And it’s on the Twelfth I love to… go to Mass. Have a confrontation outside the church. Watch the parades in Belfast and in Liverpool. Witness riots in Ardoyne. Meet with the Imperial Orange World Council. Write a book about the Orange Order.
I would never claim an exciting life. But the one entry I might lodge in the Guinness Book of World Records is a variety of Twelfth of July experiences.
The Twelfth has a lot to answer for as it sparked an enduring interest in Northern Irish politics. The annual Orange demonstration in Southport, where I grew up, was the most notable event of the year.
Well, the only event of the year, really, in a sleepy seaside English resort not exactly noted for sectarian fervour.
Thousands of marchers would come on their annual day out from Liverpool and turn the town Orange. It briefly seemed very exciting until I made the shocking childhood discovery that they were all, shock horror, Protestants.
For some of us being educated largely by nuns and priests at the time, this was a crushing revelation. And a few of us resolved to be utterly offended and oppose the parades.
Many Catholics of a certain vintage might recall being dragged from their bed to attend Sunday Mass. Multiply that pain several times for Holy Days of Obligation during school holidays. Oddly though, midweek Mass on July 12 presented no such problems of resistance to religious duties.
Instead, the day provided a promising opportunity for a bit of action. For lunchtime Mass was held in a church opposite a pub where some of the Orange brethren gathered.
A few uncomplimentary tunes about the Pope serenaded us from the pub during the service, which was remarkably well-attended by people like us, determined to be affronted in our piety.
And then there was the clash. Enterprising local shops sold huge sticks of ‘King Billy Rock’ for the visiting hordes. As the Orange contingent and us pious Sons of Rome traded insults across the street, I recall my head meeting a huge stick of rock, long before the decommissioning of such weapons.
Memories are hazy, but I recall it was brandished by a large man with a sizeable ‘Heroes of the Boyne’ tattoo. To this day, there remains a slight scar above my left eye. Jimmy Nesbitt to play me in the film. An annual Scarva-style re-enactment is surely overdue.
The evening return parade of the Orange lodges saw its members much more likely to be felled by the effects of an afternoon’s drinking than anything our heroic resistance might offer.
The demon drink could lead to clashes outside Irish pubs on the return of the lodges to Liverpool — often between friends who would get on fine for the other 364 days of the year.
Liverpool’s Orange-Green divide is marked in plenty of media output, such as Alan Bleasdale’s No Surrender film, Channel 4’s Billy Boys and the BBC’s Alexei Sayle’s Liverpool, Sayle commenting that, as a communist Jew, he struggled with it all. But by the mid-1980s, sectarian confrontations had become rare.
Fast-forward a few decades from the rock-felling drama and I found myself an annual visitor to Belfast’s Twelfth. That seems a long way to travel to take offence.
Except that, by then, I wasn’t offended at all and was enjoying the Twelfth. I was working, along with academic colleagues, on a membership study of the Orange Order.
Confronting the ridiculous prejudices of youth, when I knew nothing about Orangeism, was enlightening. It was fascinating to learn of the fiercely protected traditions of lodges, the mixture of history and culture that infuses its organisation, its religious and charitable missions and the sense of brotherhood it contains.
The callow youth who saw the Orange Order, in a one-dimensional fashion, as a bunch of bigots had metamorphosised into a middle-aged academic who came to appreciate aspects of its work. I also came to appreciate the Order’s company.
Lest people think this a case of being captured by an organisation supposed to be under scrutiny, I’m still ineligible for membership, of course (following the false doctrines of Rome and all that) and critical faculties certainly remain intact regarding unsavoury sectarian aspects.
Absurdly, the Order sometimes appeared keener on punishing members for attending a Church service of their fellow Christian Catholics than for more serious rule breaches.
For years, I witnessed (on both sides of the interface) vicious riots in Ardoyne, accompanied by vile sectarianism in which some lodge members readily engaged.
Only the decision of the Parades Commission — still reviled by the many in the Order — to reroute the return parade took the sting out of the situation. And no one who witnessed the Drumcree confrontations would ever give the Order a free pass regarding the mayhem and violence.
Since Drumcree and Ardoyne, Twelfth problems have mercifully quietened, although this year may be a test amid the political unrest.
Last year’s Covid-affected event saw parades confined to 30-strong small local affairs. It offered a chance to accept a generous invitation to a non-Belfast Twelfth, up in Ballymoney, allowing appreciation of just how much the day means to so many people.
This year, I hope to get to see parades in Belfast and Liverpool. Sadly, there is no Southport march this year. I’ll sort of miss it. But not the King Billy Rock.
Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author (with Jim McAuley and Andrew Mycock) of Loyal to the Core: Orangeism and Britishness in Northern Ireland