Blood & Thunder

Tyrone-based author Darach MacDonald, who spent a year shadowing a loyalist band, tells Garbhan Downey how the experience confounded his expectations

When Darach MacDonald, a Monaghan-born, Irish-speaking Catholic launched his new book at the Omagh Library this month, the musicians playing at the event were accorded a standing ovation. It was the first time many of the large crowd had heard Castlederg Young Loyalists Flute Band - or any loyalist band - at such close range, and they were sincerely impressed. 'There was a collective intake of breath when they came up to play,' laughs the writer, 'but as they were leaving, the crowd rose to their feet and shouted for more.'

The move was a gamble on MacDonald’s part – as was spending all of 2009 satisfying his journalistic curiosity as to what makes loyal bandsmen tick. But both these risks paid off. And his new work Blood & Thunder: Inside an Ulster Protestant Band is now likely to become the seminal book on loyalist culture in the early 21st century.

'Most people only get half the picture of who they are, and where they are from. We spend our lives deliberately ignoring the elephant in the room - in our case, the other community’s culture,' remarks MacDonald. 'You can have two men, working together side by side, one a GAA man, the other a bandsman, and they will never talk about the other’s culture for fear it will cause offence.'

MacDonald found himself 'bristling' to complete his own picture - and to ask the questions that no-one had ever asked on his behalf. 'I myself always assumed, like many in my community, that loyalist bands were makey-up outfits, attached to Orange lodges, and dragged together at the start of the season to play loud music to provoke their peaceful Catholic neighbours.

'But I discovered it was very different, and an awful lot more complex. The band, and the tradition of music and parading, is intrinsic to the young men’s culture. A large part of their very identity comes from musical parading.'

While there is no direct equivalent to the marching band tradition in nationalism, MacDonald argues that the blood and thunder bands fulfil a role similar to GAA clubs. 'Young bandsmen are taught traditional skills, inculcated with a sense of cultural pride and identity, and are encouraged to prove themselves in competition. There

is also an organised structure [there are 580-plus loyal bands] with senior mentors advising the younger ranks.

'There is no corresponding martial tradition on the other side of the divide - it’s not in the Catholic-Irish psyche. But for young Protestants, putting on a uniform and marching is written into their DNA. The current generation of young Protestants is possibly the first ever that isn’t expected to join a militia to defend their people. From the Plantation of Ulster, through the Ulster Volunteer Force and the B Specials, there has always been that tradition of defending, and marching.'

MacDonald decided to write Blood & Thunder after ending his eight-year stint as editor of the Ulster Herald in 2008. He broached the idea first with Derek Hussey, a former UUP assemblyman and founder member of the CYLFB, who was very receptive to the plan. Hussey knew the writer wasn’t looking to do a number on the band, so he in turn contacted the current bandmaster, Trevor Donnell, who agreed to run it by the band members.

'The first night was a little nerve-wracking. I turned up for band practice at Bridgetown No Surrender Orange Hall in Castlederg, and it’s quite a different environment for an outsider. I describe it in the book, but I’d only been in an Orange Hall once before - in Monaghan - so it was pretty strange to see the walls lined with flags, and pictures of Carson, the Queen, Prince Philip and various lodges.

'The men themselves were very young, ranging from about 15 to mid-20s, and were wearing Rangers or Northern Ireland tops. If I’d been a younger reporter going in, they might have felt less comfortable with me. But I’d raised a couple of boys myself - and the grey hair gives you a bit of protection!

'But my fears were totally unfounded. They made me feel very much at home. At one stage, Trevor asked me how they were playing, and I told him: ‘It looks like you lads need no practice!’ After that, I was just the boy writing the book ‘to make us all famous’. No-one ever considered me an interloper.'

The village of Castlederg witnessed more than its share of blood-letting during the Troubles. Four members of the CYLFB were killed by republicans, two of them while serving with the UDR. And MacDonald acknowledges that in years gone by, there would have been some anti-Catholic sentiment among band members.

CYLFB Parade in Derry'For example, when they were parading in other places, they would have spotted a heavy security presence and realised they were passing a nationalist area, and knew exactly when to crank the volume.

'But that was never the purpose of the march, it was just incidental. And in my year with the band, I never once heard a single sectarian or intentionally provocative remark.

'Also, from what I saw myself, there is a huge effort now, on the loyalist side, to comply with Parades Commission strictures. There has been a real maturing process. The recalcitrant bands, who wear paramilitary dress and so on, are no longer welcome - and this has been made clear to them.'

In the course of his research, MacDonald would travel across all nine counties of Ulster, attending practices, parades, social events, pageants and many, many competitions.

'Competing is the most important part of the process. You pit your skills against other bands from different places for the pride of the parish - or, rather, congregation. And while there’s no such thing as an Ulster Final, there’s one major event in Markethill, where more than 100 bands take part, and the standard is exceptionally high. If you win a prize there, you’ll have considerable boasting rights.

'The bands have a considerable musical repertoire. Indeed many of the bandsmen study music to advanced levels at school. It’s not just 'Derry’s Walls' or 'The Sash'. The fluters also play popular tunes, Irish jigs - the CYLFB do 'Lannigan’s Ball' - and one band even do Johnny Cash!'

The quality of the playing did impress MacDonald, particularly some of the drummers, who, he reckons, could hold their own with Buddy Rich. But the author also came to appreciate that the dignity of the procession was every bit as important as the music.

'It’s not just the music, it’s also about discipline, parading and the turnout; how the band acts as a unit and how it sounds. Parades are an entity that Ulster Protestants particularly respect. One man commented to me that you can always tell the difference between a Catholic funeral and a Protestant one just by looking at it. Protestants know how to stage a procession.'