CORK, Ireland – In the end it was all about the queen's speech, a simple expression of regret that struck a chord as a sincere expression of Queen Elizabeth II's desire to build a new relationship with Ireland.
Her words, delivered without a politician's pizzaz or packaging, will long be remembered as a moment of glory for the aging monarch, who showed an uncanny knack for connecting with the Irish people during a four-day visit that ended Friday.
She spoke at a state dinner Wednesday night, her diamond tiara sparkling, and her words captivated Ireland, sparking the tumultuous cheers that greeted her every time she appeared in public.
"To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy," she said. "With the benefit of historical hindsight, we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all."
She did not apologize, as some had wished, but her simple, eloquent words were well received in Ireland, quoted time and time again in the following days as proof that something fundamental had irrevocably changed in the often strained relations between these two neighbors.
"It's the best thing that's happened in Ireland in 20 years," said baker Joe Hagerty, who runs Heaven's Cakes in the English Market, the queen's first stop in Cork. "She's been very sweet and very direct and kept it very short. She said the right things. It was absolutely sincere. Everybody on our side of the world was really happy with it."
She left Ireland on a triumphant note, finally getting a chance to mingle with cheering crowds, despite the security concerns that kept her slightly isolated on the first three days of her visit.
Adults and schoolchildren roared their delight as the queen walked out of the English Market and chatted with onlookers who had waited patiently for a glimpse of her during her brief trip to Cork. A party atmosphere prevailed as school bands serenaded the queen.
"She's a very nice lady and she told me she had a very nice time in Ireland," said Adam Ryan, 12. "I never expected her to come talk to us. You can tell she's kind."
The atmosphere in Cork was much more relaxed and jubilant than it had been in Dublin, where a bomb was discovered on a suburban bus hours before her arrival, ratcheting up fears of a dissident attack as the queen made the first visit of a British monarch to the Republic of Ireland.
Pat O'Connell, who showed the queen and her husband Prince Philip his vast supply of fresh fish — including the wild salmon the queen favors — said the monarch had accomplished her goals for the ambitious trip.
"We are absolutely thrilled, it has been the most wonderful trip," he said. "The woman has just shown such dignity, such grace. You can say 99.99 percent of the people are thrilled."
O'Connell told the queen when she stopped to look at his stalls that he hadn't been so nervous since he got married 30 years ago, prompting a loud laugh from the queen.
His views were echoed by other shopkeepers. Some said they were nationalists who wanted a united Ireland but had still been charmed by the queen.
"I'm certainly a nationalist, don't get me wrong, I'd love to see a united Ireland," said Michael Corrigan, who showed the queen produce from his Superfruit stand. "But I'm quite happy for her to come. We must never forget our history, but we must always forgive. If you don't forgive, well, you spend your life in bitterness. I'm ready to forgive and move on."
He said the attitude toward the queen is positive but added "you'll always have a few" who oppose her.
Radio talk shows were filled with praise for the queen, and TV commentators hailed her visit as a watershed event. Some even joked that maybe independence hadn't been a good thing.
The queen arrived at the market wearing a distinctive green coat over a blue floral dress set off by pearls and an emerald and diamond brooch. Some 5,000 people, including a few protesters, lined the streets for her arrival after visiting the medieval buildings at the Rock of Cashel.
The queen's visit provoked some scenes that would have been unimaginable before the peace process in Northern Ireland lowered tensions.
In Cashel, Mayor Michael Browne — from the Sinn Fein party that has long been stoutly opposed to British rule — shook hands with the queen as he welcomed her to the town. He said he thought he was probably the first member of his party to shake the queen's hand.
Sinn Fein leaders have said the queen's visit was premature.
"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."