In towns and villages across Northern Ireland the scenes were similar as Orangemen stayed local to celebrate the 331st anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne.
It was a Twelfth of sorts — fractured, dispersed, almost symbolic of unionism as it stands. The date was the same, though not quite the occasion as we know it. As organisation of the events took place while Covid restrictions were in place, it was never going to be.
Diluted Orange for 2021, out of necessity rather than choice.
While it didn’t taste quite as sweet as usual, it was, for the thousands who still turned out, sweet enough for now. It did serve to stave off the thirst in the hope of a return to normal in 2022.
It wasn’t a day you went to the Twelfth, it was a day the Twelfth came to you. The full flavour, they promise, will return next time around.
Instead of the usual mass gatherings or pageantry, colour and music, the meeting of old friends in the field, the spending of pocket money on plastic drums, batons and flags as children throng around stalls and everyone looks for the portable loos, it was a low key affair with smaller parades, fewer lodges coming together and fewer people descending on the usual 18 selected hotspots around the country.
The best bit about it, the feet weren’t as sore as normal come the end of the day.
Despite a helping hand from the weather, there remained a sense that things still weren’t quite how they used to be. Away from Belfast, where the usual main parade has been split into six smaller versions, it was a quiet morning in Dungannon where 17 lodges and six bands had gathered for a noon start.
It had been quiet in Belfast too, with those who normally flock to the parade opting instead to stay and support their local bands in their own communities. But that’s the way the Orange Order had wanted it. No huge parades with thousands lining the streets. It wouldn’t have been a good look, despite the restrictions on gatherings of over 500 people being lifted last week by the Executive.
Plans had been in place, and plans were executed, much to the satisfaction of the Orange Order and the PSNI, and to those who turned out in towns and villages. Keep it local was the Orange order of the day.
In Magherafelt a 11.30am start saw a good turnout of bands and lodges, but no deck chairs lined the route. Instead there was a short, sharp parade through the town centre, watched by a decent crowd from front gardens or sitting in coffee shops.
It came and went, no need for a corned beef sandwich, home in time for lunch with a little slice of Orange brought to the doorstep.
The mood of the day was summed up by Orange Grand Secretary Reverend Mervyn Gibson, who watched the Belfast parade from outside the Ulster Hall in Bedford Street.
“Of course it’s been different this year,” he said.
“Last year it was the Twelfth at home, this year it’s the Twelfth near you.”
Rev Gibson said he was pleased with how the day had gone, given the reduction in numbers attending marches as a result of the pandemic.
“Normally this place would be six-deep with people but actually we have achieved what we have set out to achieve, we wanted to spread the crowds across Northern Ireland.”
In Loughgall, one long-time Orangeman who has taken part in over 70 parades was definitely benefiting from the local approach to the Twelfth.
Almost 93, Fred Cooper was on his doorstep in Main Street. He had feared his days of watching the Twelfth were over.
This was Fred’s first year of not walking in the parade due to arthritis in his back, but he took the chance to step out in the sunshine and proudly watch the familiar friends and faces march past.
And the day ended with a promise the Lambeg drums will beat louder again next year.