The Glorious, and Sometimes Inglorious, Twelfth

Saturday, July 12, 2008, 4:15 PM

This rather lengthy post was inspired by one at Crime Scene NI.

One day in the Northern Irish calendar is more divisive than any other. A few words of explanation for my American friends: The 12th of July is a national holiday in Northern Ireland that commemorates the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over the Catholic forces of King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Yep, more than three hundred years have passed, and we still haven't let it go.

The day is marked by parades throughout Northern Ireland, organised by Orange Lodges, featuring marching bands, much flag waving, and general bluster. When I was a little boy, the Twelfth was one of the highlights of the year, bettered only by Christmas and Easter. It's hard to describe the feeling of a big bass drum being hammered to within an inch of destruction, the way it pounds your chest, along with the crackle of side drums, and the piercing melodies of dozens of not-quite-in-tune flutes. If you're walking along, you can't help but fall into step with the music.

My grandfather was a proud Orangeman. We would stand by the roadside, waiting for my Granda to march along, all decked out in his best black suit, his bowler hat, and his orange sash. When he finally appeared, striding crisply in step with his brethren, we would wave and shout. He would give us a nod and a wink, and we would cheer.

As a small boy, I had no notion of the politics behind any of this. It was simply a day out with my family. It was about noise and spectacle, bags of sweets bought from the stalls, and if I was very, very lucky, a can of Coke. And maybe a plastic toy drum so me and my mates could make our own parade around the council estate I grew up on.

A few years later, things began to change. As I became more aware of the world around me, I started to understand the politics of this annual event. Sometimes the big day, and the smaller parades leading up to it, ended in violence. Sometimes a parade's drunken hangers-on would go on the rampage, sometimes the parade would come under attack from others. My grandfather got caught up in a scuffle at The Tunnel area of Portadown. In Armagh, my older sister found herself sheltering in a phone box while the police baton-charged a parade's supporters.

Quite abruptly, what I saw as a time of family celebration turned into something else entirely. Something much less wholesome. Looking back, I don't know if the change was internal or external. Did the nature of the holiday itself change, or was it my perception of it? Either way, by the time I was in my teens I had no interest in the Twelfth, in parades, or Orangeism. I was too busy playing in a rock band and dealing with general teen angst (acne and social awkwardness, in other words) to bother with any of that old guff - though my band was allowed to use the local Orange hall to practice.

There was a brief window of a couple of years where kids my age just didn't care about the old sectarian divisions. We mixed freely, Protestant and Catholic, going to the same bars and hangouts. Religion didn't matter much at all. We were all born around the same time as the Troubles (I entered the world just a few days after Bloody Sunday), we had never known peace, and we were all sick of it. It was someone else's war, and they could piss off with their guns and their bombs and their hate.

Strangely, it was the peace process of the 90s that seemed to reverse that. By around 1995, when I was in my early twenties, I was acutely aware that kids then in their mid-to-late teens had reverted to the old hatreds. While ceasefires came and went, and came again, and politicians wrestled with an intransigent electorate and each other, people on the streets ran back to the trenches. As soon as there was meaning to the conflict, that there was some sort of end in sight, the stakes were suddenly raised, and it showed itself most clearly during marching season.

In a nutshell, for the benefit of my American friends who have read this far, the whole issue of Orangeism and parades became a hot potato in the 90s. Unfortunately, the Orange Order and the leaders of Unionism had the media and political savvy of a pissed off chimpanzee. As elements on both sides of the divide sought to exploit tensions, pushing their own violent agendas, the grey men of Protestant politics stumbled and blundered into every trap. With deep dismay, we watched Northern Ireland slip into near anarchy for several days one summer, not unlike the LA riots sparked by the Rodney King incident. And what caused all this? The Twelfth. Some saw the marching season as a celebration of Protestant culture in Ireland, a demonstration of faith and civil liberty. Others saw it as triumphalism, a public display of sectarian hatred, an imposition of an outdated tradition on the very communities that organisation excluded, and not much better than the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses.

As is the way with life, the truth is somewhere in between. There is sectarianism involved, to claim otherwise is foolish. Sectarianism is part of the fabric of Northern Ireland, always has been, always will be. It's also present in the annual St. Patrick's Day celebrations, and the trappings of the Gaelic Athletic Association. But a mindset we must move away from here is the one that sees the expression of someone else's culture as a threat. If an institution is pro-Protestant, must it follow that it is anti-Catholic? Should Protestant people feel uncomfortable with the GAA's stridently nationalistic Irish dogma? Can the Twelfth or St. Patrick's Day ever shake off their political aspects, and be seen as simple celebrations of Britishness or Irishness? Truthfully, I don't think so. It's human nature to see the world in terms of Them-and-Us; it's a hard-wired survival instinct that dates back to when we depended on our tribe for survival. Rightly or wrongly, we will always regard anything that benefits Them as being harmful to Us.

But things are changing. There were minor riots in Portadown and Belfast last night, and there will doubtless be more tonight, but by-and-large it has been a peaceful marching season. The Orange Order are genuinely trying to bring the Twelfth back to its former glory as a family day of celebration. There will always be some who object to the Order's very existence, that can't get past their own prejudices about their neighbours (and still believe such ridiculous myths as an Orangeman can be expelled for attending a Catholic religious ceremony, as Wikipedia wrongly states), and will never view the Twelfth as anything other than a bigot's holiday. These entrenched views on either side of the community will never be erased, though perhaps bitter Protestants and Catholics will unite against those pesky Polish and Lithuanian immigrants who keep taking all the low-paying manual labour we can't be arsed doing ourselves.

But, back to the point: As things improve here, and our tolerance for each other, if not our new arrivals, continues to evolve, perhaps the Twelfth will indeed return to the big day out I knew as a little boy. Maybe some day, when I have children of my own, I will be able to take them to a parade so they can feel that big bass drum pound their chests. Perhaps there won't be any hatred in it, or directed towards it. And perhaps I won't feel ashamed of the awful things that have happened because of it in the past. Perhaps it'll just be noise and spectacle, and bags of sweets bought from stalls, and toy plastic drums. I really hope so.

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Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

Excellent post/article. A very interesting read for this young catholic chap.

And yeah, the violence does seem to decrease every year. Heartening stuff.



8:19 PM  
Anonymous JES said...

From the US: I confess to woeful ignorance and confusion on all matters of Irish politics, although I think myself well-informed on our own. (By the same token, it's obvious both that non-Americans can make little sense of the country's direction in recent years, AND that Americans themselves do a crappy job of understanding it, let alone explaining it.)

Back in the '90s, I read a book about Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, originally published in 1941. I don't remember many details of the book now. Yet I do remember the feeling almost of hopelessness which sprang from reading about ethnic/sectarian conflicts going back so far and still unresolved 50 years since the book's publication -- in the (ha ha) more enlightened post-WW2 era.

The answers seem so obvious from the outside, looking in. (Or, as your post demonstrates, even from the inside.)

But whatever it is in human genetics or history, something hateful inside grips peoples in a way that they just can't shake when they contemplate The Other Next Door.

7:20 PM  
Blogger Julie Weathers said...


Thanks for posting this. I confess, a dream I harbor somewhere in my fevered brain involves living in Ireland at least part of the year. Sans that grandiose fairytale, I would like to at least visit frequently. My youngest son also holds this dream close in his heart.

While I'm busy confessing, I'll say I have wondered about the violence there. I've hoped for peace for you all. I can't imagine the horror of it.

I once dreamed of visiting a great many places around the world, but long ago gave them up. Mainly because I really don't want to go places where I am hated for being an American. And, before anyone brings up recent politics, the Ugly American hatred has been around for many, many years. Even so, for whatever reason, I feel like Ireland is home and I am determined to visit.

I wish nothing but peace and prosperity for all of you. God's bounty and blessings.


2:44 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

This is interesting. It reminds me of our recent Fourth of July celebrations: the parade and the sweets and family time. (We have major fireworks, too.) What we do not have is controversy. It's a day (not unlike 9/11) when Being American is our primary state. How frustrating to not have a clean national identity like that. (Though many other days ours is not so clean either.)

NI does not hold the lock and key on rioting. We can do it, too, and for stupider reasons than centuries-old predjudices (like winning a basketball game, for instance).

People are warlike in nature. Sometimes I think peace just brings it out more. In a thousand years, we as a race of animals still can't carry the preschool lesson of "talk, don't hit" through to adulthood.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Ello said...

Wow, what a great insight into an event I knew nothing about. It is sad how the people of one country can fight against one another. Thanks for sharing this. I really enjoyed reading it.

4:55 AM  
Blogger Conduit said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I should make it clear that the kind of violence I mention is largely a thing of the past. There are still incidents here and there, but nothing like the disorder of the mid 90s, and the darkest days of the 70s and 80s. Funny thing is, and I'm sure Gerard can back me up here, when you're living with it, it's not that big a deal. For the most part, my life growing up was much like anyone's in the rest of the UK or Ireland. We all have our stories, though.

9:10 PM  
Blogger Julie Weathers said...

Stuart, I had hoped such was the case. I do remember the constant clashes, for lack of a better word, reported in the news years ago. Yes, I'm old.

Perhaps there is just more focus elsewhere now, but it seems things have calmed somewhat for you all.

Regardless, we are looking forward to coming home one day. Odd to feel that way about a place you've never seen, isn't it?

"We all have our stories, though."

Yes, I imagine.

Now, are you curious as to what has so thoroughly sold me on reading your book given our other discussion?

I was, of course, sold on you as a writer after reading your short stories. I was sold on the book after reading the excerpt you posted. The characters are so absolutely riveting I have to know how their stories play out. That's a unique talent to be able to hook people on characters so quickly and thoroughly.

2:11 AM  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

For me the twelfth of July has always been hopping the cheapest flight possible to Spain and get wrecked for a week on grape skin moonshine. Its gotten harder as I've gotten older and farther away from Spain but a tradition is a tradition.

8:23 AM  
Blogger Julie Weathers said...

The 12th of July was actually my wedding anniversary.

1:33 PM  
Blogger Shona Snowden said...

Very interesting to read about this from your perspective. When I was a kid my knowledge of politics in Belfast was derived from the media and Joan Lingard. I couldn't understand why anybody chose to live there. Nobody really talked, or wrote, about simply living there and all the other things that happened, the ordinary life things.

2:06 AM  
Blogger Ello said...

hey Stuart, are you on facebook?

5:26 AM  
Blogger Conduit said...

Julie: That's very kind of you to say.

Ello: No, I've resisted Facebook so far. I do have a MySpace page, though I haven't linked it to anything yet.

9:06 PM  
Blogger Josephine Damian said...

You're on MySpace and haven't "friended" me, bro? Shame on you.

I've looked for you there, found your friend Nina, but not you.

Reading this post, I kept thinking of how you could have worked this Orange parade as a scene in TGOB.

BTW, once a week on public TV station, we Yanks can watch RTE news - I try to watch every week - it's how I learned about the increase in Polish immigrants there.

4:55 PM  
Blogger Mary said...

My father’s family are from Northern Ireland. They left the country, but were so attached to the concept of Them-and-Us they brought religious hatred with them. It was so ingrained, and never explained. They strongly disapproved if my siblings and I had friends of the “wrong” religion.

I hope for the same future as you.

9:31 PM  
Blogger Precie said...

Thank you for this personal view of the Twelfth. It's so easy to detach oneself from "political history"...Hearing from people like you who have such personal ties give us a whole new perspective.

2:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

I grew up as one of two Catholic families in a loyalist stronghold village, so the 12th was always a bit of a hairy time for us. One year in the late 1990s, when the marching season was at its worst, my parents were out of town. I was about 17 and made the decision that it would be safer to stay at my grandparents' house. Better that than lying awake, home alone, wondering if someone would post a petrol bomb through our letterbox!

The irony was that my grandparents lived (and still do) just off the Garvaghy Road in Portadown. That year tensions were at their absolute peak. Even so, I drove my little Ford Feista through the reinforced steel wall. That night I lay in bed and listened to the rioting- fireworks, plastic bullets, the odd gunshot- and to me it was completely normal. Always a little scary, but still normal. Only now, having been away from NI for 12 years, does it all seem totally crazy.

11:46 PM  

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