Orange Pride?

Orange Parade

When I received an invitation from Niall Gibbons, Chief Executive of Tourism Ireland and President of Dublin Chamber to attend a very small gathering in Belfast to observe the Orange Parade on the 12th July, I must admit I was quiet surprised.

This initiative is something that Niall has been working on for a number of years to build bridges and trust across communities.

After some consideration and diary juggling, I decided to make the trip, mainly out of curiosity and to get a deeper understanding of the political climate in the North.

I was warned by many to be extremely careful where I drove, where I parked the car and not to wander out of the hotel alone for any reason. 

I must admit to feeling some trepidation as I drove into Belfast on the afternoon of the 11th watching the many Northern reg cars going in the opposite direction.

My Google Maps took me safely to the door of the newest hotel in Belfast, the superb Grand Central and I chose the valet parking to avoid any risk of going down a wrong street!

On the evening of the 11th there was a mini gathering in the breathtaking Observatory Bar at the top of the hotel, which was a spectacular location to look over the city and the various bonfires that could be seen in different parts.

The gathering included our small group, representatives from Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, some tourism officials as well as Rev. Meryn Gibson, Grand Secretary of the Orange Order and some business people from the city.

As we enjoyed the wine and tasty treats we watched as the crowds started to gather close by, at a site where they were getting ready to set their bonfire alight at midnight.

It was a very strange and uneasy feeling watching the huge structure, higher than a house, with our Irish flag on top and an election poster for a female Sinn Fein candidate tied onto it… I understood why people left the North for these few days.

One of the group who lived in Belfast left the function briefly with her niece to observe the bonfire from the street and I asked if could I tag along … I did ask if it was safe first !!

The scene around the bonfire was strange with couples, families, friends and a random but large assortment of people of all ages all with their smartphones ready to capture the moment when the fire was lit. 

For some it was a mini party and they had their bottles of beer and cider on the go.

I felt more than a little strange witnessing what was going on and I was careful not to engage with anyone as the Cork accent might just be difficult to disguise!

Eventually the bonfire was lit and in no time at all the fire was raging, smoke bellowing into the sky and a strong blast of heat made it to us , even though we were across the street.

There was some cheering when the bonfire was lit and a small group started to chant something that I couldn’t make out – while everyone was busy capturing the “moment” on their smartphones. I really didn’t get a sense of huge celebration from the onlookers and I wondered was there a degree of discomfort with them as well, watching a flag burning that represented their neighbours and the poster of a female politician?

We returned to the hotel with our thoughts, had a nightcap and headed to bed.

The following morning there was a breakfast reception at the hotel with some of the leaders from the different Orange Lodges.

Before we sat down for breakfast there was lots of chit chat as the various people arrived in our private room at the hotel. It was clear already that this was a very special day for the ‘Orange Order’ community as they started to give us insights into their day of marching. Some were from Belfast and others had travelled from places as far away as Scotland and they spoke with pride about what this day meant to them.

Needless to say they were all turned out immaculately for this special day.

Finally the group sat down for breakfast and we had a chance to chat in more depth with those sitting either side of us.

I was sitting next to a very nice gentleman called William Hughes, The Deputy County Grand Master of the Belfast Grand Orange Lodge.

I shared with him my lack of knowledge about the day and the warnings that people had given me about a visit to Belfast.

He used some of the promotional material on the table for the “Twelfth” to describe the day to me, what it meant to the Orange Order and what collectively they were trying to achieve with the day.

There was a square beer mat with the campaign key message “Its about the Battle, not the Bottle”.

Basically, it’s about the significance of the Battle of the Boyne and the celebration of this and not a day for getting drunk! 

On the other side of the beer mat there was an image of people standing at a bonfire with the words “Heritage, Respect, Remembrance, Tradition and Culture”.

The overriding idea is that this is an ‘OrangeFest’ for everyone to enjoy and instead of it being an occasion that would make people avoid the North, it should be the opposite, an attraction that people would want to experience and enjoy.

He explained to me how the Orange Order and the Orange Lodges worked, how they are rooted in religion and good living and how they are an important part of people’s identities and lives.

He did explain that from time to time they clash with the church, as the view is that if they really are upholding the values of their religion then they should be attending church regularly, which is not the case.

It did strike me that they were a very close knit community and that there was a huge tradition around the Lodges that passed from generation to generation and the Orange Parades were the ultimate expression and celebration of this.

I asked about the significance of the bonfires and I was given lots of rational explanations about a guiding light, about warmth and a sign of life. I shared my extreme discomfort about the Irish flag and the election posters as part of the fire and expressed the view that this seriously clashed with how the Orange celebrations had been explained to me by him and that it felt quite disturbing to witness.

His response to me was that this was very unfortunate, definitely not in the spirit of the occasion and it was effectively the work of some hooligans.

While I was glad to hear this explanation, I rationalised it by comparing it to hooligans at soccer matches who can chant and do stupid things and give all fans a bad reputation.

However, it did niggle at me that if the bonfires were so significant and a key symbol to mark this time of the year, then there should have been a huge effort to remove these emotive symbols from the bonfires. Where there is a strong will, there is a way?

Of course the TV crews picked up on these symbols as part of their coverage of the occasion, which sends a poor message to everyone, possibly confirming what many people have in their heads about this society and the unease in the North.

As part of the format of the breakfast everyone present introduced themselves and said a few words. Everyone was made feel very welcome and without doubt the hands of friendship were offered openly.

When it came to my turn I explained how much my opinion had shifted as a result of the experience and I thanked them for their hospitality.

Orange parade

Outside our window along the route we could see people gathering, getting in position for the few hours of marches. These people were organised, with their fold up chairs, their British flags and their refreshments.

As time passed by, the Orange Lodge members were starting to get anxious as they were checking their watches as they all had to be ready to take their position and march with their Lodge.

Our new Orange friends put on their sashes, there was a presentation, photographs and very brief speeches and they headed off to join their respective Lodges.

I took my beer mat and the souvenir programme as momentos of the occasion and to study them in detail later.

We left the wonderful Central Hotel and we were led down the road to a spot which was deemed good for observing the marches.

The walk towards our “spot” was a little embarrassing as the street was lined on each side by eager people all waiting for the marches to begin.

I suspected that many thought that our smartly dressed group were VIPs of some sort as we walked in between them – there was a lot of attention on us and many had their cameras and smartphones ready, just in case there was someone worth snapping!

You could get a huge sense of community as we walked and many of those watching seemed to know the guys who were leading our little group and there was plenty of friendly banter between them.

We finally settled at a spot to watch the marches and waited.

I was observing the people around me waiting – there were old and young, families, couples, bunches of friends and just the very odd person walking by with a drink in their hand – It’s about the Battle, not the Bottle I thought!

Orange parade

In particular, I was observing two young girls in front of me, 20 years of age at most. They were well prepared with their refreshments, their seats and the British flags in hand and they were enjoying their day. One of them had a baby and she held it in her arms getting ready for what was probably the child’s “first” parade – another tradition begins.

After a while we could see the first Orange Lodge appearing with flags, band and other members all marching proudly.

Our wait was a short one, but for many of the people who were waiting it must have been quite a while – it surprised me that when the marching bands did eventually reach our area there was no one cheering or even clapping, just watching.

Orange parade

Band after band marched by, some large and some small, predominantly male and a big mix of ages. The one thing they all had in common was the sense of pride and honour that they carried with them with each step.

Eventually all of the bands had passed by, possibly after an hour and a half and that was that.

As part of our itinerary there was an option to visit the new James Connolly Visitor Centre on the Falls Road and in a way get a sense of how the “other part” of the community in Belfast treated these few days.

I was really impressed by the little Visitor Centre and cafe and we had the opportunity to chat to the manager there, Séanna Walsh and one of the local political representatives for the area.

They explained to us all of the hard work that is being put in year after year, to keep people away from trouble and to give them positive things to do. We heard about the free music festival ‘Feile’ that has been going on for decades and we also heard about the activities on the ground to ensure trouble does not break out.

The Falls Road in the ‘Gaeltacht Quarter’ was not at all what I was expecting!

Before I knew it my Orange visit was over and I had lots to mull over about the very positive experience on the long drive home.

The following morning with a cup of coffee in hand I took out the programme for the “Twelfth” which I had from the breakfast the day before,

I turned the pages and started to read the foreword, which was written by a senior member of the Orange Order.

Two paragraphs in I found myself reading about the “disgusting Sinn Fein politicians” and further on I read about fascists and it got worse.

As much as I had heard about an OrangeFest, celebrating “Hertitage, Respect, Remembrance, Tradition and Culture“, the deep wounds and raw hatred are still very close to the surface witnessed by this rhetoric being used by the leadership in the “souvenir” programme.

I reflected on the bonfire, the Irish flag and the posters of the female Sinn Fein candidate and it made sense to me that many would be quite truthfully more than happy to see these go up in flames.

Maybe it wasn’t a few hooligans after all?

It is hard for us to properly understand what it is like in the North, the deep divisions and the deeper scars.

I do fully understand why people leave the North, and their plans next year and the year after will be no different.

I can’t see how this time will be a festival that attracts visitors anytime soon, which is very unfortunate for the fine place.

Orange parade

I do admire the great work that many are doing to keep the peace and to reach out, but more leaders will need to show more leadership and change their rhetoric for the sake of future generations.

I do sincerely thank the people I met for their hospitality and for sharing their special occasion with us.

Finally, I do admire the huge sense of pride and identity that they have for their history, culture and way of life and wish that maybe we should have more of that about Ireland and our Patrick’s day.

Greg

Greg Canty is a Partner of Fuzion Communications, a full service Marketing, PR and Graphic Design agency with offices in Dublin and Cork, Ireland

 

 

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2 Responses to “Orange Pride?”

  1. the #1 Itinerary Says:

    Great post 🙂

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