‘The flute in my hand, I got on the treadmill like a true Orange Man’
Michael Harding: Whether Orange or Green, the tunes stayed the same
Michael Harding: During the Troubles I worked as a Roman Catholic priest in Fermanagh. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
It wasn’t easy to keep the flute going for 25 years, playing the same old tunes over and over again. If I had been any good I might have gone to sessions and learned new tunes. But instead I stayed at home, and wallowed in my own mediocrity, rasping breathlessly through the same simple jigs and slow airs that I learned in 1993 at a workshop in the Joe Mooney Summer School. Although eventually I even began to bore myself. The tunes grated in my head.
Which is why I stopped playing altogether a few years ago. I put the instrument in a drawer, and allowed the years to pass without music. Then recently something triggered the old urge and I took out the flute and began all over again.
But the older I get the less time there is for playing music. The less time there is for anything. I panic that the sands of time are racing all too swiftly through my fingers, and I try to multi-task.
And it struck me that instead of wasting 40 minutes on the flute, and then 40 minutes on the treadmill, I could combine the two. A man needs music, but he needs aerobic exercise as well. So why not double up? Why not march and play the flute simultaneously.
So I took the flute in my hand, got up on the treadmill, set the speed at a brisk stroll and off I went like a true Orangeman on the 12th of July.
Not that I play particularly Orange tunes, but I know that when you take away the titles, the tunes can cross the sectarian divide quite easily.
There was a music teacher in Fermanagh one time who gave lessons to various bands, including an Orange band on the shores of the Erne. A few miles down the road, on a different night of the week, he taught a band associated with the Ancient Order of Hibernians in a nationalist community.
But he taught both bands the same tunes. The only difference was that when he was with the Orangemen, he gave the tunes Orange names. And when he was with the nationalists, he invented equally appropriate titles.
“What’s that called?” some good Christian might inquire, and the music teacher might reply that it was “a version of the Tantum Ergo common in Lapland.”
In the Orange hall down the road he would instruct those Christians in the very same melody and if asked for a title might suggest it was a tune “from Scotland”, called perhaps Orange Lily, or the Abercrombie Sash, or The Maids of King William’s Orchards.
One night a boy was standing outside the Catholic parish hall as the musicians were taking a break and enjoying a smoke. Everyone stood at the gable wall in silence. Because they could hear the strains of the flute band up the lake, the sound coming to them along the shoreline with the wind. And to their astonishment, the Orangemen beyond were practising the Tantum Ergo.
“Well I declare,” one man whispered, “aren’t they the right eejits, to be up there in that Orange Hall and them ignorant to the fact that they’re playing a Catholic hymn.”
Of course the Orangemen were likely to smoke too, and listen at their gable wall, and hear those unlettered Taigs out yonder giving the full holly to The Maids of King William’s Orchards.
Many decades later, when the little boy had grown into an old man, he told me that both bands decided to abandon one particularly beautiful tune entirely, for fear that it belonged to the other side of the house. And now not even the old man can hum the tune in question, because it vanished long ago down between the sectarian floorboards, and was never heard again.
During the Troubles I worked as a Roman Catholic priest in Fermanagh. On a few occasions on some Saturday nights, either me or my brother priest in the local Church of Ireland, at the other end of the village, would discover there was a shortage of wine. He would send a message to me or I to him. It was a curious obligement.
What each of us individually did to the wine made no difference. They called it the Eucharist. We called it Mass. Their theologians might call it consubstantiation. Ours might call it transubstantiation.
But those were only names. Names that divided us. And we had neither the courage nor the wit to change anything. So inevitably, like music, the gem at the heart of it all, the forgiveness of things, swiftly slipped down between the sectarian floorboards.