This is the drum of a Blood and Thunder loyalist band
... so what happened when a nationalist writer spent one marching season with them?
Fascinated by their swagger and noise, Darach MacDonald wondered if such bands were really just all about Protestant coat-trailing. His conclusions may surprise you
Big, brash, booming bands — they provide the soundtrack of our summer. They are the loud, colourful punctuation marks between successive ranks of men in suits and sashes, stomping along in processional reminders that they are ‘proud to be Prod’.
They snake their way through cordoned-off streets in towns and villages late into the evening, band after band playing familiar airs with an incessant beat and rhythm.
They are the focus of repeated objections to the Parade Commission, blamed for fomenting fear and trepidation among the nationalists they are said to provoke with sectarian tunes along controversial routes and they have been in the front line of tension and trouble through the decades of conflict.
Yet most of us know practically nothing of the Blood and Thunder bands, how they began, what they stand for, how they operate and why they are still so popular among their growing numbers of young and not-so-young supporters.
In the early 21st century, however, Blood and Thunder marching bands are the most energetic and fastest growing traditional cultural movement on this island.
They share a rich historical legacy that they have adapted and fashioned into a vibrant expression of the martial culture that goes to the very core of Ulster Protestant identity. For as the Orange Order declines in an increasingly secular age when lodge membership no longer carries the prospect of advancement, the bands have become the badge of Ulster Protestant identity for thousands of young men and women.
And those who make up the ranks today may well be the grandchildren of the brash youngsters who stepped into the breach to shore up plummeting Protestant pride in the darkest days of the Troubles. They slammed shut the gates against the uncertainty of a time when the world’s media shunned Ulster loyalism and they guarded the walls with street shows of bravado.
The Blood and Thunder bands have long fascinated many of us and I am no exception. I come from a Catholic nationalist background in Clones, Co Monaghan, and I have been a professional journalist since graduating with a Masters degree in history in 1976.
I have worked as a staff journalist and editor of weekly and daily newspapers. For 11 years from 1987, I was a senior editor in Canada. For eight years since 2001, I was the editor of the Ulster Herald, a newspaper that has traditionally served Tyrone’s nationalist readers.
During my career, I have seen the proliferation of Blood and Thunder bands from a distance that was not always respectful.
I shared the media perception that they were thuggish throwbacks, pounding out dour dirges with more decibels than deference for peace and goodwill. I thought their annual parades were coat-trailing shows of Protestant supremacy, solely designed to annoy peaceable neighbours.
But I knew nothing then and since I began research for my new book, Blood and Thunder: Inside an Ulster Protestant Band, it is remarkable how much I learned in just a year of attending practices and parades with an open mind.
I learned for instance that Blood and Thunder bands:
- Brought popular youth culture to traditional flute bands in the 1970s;
- Play a range of airs that encompasses shared traditional Irish music to hymns, movie themes and popular tunes;
- Provide year-round involvement in cultural and music pursuits for thousands of young band members;
- Compete through a parade season that lasts for nine calendar months, and then go indoors for a packed programme of winter concerts;
- Teach and value discipline and orderly parading, as well as musical ability;
- Provide a social outlet that inspires confidence and pride in a tradition that stretches back centuries.
These lessons are particularly important today. The boys and young men who participate in the Blood and Thunder bands represent the very first generation of Ulster Protestant males who are not required, or expected, to defend their community and its place here in a corner of Ireland.
From the Muster Rolls of the Plantation, through yeomanry and militias, Volunteers, Special Constabulary, UDR and RIR, young Ulster Protestants have answered the call to take up arms and follow fife and drum.
The martial spirit and the tradition this has created in Ulster over 400 years are written into the DNA of these boys and men.
Today they follow the flute and drum by donning uniforms in the ranks of marching bands. That is at the very core of a recreational, competitive activity that encompasses thousands of parades every year all over Ulster (including my native Monaghan).
To disparage that tradition on the basis of a few contentious parades, or simply because of inconvenience, is cultural chauvinism. To demand equivalence or ‘parity’ — as if this tradition of parading is interchangeable — is akin to suggesting, for instance, that Gaelic football should be permitted and funded only if participants refrain from handling the ball and play eleven-a-side.
Indeed, that analogy with Gaelic games is one I kept coming back to time and again during my year with the Castlederg Young Loyalists Flute Band.
The age of participants, the emphasis on traditional skills and cultural identity and the pride of place evident in contests with other bands, struck a chord. Like GAA clubs across the divide, the bands act as positive catalysts in their own communities, a rallying cultural and social focus for working-class Protestants. They are independent of other loyal organisations and they encompass a range of religious and secular commitments. Attending parades, I saw that the bands’ abilities run the gamut from a standard comparable with ‘Junior B’ GAA football in a poor county to elite top-class amateurs.
And contrary to expectations, I learned that the Blood and Thunder bands do this for themselves, for their pride, their sense of tradition, their own musical and cultural motives, and not to annoy their neighbours. Yet I also have to acknowledge that this has been an evolutionary process for the Castlederg Young Loyalists, a band that had four serving members killed by republicans during the period of bloodletting that still echoes through this small frontier town.
While the conflict ruined lives and motivated harsh attitudes and actions, the assumption that these ‘Kick the Pope’ bands have been, or are, mere musical fronts for loyalist paramilitaries is preposterous given the huge numbers involved.
Indeed, by acting as a channel for anger during the Troubles, they have been a safety valve for young men whose friends and brothers were gunned down.
I have long been fascinated by Ulster Protestant identity: my first book, The Sons of Levi (published in 1998), dealt with the story of Monaghan’s Ulster Protestant loyalists consigned to the Free State by Partition. I believe we must understand and respect each other’s identity if we are to have any hope of sharing this space in peace.
Yet for 12 years since the Good Friday Agreement, we have danced around each other, barely acknowledging the values and traditions the other side holds most dear. Content with the absence of fighting, we assume peace is advanced by a presumption that we can have a ‘cross-community’ sense of identity and purpose. Peace and reconciliation programmes are designed on the basis of the lowest common denominator. Yet too often we disparage what our neighbour most admires — Gaelic games or loyalist marching bands, pastimes that inspire cultural values and a huge pride of place and identity.
A year of following the flutes and drums of the Castlederg Young Loyalists convinces me that this is a much more complex process than we thought and we must chart our shared future by acknowledging cultural differences and diversity.
Understanding and accepting vibrant traditions make us all stronger. Finally, we can decide that if a band parades down our street, we can choose to be entertained. If the motive of those parading is to provoke, then let that be their problem!
Blood & Thunder by Darach MacDonald, Mercier, £12.99. Research for the book was assisted by a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland