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Meet the loyal craftsmen who put pomp and ceremony into the Twelfth

Behind the scenes of today's parades are bands of workers painstakingly creating the regalia and musical instruments - and who have customers from all across the world, says Stephanie Bell

Shop owner Greig Stewart
Shop owner Greig Stewart
Retired school teacher Clifford Rea
One of Clifford Rea's flutes

By Stephanie Bell

In a shop that for more than three decades has supplied everything any loyalist might need for the Twelfth of July celebrations, one item above all else was flying off the shelves this week - the humble umbrella. During a week of downpours, Orangemen and band members were taking no chances on the weather, ensuring that Victor Stewart Enterprises in Lurgan was doing a respectable trade on their stock of Union Flag-themed and large black umbrellas.

Shop owner Greig Stewart says: "People are going mad looking umbrellas this week - they don't want to get caught out. We've actually sold out of Union Flag umbrellas.

"It is a bit of change from last year when the weather was hot and we didn't sell a single umbrella in July."

Greig (39) runs the shop but it was set up in 1985 by his late father, Victor, a well-known Orangeman and businessman who passed away in 2017.

Victor Stewart supplied Orange Lodges across the world and established the only one-stop shop selling everything needed for the Twelfth celebrations under one roof.

He was a member of the Orange and Black in Lurgan, with Purple Star LOL No 63, of which he was a Past Master, and of Morning Star Royal Black Preceptory No 399.

He was also a founder of Craigavon Protestant Boys Flute Band.

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His son, Greig, has taken on the running of the shop, which not only sells regalia but makes collarettes for lodges across the world.

May, June and July see a flurry of trade at the outlet in Queen Street as preparations begin in earnest for the Twelfth of July celebrations.

And it's not just in Northern Ireland, for the family-run shop is fulfilling orders from as far away as Canada and Australia.

A flute band parades on the Twelfth
A flute band parades on the Twelfth

Greig says: "We have sent uniforms to Canada, a banner to Australia and regalia to America this year. We mainly supply lodges and bands in Northern Ireland, Scotland and England, but we take orders from all over the world.

"We try to do everything and we have become a one-stop shop for bands and lodges.

"The Grand Lodge of Scotland has its own labels and pouches, which we make for them, and we do a lot of collars for Scotland, where they are popular as Christmas presents as well.

"It is steady all year round, but it really kicks off around May and June, when people get their collars out and realise they could do with a new one.

"This month has been bedlam keeping up with orders."

Collarettes depicting the individual lodges, which are proudly worn by Orangemen on the Twelfth and Thirteenth, are also made to order on the premises. It is a labour-intensive process that has been perfected over the years.

Collarettes are one of the most popular items the shops sells, along with musical instruments, band uniforms, loyalist giftware and trophies.

"We've done thousands of collarettes over the years," says Greig.

"To make them cost-effective, the raw materials need to be bought in bulk.

Greig Stewart of Victor Stewart Enterprises, who has been busy making collarettes
Greig Stewart of Victor Stewart Enterprises, who has been busy making collarettes

"We get the ribbon from England and the fringes from a company in Lyon in France.

"The minimum amount of ribbon we can order to get a reasonable price is 200 metres at a time.

"There are such a variety of ribbons in different colours. The majority are orange with a purple stripe, but there are some which are blue and some maroon and others which are plain orange.

"We have to keep 10 different types of ribbon in stock."

The shop also has a number of templates for different styles of collars which are used to cut the fabric.

The metal numbers of the lodge are then stuck on and the fringes added.

Greig says: "The metal numbers are put on circular pads and it is a tedious job cutting them out and getting them onto the collar and then the numbers on top.

"It is pretty labour-intensive and we could spend a whole afternoon just cutting them out. Then we send them off to add the fringes."

These handmade collars are made to order for £70.50.

Most Orangemen, women and children will have bought their first sash from Victor Stewart.

As it gets worn over the years, loyal customers come back for a new one.

Coming up to today's celebrations, the shop has done a tidy business in bowler hats, gloves, flags and - thanks to the unseasonable weather - umbrellas.

Members of the East Belfast Protestant Boys
Members of the East Belfast Protestant Boys

Particularly popular this year are ties for bandsmen to attach to their shoulders showing the Orange lodge they are members of.

"We do such a huge range of stuff and try to keep all our bases covered," Greig explains. "This year, we have had a big demand for shoulder ties for bandsmen who are also members of the Orange Order to show which lodge they are in.

"We've made about 15 different ones which they can attach to the shoulder flash on their uniforms."

As well as being suited and booted, the flute bands who accompany the Orangemen on their march will be shopping for the best musical instruments.

Working throughout the year in his workshop in Lisburn to hand-craft flutes for many local bands is retired school teacher Clifford Rea.

Rea Flutes is unique in that no one else has perfected the skill of hand-crafting the instruments from scratch.

When a fellow bandsman laid down the gauntlet and insisted that the former Belfast technology and design teacher couldn't make a flute, Clifford was determined to prove him wrong - it was a challenge he couldn't resist.

That was 20 years ago and the now retired Newtownbreda High School teacher has been hand-making flutes for bands ever since.

Today, quite a few loyalist bands - East Belfast Protestant Boys, Shankill Road Protestant Boys, Pride of the Hill in Rathfriland and Downshire Flute Band in Banbridge, to name but a few - will be playing their tunes on a Rea flute.

Clifford, whose teaching career spanned 34 years, is still making flutes at his home on the Hillhall Road in Lisburn.

"I am a member of the Ballylesson Old Boys band, which I have taught for 50 years," he says.

"Because I taught technology and design, some fella in the band said to me that I couldn't make a flute.

"He said that so many companies had tried it, including aircraft companies, and had no success.

"He said I would never be able to make one, and if I did it would sound like nothing.

"I decided to take it on for the challenge and went into my workshop."

At the time, no one was making flutes locally. Instead, they were supplied by a company in England.

Clifford spent a week working on his design and hit the right note with his very first one.

"The first one I made took a week and it sounded brilliant," he said. "I have a good ear for music and can tell when something sounds good. It was a great feeling, especially as I had been told it could not be done.

"I don't rely on electronic tuners - my ear tells me if it is good or bad.

"I make them from aluminium alloy, which comes in a solid bar, and I have to drill a hole up the middle from both sides.

"It is rather difficult to get them to meet in the middle, but I have the skill to do that.

"I then drill the sound holes and position the holes for the keys, then five keys are attached."

Clifford at first made flutes for his own band, which he has been a member of 62 years.

But word of his skill soon spread and for two decades now he has been kept busy crafting flutes for more and more bands across Northern Ireland.

It takes him a day and a half to make one flute, which sells for around £150.

"I didn't set out to make a fortune from them - it has been a pastime for me," he says.

"I'm just happy to do it and now that I am retired it keeps me busy fiddling about at home."

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