Writers in Residence: Robert O’Byrne, 2011

29th February, 2012 : Monaco

‘Two weddings and a funeral: not quite enough for a Richard Curtis film but plenty to engage one’ attention over the course of a month. And  between these distractions, there was the necessity for work to be done in the Princess Grace Irish Library, hardly a challenging task in such agreeable surroundings except for one almost irresistible temptation.’ – Robert O’Byrne, Writer-in-Residence, 2011

Although the event was not due to take place until some four months after I had departed, the wedding of HSH Prince Albert and Charlene Wittstock was a constant presence during my residency at Monaco’s Princess Grace Irish Library. Throughout the Principality, already immaculate facades were being given fresh coats of paint in a variety of sugared almond colours, pristine lawns and flowerbeds received extra notice from municipal employees, even the ubiquitous pocket-sized dogs so beloved of Monaco’s mature residents seemed to have enjoyed additional attention from their groomers in anticipation of the forthcoming nuptials.

For those of us who appreciate our environment neat – not a common characteristic among the instinctively anarchic Irish – Monaco is a gratifyingly tidy place: unlike back home, nobody, one feels confident, would even consider dropping litter on its streets. Therefore the additional sprucing experienced last spring could appear somewhat superfluous. Also, just occasionally, a mite maddening. The lobby of the Hotel de Paris, my customary reception room when visiting the Principality over the past twenty years, was rendered temporarily inaccessible: like so much else it was undergoing an overhaul prior to summer’s big wedding. No matter, I moved operations across the square to the Hotel Metropole, an equally convivial spot in which to take tea following the close of a day’s work in the library. At weekends the same venue offered an agreeable brunch spot as well as an excellent location for drinks before dinner. While staying in the area over summer I visited the refurbished Hotel de Paris only to discover it no longer holds the same place in my affections, usurped by the Metropole. But its lobby looked as busy as ever, so I doubt my transference of loyalty has damaged this Monégasque institution’s business too much. Future writers visiting the Princess Grace Irish Library might like to decide for themselves which of the two hotels is more convivial. They will find this an easier task than discovering a corner of the principality in need of repainting, especially after all the brushwork from which its buildings benefitted over the course of spring.

Prince Albert’s summer wedding likewise seemed to dominate many of the conversations one had with both residents and other visitors to the area, the occupant of Monaco’s Palace apparently being a source of endless fascination to native and tourist alike. A photograph of the reigning prince can be found prominently displayed in every public building in Monaco and in the months before he married the picture on show also featured his bride-to-be – just in case anyone could possibly have remained unaware a wedding was imminent. The only person who gave the impression of being impervious to this anticipatory excitement was the groom: at a gathering in the library to mark St Patrick’s Day he remained calm and courteous even when quizzed about his impending marriage.

Those same qualities were presumably required by him the following day when it was announced that his aunt, HSH Princess Antoinette, had died at the age of 90. The Grimaldi family has a history as colourful as the buildings of the principality over which they reign, and Princess Antoinette’s obituaries revealed a past of particularly vibrant hue, not least an abortive attempt in the early 1950s to ensure the succession of her son to the throne. Subsequently the Princess grew more interested in animal welfare than in her children’s chances of ruling over Monaco; her residence in Eze, some miles outside the principality on the way to Nice, was supposed to resemble a menagerie, the Daily Telegraph reporting after her death that ‘in recent years visitors sometimes found it hard to get near the Princess.’

Prince Albert duly declared two weeks’ mourning for his aunt’s death in Monaco which introduced an uncustomary air of solemnity to the place, at least until after the Princess’s funeral, a day on which I temporarily absented myself from the library since its propinquity to the Palace would have rendered access well-nigh impossible. But I was able to read about the ceremony in the following day’s local newspaper as well as in that matchless chronicler of ancient regime Europe, Point de Vue, which gave the funeral extensive coverage.

Monaco does not suit the serious however and before too long the customary focus on fun had returned, aided by the advent of another wedding, princely in spirit if not in fact. A young Indian couple, ‘deux jeunes héritiers de riches familles indiennes’ as they were described in subsequent press reports, chose to hold their wedding in the Principality and in doing so, it was declared, had transformed ‘Monte Carlo en Bollywood.’ Well, not exactly: there were no lines of synchronised dancers and singers on the streets but the groom arrived to claim his bride on a white horse and an elephant was led into the Place du Casino. Yet one more colourful occasion, in other words, although in a location where colour is the norm it scarcely seemed unusual.

Two weddings and a funeral: not quite enough for a Richard Curtis film but plenty to engage one’s attention over the course of a month. And between these distractions, there was the necessity for work to be done in the Princess Grace Irish Library, hardly a challenging task in such agreeable surroundings except for one almost irresistible temptation. I packed a number of books in my luggage, and on crossing the library’s threshold immediately realised this had been unnecessary. The problem was not what to read first, but how to stop reading and start writing instead. Somehow, aided by support from Judith Gantley and Géraldine Lance, the temptation was overcome and a gratifying amount of work accomplished. And, as can be seen in the photographs taken to mark my stay in the Principality, over the course of my month there I would like to believe I even managed to bring a little colour to Monaco.