January, February, March, March, March


NORTHERN IRELAND: Blood and Thunder: Inside an Ulster Protestant Band, By Darach MacDonald, Mercer Press, 352pp, €14.99  ‘WALK A MILE in another man’s moccasins before you criticise him” is an old Native American maxim that the nationalist-rooted journalist Darach MacDonald has applied in his book Blood and Thunder.

The Clones man and veteran journalist, who lives in Co Tyrone, has walked scores of miles and spent many long days and nights throughout the loyalist parading calendar – which, as everyone should know, runs “January, February, March, March, March” – to acquire a unique insight into grassroots loyalist culture and motivations.

In large measure Blood and Thunder– a reference to the viscerally loud nature of these bands – is a 14-month diary of his time observing Castlederg Young Loyalists Flute Band, from December 2008 to February this year.

Loyalists tend to be cautious about opening up to journalists, but the former Castlederg bandmaster and former Ulster Unionist assembly member Derek Hussey paved the way for MacDonald to get to know the band and its workings. But he said pointedly to MacDonald, “Pity it’s a Taig who’ll be [writing the book]”, a warning against any stitch-up – again a long-standing fear among many loyalists when dealing with the fourth estate.

But it’s the generous and different-footed perspective that makes this book. With objectivity, perception and a strong degree of empathy MacDonald tells the story of the band, interweaving through the narrative the political, religious, cultural and social impulses that drive its members and in a broader sense drive unionism, loyalism and Protestantism.

There is a long-running nationalist view, true in some cases, that the loyalist marching bands in Northern Ireland, estimated at more than 500, were little more than sectarian recruiting grounds for UDA and UVF paramilitaries.

MacDonald doesn’t shy away from addressing this issue, nor from documenting how so many of the loyalist bands’ members were victims of republican paramilitary murders. But he also makes clear that in most cases, in the present climate at least, the bands’ focus is on music, culture and identity rather than on paramilitarism.

He makes an interesting comparison between the bands and the huge importance of the GAA at parish level.

“For just as Gaelic games inculcate a deep and abiding sense of Irish cultural identity, along with fervent local and national pride, so the blood and thunder bands fuel pride in the identity of Ulster loyalism with constant reminders of its historical legitimacy and a zealous attachment to a particular place,” he writes.

And that sense of place is as plain as a pikestaff in the names of many of the bands, taken from villages and townlands, some resonating with what you might read in a Patrick Kavanagh poem: Gortagilly, Drumderg, Ballyrea, Tamlaghtmore, Cormeen.

MacDonald describes how many of the bands, while still deserving the blood-and-thunder label, have moved on some distance from their kick-the-pope reputation of a decade or so ago, just as Northern Ireland has moved on, and explains that while the Orange Order is declining these more secular manifestations of loyalism are flourishing.

There’s much talk now of tackling sectarianism in Northern Ireland. If that aspiration is to be achieved, nationalist tolerance of loyalism and its culture is required, MacDonald believes. His conclusion to this fresh and discerning book makes that point: “For if policing is the essential bedrock of justice in Northern Ireland that has never existed before for nationalists, a year of blood and thunder has convinced me that parading is at the very core of Ulster loyalist identity. Choosing to be entertained by it, rather than offended, is the secret to a shared future.”

The Irish Times