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Author: The Irish News
Published on 17 May 2011 12:00 PM

Monarchy has adapted to enormous societal changes, writes Des O'Neill in the Irish Times.

The Psychologist Abraham Maslow famously stated that if your only tool is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.

If true, then it is not surprising that I, and other geriatricians, will have a particular interest in the arrival of the 86-year-old Queen Elizabeth II in Dublin today.

While the first visit to the city in a hundred years by an English monarch is notable for many reasons, as holder of a deeply symbolic office she is a prominent example of how the experience of ageing is changing for all of us (even if heredity and privilege have been important in her own wellbeing).

Without neglecting concerns over diseases and disabilities of age, there is increasing evidence of falling levels of significant disability in later life.

In the US, for example, disability among the over-80s has been dropping at 1.5 per cent a year, and Irish longitudinal studies of older people – HESSOP-2 and the recently unveiled first wave of Tilda – are promising in this regard.

Equally, in terms of breaking myths that older people are less flexible, it is notable that the Queen has shown a marked sense of adaptability with enormous societal changes in a reign of more than a half-century, and also an increasingly apparent sense of humour.

Although few have direct insight into her private life, there is no doubt that the success of one of the most pleasurable reading experiences of the past few years – The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett – arose in part from a sense of its fit with the English royal family.

This short novella is a gentle extended jeu d’esprit based on the Queen discovering reading for pleasure and intellectual stimulation late in life, and how this causes havoc with the courtiers.

But there is also a deeper symbolism to the visit in the sense of reconciliation occurring after a time period equivalent to both her own life span and that of the Irish State, each in their ninth decade.

Time is not only a passive great healer: in terms of the life review theory of ageing of Robert N Butler, the internal processes of ageing constitute a positive synthetic process whereby experiences are integrated, and the true shape of things emerge. In particular, old age allows us to better integrate paradoxes and contradictions that we struggled with in our more fiery younger life stages.

At a personal level this can be seen with Charles Darwin, who clearly stated that he needed the skills of his maturing brain to make sense of the data acquired as a younger man on his famous voyages. This is mirrored in literary terms in the classic novel Embers by Sándor Márai, where two estranged friends are only able to come to terms with the intervening events in old age.

This length of time, a collective enrichment of what Heidegger called the contemplative mind, is also needed for coming to terms with traumatic events within and between societies, a necessary and judicious mix of forgetting and remembering.

It took more than 50 years for Germans to be able to speak more openly about their own suffering in the massive bombing raids of the second World War, a reflection prompted in large part by the publication of WG Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction in 1999.

Such a perspective allows us to see human reasons in the generational time lag in Ireland’s honouring of those who fought in the British Army (such as my late grandfather, a veteran of Gallipoli and the Somme). Again, artists were to the fore in detecting the spirit of this collective maturing process, from Sebastian Barry to Roddy Doyle.

Perhaps the longest span of reconciliation will occur today when Elizabeth II visits the finest Irish legacy of her namesake Elizabeth I: Trinity College Dublin.

Now firmly embedded in Irish society, we can comfortably appreciate the magnificent Long Room, its memorials to the British Army soldiers who died during the 1916 rising, and Elizabeth I’s portrait alongside a vibrant university open to the full currents of Irish life.

The university’s most famous graduate, Dean Swift, wrote that no wise man wishes to be younger: in this spirit, this royal visit will surely add to our growing recognition of what we have gained with the maturing of our societies.

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