By Shelley Marsden
ONE of the centrepieces of President Michael D Higgin’s state visit to Britain is surely set to be the State Banquet – the high point of royal entertaining and an honour extended to each overseas head of state on the evening of his or her arrival.
The Irish President and his wife Sabrina will be hosted by Queen Elizabeth at the 11th century Windsor Castle during their three-day visit to the country, which begins on April 8.
The traditional State Banquet, one of two hosted by the Queen each year, is held there in St George’s Hall which typically seats around 160 guests.
Seen as a key opportunity to strengthen relationships between the hosting and visiting countries, invitees will include political and religious leaders, diplomatic figures and others with a connection to Ireland.
When she spoke at Dublin Castle in 2011, Queen Elizabeth acknowledged the troubled history between the two countries, but praised their growing relationship:
She said: “No one who looked to the future over the past centuries could have imagined the strength of the bonds that are now in place between the governments and the people of our two nations, the spirit of partnership that we now enjoy, and the lasting rapport between us.
Given that President Higgins’ ground-breaking trip will be the first official visit by an Irish Head of State to the UK, the state dinner at Windsor is sure to be a hot ticket as far as Ireland’s dignitaries and leading lights are concerned.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said he is planning to accompany President Higgins on a part of the State visit, but it is unsure whether this will include his attendance at the lavish state banquet.
“I do plan to accompany President Higgins at some stage of his visit to the UK in April in the same way as David Cameron travelled to Ireland during the Queen’s visit,” Mr Kenny said.
Though he stressed that details have not been finalised yet, Mr Kenny clearly hopes to have a place at the banquet table. He said that he hoped to reciprocate the decision by David Cameron to travel to Ireland and attend the State dinner at Dublin Castle during the Queen’s historic 2011 visit.
Other likely candidates at the banquet, which will host around 160 guests, are famous stars of the entertainment world (such as Dara O’Briain, Ardal O’Hanlon, Bono) as well as politicians, high ranking clergymen and members of the diplomatic corps.
Following a reception, guests are traditionally seated as the procession makes its way into the ballroom where the banquet is held.
For this April’s lavish event – to be held at Windsor rather than Buckingham Palace or The Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, where visiting heads of state occasionally stay – the procession will be led by the Queen and President Higgins, followed by the Duke of Edinbrugh accompanied by Sabrina Higgins.
Gold plate and floral displays from the royal gardens will adorn the room, and Mr Higgins and his wife, like previous heads of state, will eat off antique china from the Royal collection and drink from crystal glasses commissioned for the Queen’s coronation in 1953.
Staff are even said to use rulers to measure each place setting so that the table will look perfect in photographs or from galleries above. Setting the table for a royal banquet takes two days.
Guests dine at a massive mahogany table which was made in 1846 and is composed of 68 leaves. In order to polish it, men in socks stand on it and push padded tools across it that resemble croquet mallets.
Each guest has six glasses – a champagne glass for toasts, a red wine and a white wine glass, a water goblet, a champagne glass for dessert and a glass for port after dinner.
For the full article, see this week’s Irish World newspaper (issue 11 January 2013) – in shops now.