Queen finishes Ireland tour with impromptu walkabout

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Britain's Queen Elizabeth II rounded off her state visit to Ireland with an impromptu walkabout on Friday, a personal touch which encapsulated just how much her trip has melted away post-colonial angst.

The British monarch was in Cork, Ireland's second city, to see its gastronomic highlights and microelectronics industry in the final engagements of her ground-breaking trip.

The first visit of a British sovereign to the Republic of Ireland since independence from London in 1922 has taken place under the biggest security operation in the state's history amid fears of attacks from dissidents.

But by the end, the security forces and royal officials felt confident enough to let the queen go on a walkabout in the city streets to meet wellwishers.

The four-day trip started in eerily empty roads with the public kept streets away due to the threat from republican paramilitaries, who oppose Northern Ireland remaining under the British crown.

But the visit has been hailed as an runaway success in healing old wounds, with cynics won over by the 85-year-old sovereign and her quiet sincerity in tackling thorny issues.

County Cork, in southwest Ireland, is known as the Rebel County because of its role as a hotbed of guerrilla activity during Ireland's independence struggle against British rule.

Wearing a bright green coat with a blue dress and hat, the queen toured Cork's 18th-century covered English Market to see the stalls showcasing high-class Irish cheeses, meat, seafood and bread.

She emerged to huge cheers and then went on a surprise walkabout, chatting to schoolchildren who had only been told that morning they could enter the secure zone.

Earlier the queen and her husband Prince Philip toured the Rock of Cashel, one of Ireland's most historic monuments after flying in by helicopter from Dublin.

History was made as the mayor of Cashel, a member of Irish nationalist Sinn Fein which strongly opposed the visit, made history by becoming the first member of his party to shake the queen's hand.

Michael Browne claimed it was his civic duty as the town's first citizen to make the gesture.

"I just shook hands with her," he said. "I just said to her 'Welcome to Cashel Your Majesty and I hope you enjoy your stay'. No more, no less."

A striking group of medieval buildings on a limestone outcrop in County Tipperary, southwest Ireland, parts of the Rock of Cashel date from the 12th century.

Saint Patrick, Ireland's patron saint, is said to have spent time there and it is now one of the country's top tourist attractions.

The royal couple were given a tour of the 13th-century Gothic cathedral on the site.

On Thursday the Queen indulged her passion for horses with a visit to the National Stud in Kildare. After Cashel, she made a private visit to the Coolmore stud in County Tipperary to see Galileo, one of the world's leading stallions.

The royals later left Ireland from Cork airport, having finished their trip on a high.

© 2011 AFP

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