeed. Closing the place was a bad business. The woman behind the cash register rolled her eyes. I kept my counsel. It was a government building-the sports centre-used by both sides. So in a sense, I reasoned, sloping off to the changing room, they had to close. But these grumbling men, put out as they were, would not have to suffer the total Saturday close down on the day of the funeral, as they would if they were living in England, Wales and Scotland. That was not going to happen here. In Fermanagh, the most western extremity of the kingdom, we were too far away to be affected by the mass hysteria centred on Kensington Palace. Then, on Thursday, notices with a picture of the princess began to appear outside garages and inside shops all around the county. As a mark of respect, they would be closed for the funeral. It was one shop and then two and then four, and suddenly it was every shop, even the 24-hour garage which usually stays open every day of the year. The pull of something happening hundreds of miles away was growing stronger. On Friday, a lightning trip to Belfast. Every shop there it seemed was closing down as well; outside City Hall and council buildings there were mounds of flowers with sniffling sightseers surveying the bouquets, reading the messages. Friday night to Enniskillen, chauffeuring my adolescent daughter to the pub. The place was empty, a ghost town. No short-haired boys revving their Ford XRi’s around the Cenotaph, no crowds in Chippy Street milling around the fast food joints, shouting jocularly or barfing in the gutter. The mood of the town was quiet, subdued, meditative; it reminded me of nothing so much as the town before Remembrance Day. At the start of the week I would not have thought this possible-but I was wrong; the mood of grief really had swept across the sea from the land of the ancient enemy and gripped us by the heart. Saturday was, well, like Saturday everywhere-everything closed down as people gathered around their television sets to watch the service, just as ancient man once gathered around the hearth for warmth. Afterwards, in the afternoon, after the broadcasts finished, the sun shone weakly and the streets filled with people, their mood assuaged yet also contemplative. There was no whooping it up like after an Irish funeral. On Sunday I left Ireland for Canada, but not before someone re-ported to me that there had been complaints. Diana’s pall bearers were Welsh Guards-flown to London to do the carrying and now en route back to Ulster, to Crossmaglen. Ah, it was sweet while it lasted, our little interregnum, but now hostilities were resumed and in Ireland it was business as usual again.