In spite of having worked in Belfast for fifteen months I was ignorant of this country’s traditions. During the war local differences were dwarfed. Today English School children know ten times more than I did, as I had never seen an Orange Procession until 1946 I looked upon the Orangemen like I did the Scouts and the Salvation Army, a group of like minded people, dressed in uniform because it made them feel more like a unit and marching behind a band because it helped to keep them in step. I was unaware of how easy it was to give offence, especially in regions of political correctness. Unionists, and others, every Twelfth of July, known cryptically as the Twelfth, go to the City Centre to watch the Orangemen march off to what is termed the ‘Field’ where they have a rest, a few noggins and an harangue from their leaders, before marching back
Interestingly, the other faction, the Roman Catholics, the Republicans, believing wholeheartedly in a United Ireland, also have Hibernian Day for marches and political rhetoric, but this is displayed in their own areas and I, in 60 years, have only seen it relayed on TV.
The members of the immediate family I had married into were not Orange men and women, they were, like more the 50% of the population, law-abiding, reasonably contented, Protestants, and that was all. between ’46 and 69, I found people were so busy in getting back their lives after the war, that apart from a few politicals, there was little sectarian strife as a generality. People were brought up in those traditions, but it was nowhere near as rigid as I had been led to believe, until it became as it did in 1969. That is not to say that deep down the prejudices still slumbered, and could be aroused if it was felt that the traditions were being ridiculed, or that some slight was intended. What this family of mine did not tell me was the long list of do’s and don’ts surrounding the Orange Order.
As I have said, in my ignorance I equated the Order no higher the bunch of like-minded people on a level I suppose with Morris Dancers.. I could not have been more wrong. I looked upon them as flamboyant curiosities, especially when I saw some of the Mace-Bearers cavorting like banshees at the head of the column – wrong again. I equated them to some extent to the Trades Unions when I heard their rhetoric. Wrongggg! I therefore made a number of mistakes from which others told me I could have died and it was a wonder I had got away unscathed.
The processions really are unique for the colour, the sheer numbers taking part, the disparate dress each lodge chooses, from the black bowler hat, black double breasted suit and black shoes, white shirt, white gloves and rolled umbrella, with the leaders carrying an unsheathed sword at the address, down to those in bright blue peaked caps with bright blue pullovers and trousers, and tennis shoes. Most lodges carry incredibly beautiful banners on two poles, with staying strings of woven coloured rope held by small children. They often depict King William the Third on a white horse at the battle of the Boyne. This latter specification was mistake number one. In our family, because King W. was at the Boyne, quite naturally therefore he was called Billy the Boyne.
On the day of the first Twelfth I was to see, we all went down to the centre of Town, to Donegal Place, and watched as band after band, banner after banner, passed; the music from one band momentarily mingling with the next. I always wondered at what point in the procession it was impossible to keep in step because of the cacophony from both bands. Laura, now a little over a year old was seated in a pram at the kerb with Sophie behind her, while I was at the back of the crowd because I was tall enough to see over most people and it would have been churlish to have stayed at the front. Suddenly, before I thought of what I was saying, I saw the most beautiful banner of King William on his white horse, and you’ve guessed it, I shouted to Laura to look at ‘Billy-The-Boyne and his white horse. For a second nothing happened and then with one accord most of the people within earshot turned to look at this creature who was blaspheming from the back of the crowd and they were like Queen Victoria, they were not amused. The following year I learned to my cost that one does not cross through the procession even if it does take over an hour to pass one spot, a large pogo-stick is needed, that or a helicopter