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Darach MacDonald: Marching to a different drum ...

The persistent attempts to impose cultural equivalence on the celebrations of the two main traditions here are simply ignoring the uniqueness of Ulster loyalist parading, writes Darach MacDonald


Lambeg drums taking pride of place at last year’s Twelfth

Lambeg drums taking pride of place at last year’s Twelfth

Marchers wearing their sashes

Marchers wearing their sashes



Lambeg drums taking pride of place at last year’s Twelfth

Ulster loyalism is stridently demonstrative. It must be proclaimed in colourful displays of flags and banners, painted kerbstones and lamp-posts, towering bonfires, huge murals depicting 17th-century battle victories and especially in loud, repetitive parades of marching men.

Unlike Irish republicanism, which is almost furtive by nature in Northern Ireland, where it was formerly proscribed as criminally subversive, loyalism spills into public places in elaborate displays of abiding fealty to the Crown and communal witness to Protestantism.

So, year after year, Ulster Protestants honour their cultural traditions by enveloping cities, towns and villages in huge demonstrations of their commitment to maintaining their status as Protestants within the United Kingdom.

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It doesn't matter that these public displays of "British" identity are unique to Northern Ireland and closely related pockets of people around Liverpool and Glasgow.

Especially on the Twelfth of July, loyalist Northern Ireland is more British than Finchley.

Nor has there been any let-up in the resolve to demonstrate this in recent decades.

The "marching season" that once included little more than the months of July and August now extends from St Patrick's Day loyalist band parades in Armagh city and Coleraine to the Shutting of the Gates in Derry on the first Saturday of December.

The pinnacle of the parading calendar, however, is the Twelfth. For successive generation of loyalists, that high point encapsulates all the happiest memories of youth and draws together all the divergent strands of a common identity.

For in the multi-layered nature of Ulster loyalism and support for the Union, which extends from the institutional orders (Orange, Black and Apprentice Boys), through marching bands and working-class youth sub-culture, to former, or practising paramilitaries, the unifying trait is a desire to be involved in the Twelfth of July Orange parade, either as a participant or as a supporting observer.

It is a pivotal event in the communal identity that distinguishes Ulster Protestant identity. For it is only in the context of the parade that loyalism exists as a united "mass movement", as Dr Gordon Ramsey, of Queen's University Belfast, has noted.

In the parade, all political, religious, and generational differences of loyalism are set aside for common celebration.

Nor is the Twelfth just about cultural, or political, unity. In another study, Dr Lee Smithey quotes an east Belfast Methodist minister, identified only as David: "It's not just about marching. It's about family. There's a nostalgia that my father and my great-grandfather did this ... There's a family link; there's an emotional aspect; there's a physical aspect, there's a spiritual aspect; there's a mental aspect. It's hitting all those different buttons within people's lives."

So, while outsiders regard the Twelfth of July Orange parade with perplexity, or even animosity, for those involved and those actively engaged as observers, it is essential to their sense of who they are and where they fit in.

Clearly, there is a unique "marching imperative" in Ulster Protestant culture.

This is a distinctive trait not shared across the community divide in spite of persistent attempts to impose cultural equivalence in the celebrations of the two main traditions.

In every demonstration of their identity, Ulster Protestants take immense pride in orderly procession and the time-honoured ritual of parading.

Year after year on the Twelfth, loyalism follows the military tradition handed down through the succeeding generations.

This involves forming and maintaining ranks in procession behind bands playing martial music. Only the colourful banners and accompanying band uniforms add colourful variation to the lines of men dressed in near-identical and sombre dark suits accessorised by orange sashes.

Innovations in the Twelfth programme are rare and gradual. So, it is little wonder that the signature tune of the day is The Sash My Father Wore. And while the field speeches were once the focal point of the day, now it is the musical parading that dominates for all but a very few.

This contrasts sharply with celebratory demonstrations on the nationalist side, where modern parades now invariably adopt an imported loose-formation Mardi Gras-style with samba bands and colourful floats.

If there is a military aspect to republican parades, it usually features a uniformed "colour party" phalanx with stomping march steps, followed by groups of supporters who chat among themselves and mix and match as they stroll along the route.

Indeed, probably the nearest equivalent to the martial Orange parade in Ulster nationalism is the round-the-pitch procession behind a marching band of the rival teams before matches in the Ulster GAA championship.

Divergence over the last century of once-shared marching traditions has seen martial music largely abandoned on the nationalist side, while traditional dance music has been abandoned as "Irish and alien" by most of those who identify themselves as Ulster British.

Meanwhile, the military-style parading that is the focus of the Twelfth has become an exclusive feature of those who embrace the military background of their history.

For the cultural rituals of Ulster loyalism have remained firmly rooted in the militaristic masculinities that exemplified the late Victorian and Edwardian eras that acted as the prelude to partition.

These drew on traditions of military service that have stretched from the Muster Rolls of the Ulster Plantation through militias, volunteer corps, the 36th (Ulster) Division, Special Constabulary, UDR and the Royal Irish Regiment. For the current first generation of Ulster Protestant males who have not been expected to defend their community in armed service, the overwhelmingly male-dominated parade is the focus of their culture.

It is almost as if 400 years of militaristic training are written into the DNA.

Those who turn out on the Twelfth, whether in the ranks of the Orange lodges, in the marching bands, or even among the throngs of onlookers who line the route, are taking part in a deep-rooted ritual of belonging.

It is loud, festive and in-your-face, but it bolsters and continues their sense of communal identity for the year ahead, when they will do it all over again.

  • Darach MacDonald is a journalist and editor and the author of Blood & Thunder: Inside an Ulster Protestant Band (2010). He was awarded a PhD in 2015 for his research thesis, Proud to be Prod: Music, Memory and Motivation in an Ulster Loyalist Band
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