Good Morning from Northern Ireland. Happy 12th July. Or Unhappy 12th July. You see, it depends on what part of the community you originate from in this fair land that I call home. Anyway, it’s a big deal whatever way you look at it. For this day 330 years ago the Protestant army of King William III of Orange defeated the Catholic forces of King James II at a little river outside Drogheda in County Meath called the Boyne.
To commemorate the battle ever since, the Protestant unionist community hold parades where flute, pipe, accordion and brass bands march through the towns and cities of Northern Ireland followed by thousands of members of the Loyal Orange Order or ‘Orangemen.’ ‘LOL’ has a completely different context in Northern Ireland so tread carefully if you ever visit. One side call it celebratory, others inflammatory and triumphalist.
The Orangemen wear suits, bowler hats and carry umbrellas. Even when it’s not raining. They match under colourful banners depicting King William crossing the Boyne on a white charger. Even though he was more than likely on a brown horse but the painters of the time used a little artistic license to portray him in a more heroic light. The battle also took place on the 1st July as opposed to the 12th. Something to do with calendars I believe.
The parades are very loud and a kaleidoscope of history and culture. If you are ever in our country on the 12th I would encourage you to attend the event for the experience if nothing else. As a young boy I attended them as it was just what you did. It was a carnival atmosphere and many view the 12th as a bigger deal than Christmas or their birthday. Bands practice for months in advance of the big day. It’s a public holiday and the main parade is broadcast live and heavily covered by the media.
My memories are of warm lemonade and overpriced packets of crisps. Of sitting bored at the side of the road for several hours before the excitement of the bands passing. In twenty minutes it was over, akin to watching the Tour de France cycle through your village. The highlight was picking out my grandfather as he marched behind his village band. He would smile, wave and we could all go home happy then, safe in the knowledge that all was well in the world.
Except all wasn’t well. The country teetered on the brink of civil war as rival paramilitary groupings murdered mostly innocent members of the other community. Over 3600 dead in 30 years. Many more maimed or traumatised by the senseless sectarian strife. Families torn apart, never to recover. Deep wounds still remain to this day even through we now live in more peaceful times. It doesn’t take much for old grudges to bubble to the surface and the spark of hatred to ignite again.
Every year there is disorder around the 12th. Rival sides clash. Stones and bricks are thrown, petrol bombs and occasionally bullets and blast bombs fired at the police endeavouring to keep the factions apart. It paints the country in a most unflattering light at a time when the tourism industry is seeking to attract visitors to the many wonderful attractions the country has to offer. The huge majority abhor the tribal violence but still it happens.
Coronavirus means there are no big parades this year. Single bands are allowed to parade around their local area as long as no more than 30 people are involved and social distancing is maintained. It will be a quieter, less contentious affair, although the threat of violence is never far away. Some will be disappointed, others relieved. The 12th July will always continue to divide and alienate, and even a pandemic won’t change that. I’ll be staying at home and keeping my head down.