Disclaimer: If you were not born and raised in Northern Ireland, you will be unlikely to understand very much of this post. Don’t try to make sense of it. It explores actions, attitudes and activities that make no sense at all.
Somewhere in Belfast a gentlemen’s outfitter is counting his money and smiling. This week he shifted a lot of old overstock: cloth caps, known here as dunchers. All across the East of the city, grannies risked carpal tunnel as they furiously crocheted shawl and after shawl in preparation for today. Those men and women marching in the Ulster Covenant centenary parades decided to wear the outfits their forebears would have sported 100 years ago. Thus it was that thousands of Protestants garbed in tweed, starched shirts and scratchy woollens walked the 10 mile route from the Kings Hall to the Stormont Parliament buildings.
My Gran, only 8 years old, was with her father when he went to sign the covenant. My grandad, Samuel Barron of Cootehill, Co. Cavan also signed. He was seventeen and one of half a million people to do so. The protest was against Home Rule for Ireland. The Republic of Ireland was created not in 1912, but a decade later. At that time, the island was partitioned to allow the Northern covenanters to remain under British Rule.
We heard the first Lambeg drums around 9am with bands and costumed would-be covenanters streaming into the city center from Sandy Row. The members of the flute bands wore immaculate uniforms with brass buttons and plentiful braid. ” I bought those uniforms” I told Spud Hughes “I had a Saturday job in Sandy Row and every week a man in sinister shades would come in and ask for money for uniforms” Spud laughed. We both know the money went on guns not brocade. Now it’s probably some European grant that buys the regalia.
We were to spend the day on a bus tour of Belfast with a lot of English friends visiting the city for the first time. Like many of the people in the parade, this was the first the visitors had heard of the Covenant. They marveled at the number of bands and Orange lodges, and their commitment to hours of standing, and miles of marching. The parade was dignified, the marchers upbeat, and the music well rehearsed. Recent years–and considerable rebranding effort–have brought order to the Order.
Our bus took us up the nationalist Falls Road to the republican plot at the Milltown cemetery. Here are the graves of hunger striker Bobby Sands, the three IRA members killed by British Forces in Gibraltar in the early 1980s, and IRA commander Joe Cahill. Our bus driver told us about attending the funeral of the Gibraltar Three: “I was only a wee fella and I came up to the cemetery just to see what was going on. I was standing about 50 yards back there when the shooting started. People began to chase after Michael Stone and I went down with them. I saw him near pulled apart. A policeman had one of his arms and someone else had the other and they were pulling and pulling on him like a tug of war. It was boggy down there. I thought me Ma would kill me for getting my trousers dirty”
Michael Stone was jailed but set free as part of the amnesty that came with the Good Friday agreement. He has since been locked up again for causing a disturbance at Stormont. It was easy for the police to catch him that time. He got stuck in a revolving door.
We left the Falls Road and crossed the peace line on to the Protestant Shankill Road. This is a short journey, but one that many people in Belfast have never made. We stopped at the one of the city’s 42 Peace walls, built to stop two neighboring communities from killing each other. When I last saw the wall, some twenty years ago, the aluminium sheets were covered only with graffiti. Since then, these too have had a branding overhaul and now sport quotes from Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama in addition to motifs commemorating all that is to be celebrated about Belfast’s past. The wall is still considered necessary. It is taller than the one in Soweto and seems more permanent than the Berlin Wall. On the Shankill they are selling souvenir rock (red, white and blue the whole way through).
Our tour guide Harry did a fantastic job. It is one thing to know the history of Northern Ireland/the North of Ireland and the impact of the Troubles/the Conflict and another thing to talk about it when you are not quite sure who is riding your bus. Throughout, Harry’s language was impartial and non-incendiary. He reported tens of terrible incidents without ever using the words “killed”or “murdered” Instead, terrorists/volunteers, ODCs (ordinary decent citizens) and police officer and British army soldiers (aka the forces of oppression) all “lost their lives” much as one might drop a hanky or mislay some change.
Our English tourists–not the only ones touring the city today–took equal opportunity pictures of the republican graves, the loyalist murals and the parades. The sun shone, and in the distance the drum and flute bands played a tv theme tune or two to show that their repertoire is not limited to sectarian hate songs. Surreal.