Analysis: there was almost zero public expectation that Sean T. O'Kelly or Eamon de Valera would attend King George VI's funeral in 1952

It is a measure of how much Anglo-Irish relations have changed in modern times that there was no surprise when it was announced that President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Micheál Martin would attend the funeral of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. When Queen Elizabeth's father and predecessor as British monarch, King George VI, died on February 6th, 1952, there was almost zero public expectation that then president, Sean T. O'Kelly, and then Taoiseach Eamon de Valera, would attend the obsequies in London.

O’Kelly and de Valera were veterans of the Easter Rising and both men were proud of their respective long careers in republican politics. On assuming office in 1932, de Valera had commenced a long and complex journey that was motivated by an effort to dilute or erase Irish constitutional ties to the British monarchy and which culminated in Bunreacht na hÉireann, the 1937 constitution, which was strongly republican in character.

O’Kelly had been de Valera’s chief lieutenant in this period and his political utterances were often less nuanced and more anti-British than those of his Fianna Fáil leader. In one celebrated and colourful speech in 1938, O’Kelly boasted that he and his colleagues had "whipped John Bull every time". But following his election to Áras an Uachtaráin in 1945, O’Kelly’s rabid nationalism began to fade and he also developed an affection for King George VI, though the two men would never meet.

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O’Kelly had been impressed by the courage shown by George VI during World War II and occasional correspondence of a courteous nature developed between the Irish president and British king. On November 15th 1948, O’Kelly sent a message of congratulations to George VI on the birth of his grandson, Prince Charles, now King Charles III.

When Ireland formally became a republic on Easter Monday 1949, following on from John A. Costello’s Ottawa declaration, O’Kelly was moved by George VI sending an unexpected congratulatory message, which the Irish President described as "a generous act." Encouraged by the King’s friendly gesture, O’Kelly put out feelers as to what the King’s attitude might be to a visit from the President of Ireland to Buckingham Palace.

O’Kelly used as an intermediary his friend Sir Shane Leslie, who was well connected with a number of British establishment figures. In July 1949, William Jowitt, the British Lord Chancellor, confided in Leslie that O’Kelly "would be most certainly welcomed by the King." By this stage, however, O’Kelly had started to get cold feet, knowing that Costello’s government would not support him making such a visit, and the initiative withered on the vine.

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O’Kelly remained grateful that the King had been willing to meet him and the President was genuinely concerned to hear reports of Geiorge VI's deteriorating health. When news broke in September 1951 that the king had undergone major surgery to have a lung removed, Michael McDunphy, the longstanding Secretary to the office of President, noted that "the President rang from Roundwood [O’Kelly’s private residence in Wicklow] and spoke in Irish. He asked me to convey immediately to the Government his view that he should send a message of sympathy in connection with the illness of King George VI." O’Kelly’s message elicited a telegram of gratitude from Buckingham Palace, in which the Queen consort told the Irish President that she was "much touched" by his "kind message" at "this time of anxiety."

When George VI died on February 6th 1952, O’Kelly soon afterwards privately noted – and this would have been a major surprise to Irish people of his generation, had it been publicly revealed – that he had hoped to attend the king’s funeral but that politics and protocol had intervened. On February 25th, O’Kelly wrote to Leslie that "the death of the King caused an extraordinary outburst of feeling everywhere. Even in Ireland one could sense the depth of the sympathy that arose spontaneously. If it had been possible I would have been happy to be Ireland’s representative at the funeral. If I appeared on the scene it might have been awkward for the Chief Master of Ceremonies…. It was a pity I couldn’t contribute."

Two days after the king’s death, the President discussed his possible attendance at the funeral with de Valera, who was back in office as Taoiseach. McDunphy noted that "[the Taoiseach] said the view of the Government was that having regard to the fact that portion of Ireland is still forceably [sic] withheld from Irish control by the British Government, it was better that the President should not attend or be specifically represented at the funeral of the British Monarch on this occasion."

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O’Kelly had initiated some research into precedents surrounding the attendance of other republican presidents at royal funerals. A note that McDunphy drew up observed that the President of France, Albert Lebrun, had attended the funeral of King George V in 1936. McDunphy also noted that contemporaneous newspapers coverage at the time of George VI’s death indicated that then president Vincent Auriol would represent France at the obsequies. However, O’Kelly deferred to de Valera’s decision that he should not attend the King’s funeral and Ireland was represented by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Frank Aiken, and the Irish Ambassador to London, Frederick Boland.

O’Kelly publicly expressed his sympathy by sending a message of condolences, which he released to the press, and by flying the flag at Áras an Uachtaráin at half-mast on the day of George VI’s death, the following day and the day of the king’s funeral, even though O’Kelly was "not in residence at the time but was away in Roundwood" on this latter date. McDunphy, in a perhaps somewhat disapproving manner, saw this as a breach in protocol and noted for the record: "this is not necessarily to be taken as a precedent….. The only other occasion on which flags were half-masted on the Áras in the absence of the President was at the time of the death of the wife of the first President, Dr. Douglas Hyde."

On the Government’s advice, O’Kelly sent to the King’s funeral a wreath of spring flowers in the Irish national colours bearing the inscription: "Ó Uachtarán na hÉireann: From the President of Ireland." There was some criticism of O’Kelly’s action in this regard by supporters of militant republicanism. This might have been more pronounced had critics been aware that O’Kelly subsequently received correspondence from Buckingham Palace, on behalf of the new Queen, Elizabeth II, and the Queen Mother, which recorded "how greatly" they valued his "expressions of affection and loyalty."

The President and Taoiseach won much praise, even from usually critical quarters, for how they responded to the king’s death

While also choosing not to attend George VI’s funeral, De Valera made a very gracious speech to the Dáil on February 13th. He conveyed "deep sympathy to the Royal Family, the Parliament and the people of Britain on the death of His Majesty King George VI" and extended "a neighbourly understanding, and a neighbourly sympathy."

In general, O’Kelly and de Valera won much praise, even from usually critical quarters, for the manner in which they responded to the king’s death. The Irish Times recorded that "the Irish Republic has behaved with absolute correctness in respect of the funeral to Windsor. It was suggested in Dublin that the President might attend as Head of the Irish State, in view of the fact that so many other Republican Presidents proposed to be present. But there were many reasons why Mr. O’Kelly hardly could have been expected to go."

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ