By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Britain’s most recent royal bride, Sophie Rhys-Jones, took home a portrait by a Mayo artist to remind her of her local roots when she and her husband, Prince Edward, made their first official trip together as husband and wife to help open a youth conference in Dublin Castle on Friday.
Artist Thomas Collins painted the portrait from a wedding day photo of the countess of Wessex, who has Irish connections through both her mother and father.
The couple flew in on a one-day visit to Dublin to launch the Millennium Gold Encounter with President Mary McAleese, which has been arranged on a cross border-basis this year.
It is the first time it has been jointly hosted by two countries and involves 79 people from 26 countries who have already won gold awards for youth endeavor schemes and are polishing up their leadership skills.
Eight days of the program will be held south of the border at An Grianan College, Co. Louth, and eight days will be in Northern Ireland at Gortahole, Co. Fermanagh.
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When the president welcomed the couple, she and the countess wore almost identical outfits. Neither showed discomfort as they chatted in purple frock coats and dresses and black high heels.
The president said new leaders were essential for the future. "As we approach the new millennium, we have never had a better opportunity to wipe the slate clean of the mistakes and baggage of the past and to start anew, to start afresh," she said. "Nowhere is this more important than here on our own island of Ireland."
Prince Edward said it was an exciting day for Ireland, the whole of the island.
"People put in many months, indeed years, of hard work in order to bring this event together," he said. "I hope a lot of exciting things come out of it."
The first of the youth endeavor schemes for people aged 15 to 25 was the Duke of Edinburgh Award, which started in Britain in 1956. The Irish scheme, called Gaisce, was set up in 1985.
The scheme has now expanded to more than 60 countries and Prince Edward is chairman of the international council.
The participants in the Irish program are aged 19 to 30 and are training to lead the award scheme in their own countries.