A Royal Visit
broadcast on Sunday Miscellany RTE One
26 September 2004
Beneath the swooping rooks I stand, the river Boyne swirling past me. I imagine I can see Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s famous salmon gliding through leafy water on its way to impart inestimable knowledge. Down the road lies the site of the Battle of the Boyne where in 1690 William of Orange defeated King James II in an epic clash. And towering over us all is the regal Slane castle, the home of the Earl and Countess of Mount Charles. I, and the procession of thousands, like worshippers on a pilgrimage, step up the road which curves around the river and gives us our first glimpse of the amphitheatre in which we are all to spend the next 10 hours of our lives. I flinch with shock when I step into the hollow. Even though our reason for being here will not appear for another 6 hours, the place seems already full. Around me are thousands of people relaxing on plastic blown up sofas giving the place the surreal feel of a gynormous outdoor sitting room. Ahead of me the preponderant stage is dwarfed in the distance and I wonder glumly if I’ll be able to see anything at all. There are long queues everywhere so I decide to do without, settling instead for chomping my sandwiches and wondering what has possessed me to swop this for my usual Sunday afternoon in my armchair reading the newspapers.
The inevitable drizzle arrives and up ahead security men gesticulate wildly at a few forbidden umbrellas which dare to rise up in defence of the elements. The rain thickens and the stage crew appears, drying the floor frantically with surprisingly unsophisticated lumps of cloth and straggly mops. Overhead, helicopters hum, eliciting comments from the crowd such as “There she is, I can see her in that one”
Night falls over us and I stare up at the navy, starless sky and then around at Slane castle which is now lit up, looming tall and majestic in the background.
There’s a surge in the crowd, a push forward and a movement of glittering screens. . The sounds of “Vogue” pulsate into the night air. And with those immortal words “Strike a Pose” she appears on a raised platform in her now famous Yoga crab position. At that very second I know, that the 7 hour wait on my feet, my aching back, the wedging in a milling crowd, the drenching rain, the hunger and thirst were all worth it. Madonna is here, no more than 400 yards away from me in all her over the top glory.
She calls out “Strike a pose” again as the light dims and once more appears, this time in a flawless handstand position.
As she belts out the classic songs which framed my formative years, “Papa don’t Preach” “Like a Prayer” “Material Girl” amidst spectacular trapeze acts and faultless dance routines, I am enthralled as I stand in the shadow of the woman who 46 years ago was born into a Catholic family in Michigan USA and for 20 years has dominated the pop world. Throughout those years she has shocked and outraged but has never failed to entertain, with an impressive CV of hit singles, albums, movies, image changes and more recently a series of children’s books. And she’s here tonight.
It takes 6 songs before she greets the crowd. “Hello Ireland” she shouts and then in a faux poor girl tone “Why has it taken so long for me to get here” Then she complains of the cold and I realise to my amazement that Madonna looks absolutely perished, her head pushed down awkwardly into her shoulder blades into a hunch. When her dance troupe sport skimpy outfits for their energetic routine to that wonderful number “Get into the Groove” she pulls on a coat over her matching outfit. She then begs the rain to go away.
But her pleas are unheeded as the stubborn drizzle persists. And down below, her fans, muffled in plastic hooded jackets, huddle together for warmth.
Then she appears in Army uniform, twirling a large shiny shotgun with studied concentration. Once more the dancing is flawless but as an hour has passed, I fancy Madonna looks tired, her face pale, her movements laboured. For the first time in the 20 years that I’ve been closely observing her, she perches herself on a high chair, a guitar on her lap. She gives us a strumming version of “Don’t Tell me” accompanied by a reverberating ground shaking chorus from her 80 thousand fans. She retains this sitting position for most of the remainder of the concert appearing next in a smart respectable 3 piece pin striped suit. As the rain starts again she adopts a style truly befitting the Queen of Pop by singing under an umbrella which is held over her by a kneeling man.
After 2 hours precisely on stage she disappears into the floor without a goodbye or an encore.
And I and 80 thousand others wait, disbelieving that she is gone. A fireworks display commences which confirms her departure and we turn for the exit, trudge through the muck, back down the hill and over the River Boyne and face into what transpires to be a five hour journey home to nearby Kildare. For a long while after, the sound of her songs and the vision of her thin cold face stay in my head, together with the resolute conviction that it was indeed worth it all.