First Impressions of the “Marching Season”

David Campton has invited me to reflect on some of the similarities and contrasts between our American July 4 Independence Day observance and the Northern Irish July 11/12 Orange holidays. This has been a difficult task, because while I have some understanding of the American holiday, there are historical complexities and cultural subtleties that lurk beneath the surface of the Northern Irish observances. It’s tempting to sound like an “instant expert” and draw conclusions and make judgements that are both naïve and inappropriate. Having said that, here are some of my impressions.
Our first taste of the “marching season” observances came on July 1, referred to as “the mini-Twelfth.” This is the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, during the First World War, where the Ulster Regiment suffered significant casualties. The one-hour parade of flute-and-drum bands, accordion bands, a few floats, and hundreds of marching Orange Lodge members, was a prelude to the parade we watched in Belfast’s City Centre on July 12.
On Friday night, July 11, we watched the lighting of a huge bonfire built on an empty lot in the Ballybeen Estate, just down the hill from our church. The 50-foot pile of wooden pallets, discarded sofas and mattresses, and anything else that would burn, topped by the green-orange-and-white flag of the Irish Republic (which was burned as a defiant political statement), was doused with gasoline before being set alight at midnight. The bonfires have their origin in the signal-fires used at the time of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, much like our Fourth of July fireworks displays are reminiscent of “the rockets’ red glare” over Fort McHenry mentioned in our national anthem. While many of the older people present seemed to understand the historical significance of the spectacle, the dozens of bonfires lit around Northern Ireland seem to have become an excuse for drinking, partying, and sectarian chest-beating.
The parades held around Northern Ireland the next day, July 12 (in memory of Protestant William of Orange’s victory over Catholic James II in 1690), are a constant reminder of the sectarian divisions and political tensions that characterize life in Northern Ireland. While the event sometimes leads to violent clashes, this year’s parades went off largely without incident. There was a festive spirit in the air as impressive hand-painted banners led dozens of bands from Northern Ireland and Scotland, along with their supporting ranks of Orangemen, through the streets of Belfast. I commented to David Porter, of the Center for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland and our interpretive “host” for the July 12 parade, that the emotional and patriotic fervor of the bonfire/parade experience felt like a combination of our Independence Day/Memorial Day/Veteran’s Day pumped up on steroids. He laughed and responded, “Yes, that sums it up pretty well.”
One of the contrasts I see between our American Fourth of July and the Northern Irish Twelfth of July is that we Americans are far enough removed from the events of 1776 that we’ve been able to create a mythological version of our War of Independence. And in spite of the Civil War that divided us in the 1860s, all Americans are able to look back beyond that division to claim and celebrate the same July 4 myth. Northern Ireland, on the other hand, has continued to suffer the pain of sectarian division and violence through most of the 20th century, and many of the wounds are still fresh. The Twelfth of July is a reminder that Northern Ireland is still divided – religiously, politically and culturally. Those divisions, rooted so deeply in history, make it difficult for the various segments of Northern Irish society to trust one another and agree on a common vision for the future. I sense that the hope for Northern Ireland’s future lies in the growing number of cross-community relationships (through which former enemies begin to experience and acknowledge their common humanity) and the growing conviction on all sides that violence is not the way to build a healthy and vibrant society.

Reflections by Rev. Dr. Geoff Hayes, Pastor of Faith United Methodist Church, Grand Rapids, MI, on exchange with David Campton in Dundonald Methodist Church.


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