MySpace is Evil

Monday, July 28, 2008, 10:29 PM

A few weeks ago, I caved and set up a MySpace account. Anyone who works in web design can tell you that MySpace is a dreadful piece of design and coding, but it is nonetheless the place to be, so I have joined up. My profile is set to private at the minute, but if any of you folks want to 'friend' me, hop on over to I've already said hello to a few old college friends, so it's not all bad. Oh, and ZZ Top are now also my friends. I wonder will they come round for tea?

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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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Crime Scene NI Interview

Monday, July 07, 2008, 2:37 PM

My first ever interview has just appeared over at Gerard Brennan's Crime Scene NI. Thanks to Gerard for letting me clog up his excellent blog.

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Happy 4th of July!

Thursday, July 03, 2008, 9:16 PM

Just a quick note to say happy 4th of July to all my friends from across the pond - have a great holiday weekend. :)

Also, keep an eye on Crime Scene NI over the coming days for an upcoming interview with some ugly bugger who wrote a book about something to do with ghosts and Belfast.