John Gray reflects on the modern day celebration of The Twelfth

Welcome to ‘Orangefest’ the new branding of ‘Twelfth’ celebrations since 2008. It comes complete with ‘Orange Dan’, a mascot with an uncanny resemblance to the comic character, ‘Desperate Dan’.

Comparisons have been made with May Day in Moscow, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the Notting Hill Carnival, and a German beer festival. Orangefest cannot be all of these, and is in fact none of them.

The reality is more modest – a commitment to a ‘family friendly pageant’ replete with jugglers, bouncy castles, face-painting, funfairs, and historical tableaux. More than marching, Orangefest is now involved with local festivals which include Scottish dancing, music by pipe bands, fife and drum bands, and Lambeg drumming competitions. Programming for these seems to have been largely co-ordinated by the government funded Ulster Scots Agency (Boord o Ulster-Scotch). Perhaps this is a celebration of wider protestant culture though there is no necessary connection between say Scottish dancing and Protestantism.

Lambeg drumming has a more specific Orange heritage. These massive drums may derive from Williamite war drums, but appear to have evolved into their modern form in the nineteenth century with the craftsmen involved hailing from Lambeg. Their staccato rhythm and sheer carrying power make them the supreme instruments for the aural marking of territory.

For all the new makeover, the essence of the Twelfth remains intact. That includes its preliminaries. From spring onwards young boys range far and wide collecting anything that will burn for the gigantic eleventh night bonfires including wooden pallets and tyres. Highly decorated orange arches are erected across streets, kerb stones are painted red white and blue, and bunting is draped across streets, while union jacks, and more often Ulster flags these days, fly from houses, churches, along main roads, and at communal interfaces.

The eleventh night is as near abandon as it gets. This is a night fuelled by drink and to the accompaniment of rousing orange music, and all too often ‘The Billy Boys’, a notorious Glasgow gang song of the 1930s with the line, ‘We’re up to our necks in fenian blood’. Although local councils have sought to promote environmentally friendly ‘beacons’ this misses the point. These are fires at which the enemy is burnt at the stake. The crescendo is reached when the flames consume targets which may include the Irish tricolour, effigies of the Pope, or of Sinn Fein leaders. In 2008 the Orange Order advised visitors ‘It’s best to stay away’.

All is orderly as the lodges march out on the Twelfth behind their magnificent silken banners, a visual history of Orange concerns and their communities. The men, and it is white men with the exception of one or two West African lodge representatives , are dressed in suits and, less often now, in that symbol of respectability, the bowler hat. They wear orange sashes or collarettes. Some carry swords and pikes, an echo of the days when they marched out expecting battle.

The bands give the marches vigour, and the musicians include women and girls. Most lodges are accompanied by a band. Silver bands are now a rarity, ‘kilty’ or bagpipe bands and accordion bands are more prevalent, but flute and drum bands have become increasingly dominant. These range from the relatively sophisticated using a five-key instrument to those using a single-key flute. A large bass drum and side drums complete the effect.

The dominance of flute bands is partly a matter of economics: they are cheaper to hire than more sophisticated bands, and they may most accurately represent the music that accompanied early parades. These ‘kick the pope’ or ‘blood and thunder’ bands catch the raw essentials of Orange music.
They are part of a protestant sub-culture beyond the control of respectable Orange leaders.

Although bands must sign up to a contract with regard to their conduct, they are hired by individual lodges. They are the most carnivalesque aspect of parades and may infect the lodges when they too adopt a dance step rather than the quasi-military one. They have the popular following and are accompanied along pavements by dancing teenagers.

For carnival lovers there is a downside: they are the most likely to display protestant paramilitary symbols and to engage in overt sectarianism. In the schizophrenic family of Orangeism there is another difficulty: those who give parades the most zest, are least likely to think of religious purpose or prim decorum.

So also with watching crowds. It is festival time in the city centre and as the parade passes working class Sandy Row and Donegall Pass, but from early on, or at least in the past, it is a drink fuelled exuberance. Here you may find ‘Orange Lil’ and her matronly companions attired in dresses made completely of Union Jacks. Further out in middle class Belfast the crowds thin somewhat, and decorous clapping is the order of the day.

At the field families meet up. Resolutions are read, a Unionist politician speaks, and an Orange chaplain conducts a religious service. These formalities are ignored. Relaxation and refreshment is the priority before the march home and the march is what it is all about.

Can Orangefest have a transformative effect? The Order is upbeat about turning the Twelfth into a major visitor attraction. The agencies hoping to increase visitor numbers must desperately hope so. The challenge is to move on from recent disastrous conflict when Northern Ireland became a visitor ‘no-go’ area at the height of the summer season.

Visitors will hardly come for the ‘bouncy castles’, rather for the authentic experience. Many Catholics and non-Orange Protestants will continue to take ‘the yellow road to Donegal’ in the Irish Republic or further afield to avoid the Twelfth. For many Orangemen the ‘Twelfth fortnight’ is their annual holiday so after the marching they depart. Hence a dead season for much of July.

Can Orangefest give a new impetus to the traditional Twelfth? Quite apart from declining Orange Order numbers, other inexorable social factors are weakening the old communal bonds. Urban renewal and population shifts have disrupted traditional marching routes, but other activities too. Fewer arches, flags, and bonfires are evident.

Certainly see the Twelfth while it is in full array, though only a fool would predict its demise any time soon.