Ronan O’Gara has enjoyed one of the most prestigious careers in Irish Rugby, winning two Heineken Cups, one Grand Slam and was a three-time British & Irish Lions tourist.
Throughout his near two-decade playing career, countless iconic photographs of O’Gara have been snapped from celebrating his Grand-Slam winning drop-goal to Munster’s Heineken Cup glory.
However, one photograph which still lingers to this day depicts Ronan O’Gara famously meeting Queen Elizabeth with his hands in his pockets.
It was taken at a civic reception in Stormont to honour Ireland’s Grand Slam achievement in 2009 and as O’Gara describes in his 2013 autobiography ‘Unguarded: My Life In Rugby‘, the backlash to the photograph was fierce.
The Cork man began his recollection by stating that if he had any strong opinions about the monarchy, he would not have traveled. The reception was optional for players and the journey to Belfast was an undertaking for O’Gara involving a flight from Cork and a train.
“We drank tea out of china, chatted with various people, and the atmosphere was very relaxed. We were advised about the protocol when meeting the Queen – how you stand and what you do.
“I can still picture the moments before meeting her. I had sweaty palms. I like to think I present myself well, so I put them in my pockets to keep them dry. That’s also a habit of mine”.
It was at this moment, O’Gara describes that the “opportunistic photograph” was taken mere seconds before he took his hands out of his pockets to greet the Queen, portraying him in the worst possible light.
“If there is one thing I’d most like to clarify from my playing career, it is this incident.
“You don’t disrespect the Queen and the way this image was presented to the world was appalling. I was portrayed as a difficult Corkman. I received supportive letters from rabid republicans!
“I am a very proud Irishman and a Catholic but I am not a republican. I don’t have any strong political feelings either way; I am not politically aligned. Ninety percent of the Ulster team are Protestant and many of them are my friends.
“But irrespective of how strongly you feel, be it the Queen or the Pope or anyone in a powerful position, and especially a lady, I don’t believe you should be rude or treat them discourteously.”
O’Gara revealed that the meeting was a private function so the photograph was a “breach of confidence”. Yet he can’t help but marvel at it. The timing, the look on Brian O’Driscoll’s face, “it couldn’t have been staged any better”, he admits.
In the days and weeks that followed, the photograph took on a life of its own. O’Gara was both vilified and praised for his approach to the Queen while no one questioned the full story.
For Ireland’s highest points scorer, the whole ordeal turned into a “horror show”.
Some people are so stupid for thinking it was a statement, for thinking I was trying to insult the Queen. The fallout was disturbing and I’m glad to have an opportunity to explain what truly happened.
“It bothered me, and I wouldn’t be bothered by much. I’m thick-skinned but I’d like to think as time has passed people would appreciate that I am respectful. Critics can slate the arse off me all they want but this was about manners and respect.
“This reflected on my upbringing, my parents, stuff that means something to me. I was described in the Irish Independent as a lout.”
Understandably, if O’Gara had the chance to meet Queen Elizabeth again, he would time his stance better.
“I understand it was largely my own fault but it was never my intention to offend anyone.
“I wish I had taken my hands out of my pockets sooner. I was in a relaxed environment and I was looking forward to meeting the Queen, but it turned into a bit of a horror show.”
Feeling sensitive, O’Gara turned to Ulster captain Rory Best and as slagging is the best way to relieve tension in rugby circles, the Ulster contingent were primed and ready to help.
“The Ulster lads still slag me about it. As I was away for his wedding as well. Bestie still says to me, ‘You’ve snubbed the Queen, you’ve snubbed my wedding. What is your problem with us?
“But that’s a sign of friendship, because as they say ‘you’re not allowed to slag if it’s true’. I buy into that theory. Slag away.”