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What the Twelfth means to us


From Lambeg drums and bands to the long walk to the Field, this week tens of thousands of people will once again celebrate the 327th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne at 19 venues across Northern Ireland. We asked three writers to explain.

Lindy McDowell: ‘It’s an odd but very colourful street party’

There are primarily two Twelfths in Northern Ireland. The rural Twelfth. And the urban Twelfth. I grew up with one. I grew into the other. The country Twelfth I remember from my youth was, and still is, a more understated occasion than what is now called Orangefest in Belfast.

But as in the city it is above all a day out for family and friends. It is about carnival, not clash.

It is an annual get-together, where old acquaintances salute each other from the kerbside to the ranks and back and big parties picnic together in The Field. Excitable children still run free, as they always have, throwing their stall-bought band poles skywards with hazardous aim.

And old men still watch them with a wistful eye flitting back down the many years of their own long lifetime. Each Twelfth, another marker in the passage from child to adult to great age. Each memory touched by poignant recall of friends and relatives now long gone.

What I recall from the Twelfths of my youth is the excitement of a day out. The smell of cut grass and the fierce blatter of the Lambeg - that great, deafening, pounding beat so encompassing that you felt your very heart hammer in time.

It was flaccid tomato sandwiches and fizzy orange. And ice-cream. Everybody ate ice-cream.

The 99 was as much a part of Orange tradition as the bowler hat.

It was your uncles giving you money which could then be spent with abandon on all sorts of tat in the stalls.

There were flute bands. Accordion bands. And wailing bagpipes. I wasn't a fan of the bagpipes when I was young. I am now.

There were technicolour banners blowing in the breeze - the occasional King Billy and many stern-faced men with Bibles.

There were men gathered in clusters clutching Guinness bottles, discussing the price of hay, and teenagers juking past them with illicit carry-outs. Ah yes, the drink ... The bottle, not the battle, to misquote the Orangefest campaign.

It would be fair to say liquor has traditionally featured prominently in the Twelfth celebration, whether rural or urban.

In recent years in Belfast the scale of the drinking - and it has to be said, the resultant urination - has reached tidal proportions.

I've seen young people seated on a wall of six-packs casually drinking their way to oblivion with beer and fluorescent beverages. And not just young people. There are revellers of all ages who really cannot hold their drink and behave like maggots.

All that is to be condemned of course.

The organisers of Orangefest (I admire the sentiment, but hate that word) deserve credit for trying to limit the consumption of the rocket fuel. But they have their work cut out.

And, yes, there are other aspects of the mammoth parade that critics will raise objection to.

Few examples of cultural expression come under the microscope quite so extensively as the Twelfth. I've been to the Notting Hill carnival. There are excesses there too.

But the bad behaviour of a minority does not overshadow the reality that the Twelfth in both city and country setting is still a grand day out for tens of thousands of decent people from all sorts of backgrounds who are there, not to annoy their neighbours, not to cause offence, but just to enjoy themselves.

It is also a chance for the thousands of young people who walk in the bands to show off their really impressive skills. It's an often overlooked or downplayed fact, but for many working class kids the bands are an outlet for a musical talent they might never have discovered otherwise.

This is their tradition. Their culture. You do not have to approve of it, or want to participate in it, to respect it.

The Twelfth parades now attract an evolving audience. Many, many tourists for whom the Twelfth is very much Camerafest.

And some of our newer fellow citizens who turn out to watch and to jig in time to the music, to have some fun along with their neighbours. To them it's a street party. An odd one. A colourful one. A celebration.

And that's exactly what it is to the tens of thousands of people who will turn out again this week to watch the bands, to meet up with old friends, to catch up with family and just enjoy a great day out in - hopefully - the sunshine.

In the city and in the country, that's the real Twelfth.

Father Martin Magill: ‘I admire how Bible shapes requirements of the order’

Most days in Ballyclare I walk or drive under an arch that was recently put up ahead of the Twelfth.

Among the various symbols on it is a depiction of a black book with the words - "Holy Bible".

During a recent walk in War Memorial Park, I noticed a small plaque beside one of the trees with the words "Kilbride Bible and Crown Defenders LOL 1107".

As an organisation, the Orange Order in its public position clearly emphasises the importance of the Bible.

When I saw the symbol of the Bible on the arch I was drawn back to my days in St James' Primary School in Aldergrove, where the Bible was also emphasised. One of the teachers there taught my class not only a reverence for it, but also encouraged the learning of key verses. I am someone who loves the scriptures, who prays and reads them each day.

As a member of a church which offers a daily diet of scripture at Mass and in the divine office, and which encourages not only the study of scripture but also offers various ways of praying with them, I welcome such a prominent place given to the Bible.

It is therefore no surprise then to find the instruction to live by the Bible in the Qualifications of an Orangeman: "He should honour and diligently study the holy scriptures, and make them the rule of his faith and practice".

I'm also in agreement with these words from the Qualifications: "He should never take the name of God in vain, but abstain from all cursing and profane language, and use every opportunity of discouraging those, and all other sinful practices, in others."

At St James' Primary School, I learned the commandment: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain".

It is very clear that the Bible shapes the Qualifications: "His conduct should be guided by wisdom and prudence, and marked by honesty, temperance, and sobriety, the glory of God and the welfare of man, the honour of his Sovereign, and the good of his country, should be the motives of his actions".

I imagine the reference to honesty, temperance and sobriety may have been inspired by these words from St Paul: "Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy (Romans 13:13).

In a few days time, the annual Twelfth parades and demonstrations will be upon us. Who could object to an Orangeman or a bandsman wanting to live their lives by verses such as the following from the New Testament?

"Let us therefore make effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification" (Romans 14:19).

I applaud an organisation which practises these edifying words of St Paul: "Love your neighbour as yourself. Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law" (Roman 13:10).

While the Qualifications of an Orangeman have much I appreciate, I do take issue with this section: "He should strenuously oppose the fatal errors and doctrines of the Church of Rome and other non-reformed faiths, and scrupulously avoid countenancing (by his presence or otherwise) any act or ceremony of Roman Catholic or other non-reformed worship; he should, by all lawful means, resist the ascendancy, encroachments, and the extension of their power, ever abstaining from all uncharitable words, actions, or sentiments towards all those who do not practice the reformed and Christian faith."

These words seem to have no appreciation of what I might call the "reforms" of the second Vatican council (1962-1965) of the Catholic Church, which among many other things placed a greater emphasis on the Bible.

While not using the word "reform", Pope Francis seems to encourage it for the Catholic Church today: "In her ongoing discernment, the church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as a means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them" (Evangelii Gaudium, #43).

In May of this year I visited the Museum of Orange Heritage in Belfast on International Museum Day and I plan to visit it again. I was especially interested in the section dedicated to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. This reminded me of how Martin Luther, in challenging the abuses that he saw in the Catholic Church, set off the Reformation.

Now 500 years on, I wonder if the Catholic Church and the Orange Order might attempt to see evidence of ongoing reformation in the other. The refrain "reformed and always reforming" applies to all of us because every organisation needs reform.

  • Father Martin Magill is administrator of Ballyclare and Ballygowan parish

Tony Macaulay: 'I let go of the Twelfth like a band stick lost in the Field'

A few years ago, my wife Lesley and I were on holiday and relaxing by a quiet swimming pool in the Mediterranean sunshine. A few unsuspecting sunbathers were reading books and sipping sangria. Little did  they know an Ulsterman was in their midst and I was about to release my inner Twelfth!

Suddenly I spotted a small white pole. It was being used to retrieve floats from the water but it reminded me of the sort of band stick I used to play with as a boy around the Twelfth.

Maybe it was sunstroke, or perhaps too many sips of sangria, but I instinctively grabbed the stick. I stood up beside the pool in my swimming trunks and for several minutes I twirled my improvised band stick like a boy on the Twelfth of July. I twirled it in front of me skilfully and passed it behind my back with one hand impressively. My boyhood skills were still intact.

Lesley looked over her sunglasses and chuckled knowingly, assuming she was the only person in the vicinity who had any idea of the great cultural significance of my behaviour. I took the band stick in one hand, balanced it on one finger and hurled it 10ft into the air. Intent on catching it, as the pole returned to earth I leapt in the air and grasped for my band stick. I missed it and fell into the swimming pool with a humiliating splash. As I clambered out of the pool, Lesley was in stitches on her sun lounger and had placed her 'Fifty Shades of Grey' over her face, as this was apparently less embarrassing than being seen with me.

As I dried off, a fellow sunbather approached me with a concerned look on his face. I assumed he was going to ask me to be more careful at the poolside, but he looked me straight in the eye and said in a Belfast accent, 'You'd easy know where you're from big lad!'

My earliest memory of the Twelfth is sitting in a deck chair near the City Hall with a plastic Union Jack in one hand and a melting poke in the other. I remember waving at family and neighbours as they passed by in the parade, and then my granny getting out a thermos flask for a wee cup of tea.

I recall the beat of the big bass drum resounding in my little chest as the bands passed by and feeling scared and excited at the same time. As the years went by I began to envy the boys who got chosen to hold the string behind the banners or to lead the parade with dazzling band stick twirling skills. I got my own band stick and practised for hours, even though I never marched in a single parade.

But somehow in the ensuing decades I let go of the Twelfth like a band stick thrown in the air and lost in the Field. Maybe it was seeing one too many drunk bandsmen urinating in the street beneath the flag or marchers shouting sectarian abuse at a Catholic church. Perhaps it was being stopped by masked men at a roadblock during Drumcree or maybe it was seeing one too many marchers attack the police.

I saw no one trying to stop all this and eventually my negative experiences smothered the good memories. Mind you, celebrating battles isn't really my thing anyway, apart from Star Wars, of course.

As a child, I loved the boney and collecting wood every year in our street. I remember the competition between the boys in the next street whose boney was always bigger than ours and I recall minding the bonfire from sabotage from these rivals. I was most upset when my parents refused to allow me to sleep inside the bonfire, in the hut we built to guard it from premature ignition. But then our bonfires became the property of paramilitaries, who turned them into industrial mega-boneys with lorry loads of tyres and wooden pallets, to display control of 'their' communities. I saw one too many bonfire nights overtaken by underage drinking, paramilitary displays and burning Irish flags. I saw no one able to stop all this.

I know the Twelfth still matters a great deal to many people in Northern Ireland, but this wee lad, who once longed more than anything to hold the string behind the banner on the Twelfth of July, ultimately felt he had to let it go.

  • Little House On The Peace Line: Living On the Other Side, by Tony Macaulay, is available from Amazon, £9.99

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