Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

Good to watch, but nothing to warm the heart

I grew up in Ainsworth Avenue, on a corner house between the Shankill and Springfield Roads, and on those days before I lost my hearing I remember the Twelfth as a scene of happy revelry, with a bonfire just outside our house on the eleventh night and crowds singing and drinking until the small hours.



My father wore his sash and bowler hat for the long walk to the Field the next day, and then the regalia was carefully folded up and stowed safely away in the hot-press for another year. He played a flute in the lodge's band, and at this time of the year, even though I haven't heard a note for years, my head still buzzes with the throbbing music of the marching bands and clamour of the Lambeg drums.

I was about eight when for the first and only time I joined my father on the march and was given the honour of holding one of the thin ropes dangling from the huge banners carried by the burly men in front. Surrounded by music to thrill the blood, it was ecstasy to be plied with sweets and lemonade, and my tired limbs and sore feet hardly bothered me, so proud was the feeling of my involvement in such a wonderful festival.

Yes, the Twelfth in those days was a very special and happy occasion and the celebration of a carnival peculiar to Northern Ireland. After our marriage, Evelyn and I lived in south Belfast for a while and when the children were small set off early on the big day to find a good viewing place on the Lisburn Road. My idea was to give our children some inkling of the joy and excitement I myself had experienced as a boy ? but the rapture had gone.

Deafness does that to us: cut off from the soul-stirring music of my boyhood, it was hard to see the marchers as little more than boring processions of men in orange sashes walking behind banners depicting events that took place over 300 years ago and bore little relevance to present-day Ulster. Where was the glamour and excitement of the spectacle I still remembered so vividly? Was music the catalyst?

I was 11 when I lost my hearing, but my memory still clearly reverberates to the music I loved as a boy and it is permanently embedded in my mind. As I have written before, my father kept an old wind-up gramophone in the parlour of our house in Ainsworth Avenue and I would spend hours there listening to old classical records and then trying to reproduce them on a banjo I had found in the loft. Music is said to be the highest of all the arts and to be suddenly cut off from its elevating influence is a grievous blow to the spirit.

Evelyn and I are what is known as deafened people - we were both born with normal hearing and became deaf in childhood. This gives us the great advantage of several years of normal education and stimulation that helps with the understanding of speech and language; but it also means that we suffer this constant annoyance of knowing what we are missing, and the frustration in church and other places of enjoying reading the words of a dearly loved hymn or song on the screen but being unable to join in the worship. It can be done in the privacy of our homes when alone and the TV is displaying close ups of easy-to-lipread singers like Katherine Jenkins - but we would never dare to do so in a public setting.

This probably explains why the great majority of deaf people have so little interest in political matters and are rarely involved in religious controversies or processions like the Twelfth. Cut off from the stirring music and emotional language of the Orange songs, we see only the pragmatic spectacle of a once-yearly bean feast, which may be good to watch but does not captivate our enthusiasm or warm our hearts.

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