Father Brian D’Arcy: Queen Elizabeth II told me she listened to my radio show

Queen Elizabeth looked at me. “Oh, I’m so glad to see you here. I know you’ve been ill. I hope you are well now. When will you be back on Pause for Thought on the radio? We like what you tell us. We’ve missed you.”

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip© PA

Queen Elizabeth meeting Martin McGuinness at Windsor Castle© PA

Queen Elizabeth meeting with Pope Francis© AP

Fr Brian meeting Prince William

Father Brian D’ArcySunday World

I have to admit that on the various occasions I met Queen Elizabeth II , she made a deep impression on me because of her dignity, her sense of presence and her humility. However, being a guest at both Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace were special occasions.

I was invited to a reception in Windsor Castle on the occasion of the state visit of President Higgins in 2014.

When I arrived in Windsor on a blustery afternoon I was taken aback by the sheer magnitude and the number of Union flags and Tricolours both beautifully arranged on alternate flagpoles around the castle.

Inside Windsor Castle, I marvelled at how people from different backgrounds mingled freely and proudly together. The churches, sporting bodies including the GAA, and all political parties, amongst them the late Martin McGuinness, mingled freely. Her Majesty and Martin McGuinness had a long, friendly conversation.

Queen Elizabeth meeting Martin McGuinness at Windsor Castle© PA

At almost 88 years of age, as she was then, she stood beside President Higgins and his wife Sabina, along with the Duke of Edinburgh, whilst 195 people individually shook her hand. She remained friendly and alert for nearly two hours.

I was in the queue along with Pat Jennings, the famous international goalkeeper and his wife Eleanor. We agreed it was unfair on the Queen to have to shake hands with people she never heard of and whom she was never likely to meet again. Surely a general walk around would be suitable for a person of her age.

The names of the guests were solemnly announced by one of the attendants standing beside her. We were advised she would shake our hands, that we should bow and move on to greet the other three dignitaries, and we should not make any conversation unless Her Majesty asked a question.

We noticed she was graciously bowing to each guest but rarely engaged them in conversation. Pat and Eleanor and I arrived at the greeting table together. The gentleman announced Father Brian D’Arcy. I bowed and made to move on as instructed.

Queen Elizabeth looked at me. “Oh, I’m so glad to see you here. I know you’ve been ill. I hope you are well now. When will you be back on Pause for Thought on the radio? We like what you tell us. We’ve missed you.”

I was speechless and the conversation with Pat and Eleanor came back to haunt me. She really was interested in her guests. I thanked her and assured her I’d be back on the radio the following Monday morning.

“We look forward to hearing you,” she whispered. President Higgins and Sabina also had a little conversation but when I reached the Duke, he looked at me and grinned: “And who are you anyway, they all want to chat with you?”

I didn’t even attempt an answer. I just burst out laughing.

When Pat and I reached the next room, we were embarrassed by our total misreading of Queen Elizabeth’s awareness. Talk about being with it? She knew far more than we realised. Served us right to be caught out.

Everyone there recognised the occasion as a wonderful time of hope. Many of us had lived through repeated tragedies in our country, especially in the North. We could never have imagined that such a coming together would take place.

I thought of the killings in Enniskillen and the slaughter in Omagh. I remember the leadership of Gordon Wilson and the hostility he had to endure because he spoke of reconciliation and not retribution.

I wish he could have been in Windsor Castle and finally been reassured that people like him were right all along. The sufferings of good people are never wasted.

In my lifetime the impossible has happened repeatedly. We journeyed from war and hostility to friendship and tolerance. The Queen visited Ireland and spoke magnificently of a better future.

Fr Brian meeting Prince William

One beautiful summer evening I was travelling through the North heading to county Down on a mission.

My mobile phone rang and when I answered it an exceptionally posh-sounding man asked if he could speak to Father Brian D’Arcy and if this was a convenient time to talk.

I was certain it was someone having me on but he assured me it was a serious call and that he had got my mobile number from Viscount Alan Brookeborough.

He explained he was phoning on behalf of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. From time to time, he said, she hosts a special lunch at Buckingham Palace to which she invites one person from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland whom she would like to converse with informally over lunch. He wondered if I would be open to an invitation.

Early next day another call came. I was more comfortable this time and agreed that if such an invitation should come, I would be delighted to accept. In no time at all a gold-rimmed invitation arrived inviting me to lunch in Buckingham Palace on a specified date.

In time I got detailed arrangements on how to get there, what the protocol was and what was needed for security. There was nothing about the agenda other than it was the Queen’s informal way of consulting ordinary people. Her Majesty, who would be accompanied by The Duke of Edinburgh, wanted to hear what her guests had to say about society.

I was reassured I should not feel nervous about it. She wanted to hear what we had to say; it would be an enjoyable experience.

And so it came about that I hailed a taxi in Russell Square and asked the driver to take me to Buckingham Palace. “Is there something happening there today? Bloody hell the traffic is bad enough without all that jazz going on!”

Not much of an impression there until I handed him a security pass for his dashboard which allowed him to skip queues and drive unhindered through security. “You must be an important bloke,” he muttered. His attitude to me and the royalty changed instantly.

Once in, after routine security checks, I got a warm, personal welcome from all the attendants. They were efficient but very reassuring. We moved across the gravel yard to enter the Palace where we were offered drinks – and yes, they had water, in crystal glasses with the Royal imprint, for freaks like me.

I was thrilled when the Lady in waiting came into the room. She was Lady Elton, wife of Marmaduke Hussey, former Chairman of the BBC. We had a lovely chat about the dear departed Sir Terry and Lady Helen. I felt much more at home now because every person in the room wanted to talk about Terry and how much they missed him from Radio 2.

Then the Queen and the Duke entered and were introduced to each of us in turn.

“It’s nice to see you again,” Her Majesty said as we shook hands ever so gently. She once again not only looked interested but made us all completely relaxed so much so that all the protocol went unnoticed.

Queen Elizabeth meeting with Pope Francis© AP

When the Duke came around, he stopped for a chat. He asked questions about all sorts of surprising issues. He was totally on the ball.

“You’re looking marvellous, sir” I ventured. He burst out laughing. “Someone asked me recently why I have stood down from public duties. I told them I stood down because I can’t bloody well stand up!”

He loves being mischievous, the Queen told me afterwards.

That year, incredibly, they were celebrating 70 years of marriage. She was just 21 and he was 26 when they got married. We continued to talk about their longevity over lunch which lasted just over two hours.

The seating plan placed me at the Queen’s right hand during lunch. We had the most inspiring conversation. She had just been speaking to the Leader of the Virgin Islands where the country lost everything in Hurricane Irma. She was visibly upset to learn of the devastation.

Of course, I will not divulge the details but she was anxious to talk about religion, ethics and the growing apathy towards religion in the First World.

She had much to offer on how important family is if society is to survive. Family and respect for God allied with the centrality of Hope should form the core of all our messages, especially at Christmas we agreed.

We talked about spirituality. She recalled holy people she was privileged to meet. One churchman, in particular, left a lasting impression on her, especially during his final illness. She could quote almost everything he said at their last emotional meeting arranged at the Queen’s request.

She was fully aware of the difficulties young people have to face in the modern world. Technology can be a mixed blessing. On and on it went; I learned so much from her; time just slipped by.

“You have a wonderful ability to speak about the most serious issues in a compelling way,” she told me and wanted to know how much time I invested writing my broadcasts.

She became a superb communicator; her Christmas Day messages tower above those of leading churchmen and women. Her lifetime of reflection and prayer has not been wasted. She has reflected well over her long life and it shows.

As lunch ended, we were ushered into another room for coffee. Everyone stood around and once more both the Queen and the Duke moved around the guests without a hint of tiredness. Two people in their nineties stood for the duration, and spoke enthusiastically about the future, the horses she owns and the pleasures of pony riding – “It’s easier on knees” she told us.

She thanked us for coming to visit her at Buckingham Palace. “I hope you all have a safe and pleasant journey home. Perhaps we may meet again,” Her Majesty told us as she moved towards the door with her lady in waiting.

“I’m sure we will,” said the Duke with a broad grin, “They look reasonably healthy to me.”

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