The Twelfth of July: ‘A day in for Catholics, a day out for Protestants’

Thousands attend the North’s biggest parade marking the victory of Protestant William III at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690

Serving sausage and bacon baps — sourced from a Shankill Road butcher — in an Orange Hall from early morning, Gail Murphy beams with pride watching her partner adjust his bowler hat.

“He’s the head of the colour party and has been up from 5am. He’s about to lead the parade,” she tells me.

“I came down from Lisburn to do the breakfasts with Myrtle Henry — she’s an Orange woman through and through — and has cooked in the hall for 30 years. It’s a lovely atmosphere ... there’s no drink allowed.”

Millar Memorial flute band is tuning up and members of Primrose Lodge 1203 stand to attention at the departure point on Clifton Street ahead of the first main July Twelfth demonstration since 2019 due to pandemic restrictions.


A striking looking woman dressed in a scarlet sari stands at the entrance of the Indian Community Centre next to the Orange Hall and watches on.

“The lodge has a very good relationship with the Indian community. A lot of people may not be aware of that,” Murphy is quick to point out after spotting her.

It’s just over a month since a video filmed in a Dundonald Orange Hall showed men singing a song mocking the murder of Co Tyrone woman Michaela McAreavey — an incident that sparked widespread condemnation across the political spectrum and which the Orange Order described as “utterly abhorrent”.

Sitting in a deckchair beside her mother, Laura McFarland from north Belfast says she is aware of the image of “the Orange” — and admits that as a young gay woman she struggles to watch pride flags burned on Eleventh Night bonfires as part of her “culture”.

“If you’re going to ask a heterosexual white person, they’ll feel included today. But if you ask someone of colour or someone from a different sexuality, like myself, it’s different; there’s been times throughout the years when I’ve heard things shouted that aren’t always inclusive. There can be racist comments — if anyone denies that, they’re lying.

“There’s sectarian comments also. My partner would identify as a republican and she has no issue with me coming here, even though I don’t agree with any of the views.

“But the end of the day I was brought up to come here every year. You still feel part of it. My father is an Orange man. There’s a feeling of nostalgia coming here; there’s just something comforting. I like to see the bands in their uniforms and listen to the music, not the meaning behind the songs, but I love music.”

Laura’s mum, Margaret, is wearing two Union Jack flags in her hair, a red, white and blue garland around her neck and is waving two flags.

“It’s just our heritage. My daddy would have been 99 now and he came to see the bands here every year from when he was a wee boy. It’s very important.”

She agrees with her daughter that all traditions must be respected but believes it’s “difficult” to make the event more inclusive.

“Your blood is the same colour as my blood. Stay safe, love,” she adds.

A single drum beat is sounded by the Heirs of Cromwell band as it passes St Patrick’s Church on Donegall Street, a flashpoint area where spectators are no longer allowed following sectarian abuse that led to an unprecedented apology by a loyal order to a Catholic priest and parishioners in 2012.

Police are stationed at every corner and before the bands reach the end of the street, there is an explosion of noise as they erupt into song and bang enormous Lambeg drums along to the Sash.

Thousands of people have turned out to line the main route and virtually all the shops are closed in what is the North’s biggest parade to mark the victory of Protestant William III over Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Crates of beer, bottles of wine and tins of soft drinks pepper the city’s main thoroughfare on Royal Avenue at 10.15am.

Four school girls draped in Union Jack flags have been up since 6am — they didn’t get to bed until 2am after going to a Belfast bonfire — and are “buzzing” with excitement.

“It’s our culture, we love the bands,” Codie from the Shankill road says.

Sitting on a wall outside City Hall, Jacob de Rothschild, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, has his head bowed and is scribbling furiously on a large note pad.

“I’m studying the bible, I got my degree this year in New Testament studies, but I’ve also come along to watch the parade for the first time,” he says.

“This is not my heritage, but I wanted to see it. It’s pure noise. I don’t feel like I can relate to this or be part of it.

“It’s sad that the city has closed down. It’s a day in for the Catholics and a day out for the Protestants.”

Tourist Jakub Hayne from the Czech Republic is on the other side of City Hall taking photographs of bands in what is his first experience of the Twelfth: “It’s very imposing as there are so many people in uniform.”

Another tourist who does not want to be named visited a bonfire the previous evening and described the experience as “terrifying”.

“It was like a built-up aggression, people were cheering as they watched the destruction and an Irish flag being burned.

“As an outsider, I also find the parade terrifying. City Hall is a public space and it’s like one side is asserting their power. For me that is disturbing.”

Crowds grow larger as they follow the parade to “the field” in the south of the city where senior Orangemen make addresses.

Making his way there, Tristian Fox is dressed head to toe in a Union Jack three piece suit, dickey bow and plastic bowler hat he bought online for £50.

Sipping on a vodka and Lucozade he says the event is “for Queen and Ulster”.

“This is our tradition — but it’s a day for everybody.”

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times