The Twelfth: Not yet a Mardi Gras for all
Could it ever be on a southerner’s bucket list of things to see?
Preparations under way for the Donegall Road bonfire in Belfast. Photograph: Arthur Allison
There is a very old joke about King James fleeing the Battle of the Boyne and meeting an old Irishman along the way to whom he shared his woes. “Don’t worry about it,” counselled the man, “It’ll all be forgotten about in a week.”
But memories run long and deep here. Through the Eleventh Night and Wednesday’s parading, the Orange Order estimates that up to half a million people will turn out to remember a battle and a victory that happened 328 years ago in 1690.
That figure, according to the loyal institution, comprises up to 40,000 Orangemen and women parading behind more than 600 bands at numerous venues throughout the North and viewed by tens of thousands of spectators.
The unionist News Letter newspaper more conservatively put the number of Orangemen and women and junior members at around 30,000 with the overall number of participants including spectators at well over 200,000 people.
“It is not about triumphalism,” asserts Rev Mervyn Gibson, the secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, “It’s about the Orange institution and celebrating the Glorious Revolution and all that flowed from it.”
Rev Gibson says achieving a universally approved Twelfth was put back by the Troubles. “But we have always viewed it as a Mardi Gras,” he adds. “We are just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with us.”
Whichever figure is correct, the Twelfth still is a big day for unionism and loyalism. The Orange Order is staging 17 parades with the Independent Orange Order, of which the late Ian Paisley was its most notable member, stepping out in Portrush in north Antrim.
Here is a thought, however, Thursday is the Twelfth of July and witnessing a Twelfth is something southerners could think about putting on their bucket lists.
With the swaggering marching bands, the bowler-hatted Orangemen with their collarettes, brollies and ceremonial swords, the thunderous Lambeg drums, the huge banners and the great colour, it is an experience like no other – although not for everybody.
And remember, too, how Seamus Heaney argued that unionists and loyalists, the same as nationalists, should be allowed their “pageantry”.
Of course there is always a sectarian edge to the day. In some places people with southern accents might feel intimidated. But for those with a cautious sense of adventure it could make for an unforgettable occasion.
Rev Gibson would love more southerners to attend. For neophyte Twelfth attendees, he suggests Loughgall in Co Armagh, Newcastle in Co Down and Brookeborough in Co Fermanagh.
There will be an international dimension, too. Orangemen from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Scotland will march. So, too, have Orangemen from Togo, though Rev Gibson is not sure if they are coming this year.
But would southerners feel safe? Rev Gibson thinks they would. The North Belfast parade was controversial for a decade around the Ardoyne, but a local deal now sees the Orangemen march in the morning, but not in the evening.
In recent nights Protestants living in the Fountain on Derry’s predominantly Catholic west side of the city have come under attack from nationalist youths hurling petrol bombs, bottles and bricks. But there have been cross-community efforts to bring calm and Rev Gibson is confident that the Derry parade will pass off peacefully.
On such a major day, he allows, there are bound to be some “minor incidents”. One centres on the size of the proposed Eleventh Night bonfire at the Bloomfield Walkway in east Belfast.
Belfast City Council wants the bonfire reduced in size because there are fears that nearby houses could be threatened. The loyalist bonfire operators so far are adopting a “No Surrender” stance.
As well as Bloomfield Walkway there is a concern that bonfires will be lit on Wednesday throughout the North during water shortages and hot weather. Firefighters are primed for a busy night.
But, as Rev Gibson says, bonfires are not the responsibility of the Orange Order; these generally are local loyalist matters.
The biggest parade is in Loughgall where the order was founded in 1795 after the sectarian Battle of the Diamond – the Protestant side also won that one – while the biggest event is in Belfast.
The distinction here is that Loughgall will feature more than 150 Orange lodges and about 65 bands. There will be fewer bands in Belfast – about 60 – but thousands more spectators.
Here there is also a town and country distinction. In recent years Orange leaders have been running an “It’s the Battle not the Bottle” campaign. That tends to be aimed more at Belfast where following the Eleventh Night bonfire celebrations a significant number of loyalists turn up to observe the parade in a state of inebriation, some of them rather like William’s soldiers in a rather bellicose frame of mind.
Generally for neutrals watching the parade there is not a problem but in Belfast there are always a few with whom it is wiser not to make eye contact.
In the country it is different. While bottles of stout and half ones are readily consumed at parades such as Broughshane, Garvagh, Donaghcloney, Ballyclare and Aghalee, the events tend to more family-centred.
You also hear better music outside Belfast. In the city it is mostly fife and drums bands. It’s a catchy air but 60 bands tootling and battering out The Sash My Father Wore can be a tough aural test.
During the country parades, however, spectators will hear fine pipe and brass bands and witness, too, the strenuous beating of the huge Lambeg drums which are not permitted in Belfast because they slow up proceedings.
In a normal society the Twelfth could be a tourism boost, but that is not yet really possible. In some places, Catholic farmers still help out their Protestant neighbours while they are away parading.
However, others resentfully see the Twelfth as a triumphalist occasion of unionist and loyalist coat-trailing. Others, including some middle class Protestants who are rather sniffy about the Twelfth, decamp to second homes in Donegal.