Blood & Thunder

Jenny Cathcart learns from this 'valuable resource' by former editor of the Ulster Herald

It took an outsider to write this well researched account of the Castlederg Young Loyalists Flute Band. Darach MacDonald, former editor of the Ulster Herald and an Irish Catholic, spent a year criss-crossing the countryside, following the band to parade venues around the province.

The result - Blood & Thunder: Inside an Ulster Protestant Band - is an important commentary on the largest musical youth movement in the United Kingdom and Ireland, with more than 20,000 active band members across Northern Ireland.

MacDonald chose to focus on Castlederg, a frontier town in a republican heartland, an area which, during the Second World War contributed a large contingent (the 88th Rifles) to the 36th Ulster division, many of whom fought and died at the Battle of the Somme. During the Troubles many local protestants, including band members, were murdered by the IRA.

The impetus for the formation of this band and others like them came as a response to a surge in republicanism in 1981, around the time of the H-Block Hunger Strikes. Once named ‘Kick the Pope’ bands, the so-called blood and thunder groups have been accused of deliberate provocation, and have been known to burn the tricolour and GAA flags at their 11th July bonfire nights. Eager to express their protestant pride they are generally resented and opposed by nationalists.

Blood & ThunderHowever, MacDonald is keen to look beyond such stock images and attitudes. He argues that such marching bands are the most important, distinctive cultural development in the loyalist tradition since the 1960s. He recognises, also, that the current generation of Ulster protestants are perhaps the first not to take up arms in defence of their community. Marching bands, therefore, provide a healthy social forum for such young men to find and express their national identity.

The Castlederg band use modern technology, including social networking websites, to communicate their message and their music. With bright new American style uniforms and more tattoos than Orange collarettes, they make a flamboyant addition to any parade.

Up front, the colour parties, often female, carry contemporary banners, Britannia replacing King Billy. Then come the drummers, their spectacular stick work perfected during hours of practice on table tops. In a reversal of tradition, the flutes take up the rear behind the swaggering bravado of the big bass drum. The standard of musical ability is generally high.

The author describes another group, the Omagh Protestant Boys, parading on their home turf as an impressive spectacle and an exhilarating musical experience. Yet he observes that most people in the largely nationalist vicinity choose to ignore the event completely. Maynard Hanna of the Ulster Scots Agency blames the media for their refusal to feature these marching bands except on the rare occasions when there is trouble. As much as they hope to change their image, old prejudices still exist.

On the first Friday in June, Markethill is described by MacDonald as a catwalk for young bands, the equivalent of Glastonbury or the Oxygen festival, when bands descend on the town for the largest competition of the season. In Drum, south of the border in Monaghan, a parade ‘picnic’ conjures up a carnival atmosphere complete with hamburger stalls and ice cream vans. Such scenes are reminiscient of the past, when the Twelfth was celebrated by both sides of the community.

Some of the best passages in Blood & Thunder are those quotations from bandsmen and women like Neil Johnston, an unmarried, born again Christian who sees the Castlederg band as his social base. He doesn’t go to bars anymore, so apart from church and work he has no other opportunities to meet people of his own age. On the other hand, however, the diary entries which catalogue the numerous parade dates throughout the year, the numbers of bands taking part and the routes they take can become somewhat wearisome for the reader.

A Parades Commission was set up in 1997 to control and direct Ulster’s 584 marching bands from both sides of the community. Quincey Dougan, webmaster for the Ulster Bands Forum’s website, is quoted as saying that the majority of Loyalist bands are now apolitical, and that the best solution for a peaceful future has to be an attitude of tolerance. He believes that breaking down sectarian barriers can only be achieved by recognising that there are differences in our community. There is no doubt that MacDonald's Blood & Thunder will be a valuable resource in the years ahead, as both communities struggle to understand and accept one another.

Blood and Thunder is available to buy from the CultureNorthernIreland shop.