Tuesday, 17 July 2007

My experience of the Twelfth of July

Having outlined the apathy which Orangeism and the parading culture inspires in me, I felt it only fair to relate some observations about the Belfast Twelfth having witnessed several of the festivities. Living in South Belfast and staying there during the eleventh and twelfth, it was hard to ignore what was going on and I was compelled to experience it first hand.

Or that at least is my contention, because on the 11th night there was nothing forcing me to take to the bottle. After returning from work and making my way up the road for some celebratory chips, I was intrigued by the fact that one household in the neighbourhood had elected to leave a significant quantity of sagging, antique furniture out on the street, presaging some of the events to come with a very cunning plan to avoid paying the council to remove their unwanted items.
Thus irritated, I acquired my sausage supper and cheese, a copy of the Tele and dispatched myself eventually to Hunters for a browse of the paper and a fortifying pint. Thence to NG’s, who as a man of some prodigious liberalism, surprised me by entering into the festive mood rather wholeheartedly, providing a Youtube smorgasbord of rioting and loyalist music to soak up our tins of lager.

We ventured to Lavery’s, unsure of our plans for the night ahead, other than for the continuance of imbibing beer. Alarmingly we were informed that the establishment was shutting at 10pm, a forewarning which turned out to be accurate, as only half way down our second pint, there appeared bouncers urging our bibulous alacrity.

Another session of Youtube and the Snow family’s analysis of the Battle of the Boyne enthused us sufficiently to visit the Sandy Row bonfire. The crowd was substantial, although slightly underwhelming, although at this juncture a persistent rain had begun, which continued unabated throughout proceedings. The younger enthusiasts congregated directly in front of the imminent fire and we were reasonably well back along the Sandy Row itself. There were large groups of young men, and no shortage of alcohol, but the atmosphere didn’t seem particularly threatening.

With the inclement conditions, the fire was initially slow to take hold and teenagers took it upon themselves to shinny up the construction with extra flame and with paraffin. Eventually the blaze was impressive, even though the actual bonfire was substantially smaller than many others around Belfast. Some loyalist songs were sung (unsurprisingly), I had no close view of what was on the bonfire, although as seems to be traditional a couple of tricolour Republic of Ireland flags were burnt.

There were stalls selling merchandise and food, there were a large number of children and families present and a surprising number of curious foreigners had chanced upon the event. One Polish family, consisting of a man and wife and their two daughters, were getting a great number of snaps taken in front of the fire on a digital camera. As the bonfire blazed, a spidey disco commenced in an adjacent car-park, crowds began to drift off and we got a bit fed up with being soaked.

During this period we’d had brief conversations with the Polish family, with a Chinese man taking photographs, with a family from Blackburn who were over for the event and with a large chap who I’d met whilst waiting for the plane to Leeds which never left.

In conclusion, the bonfire was a fairly tame occasion in actuality. Whether this was because of the rain, or simply because these events are not generally the repositories of violence and drunken mayhem depicted in the media, I cannot comment on the evidence of one event.

On the Twelfth itself, my bonfire induced hangover dictated that I only watch the outward parade on the television. Indeed I dozed on and off until lunchtime at which point Kerry and I braved the Lisburn Road, looking for some lunch. Neither Tescos nor any of the usual caf├ęs we use were open and eschewing a botchalism burger we settled on the only place interested in tapping the biggest crowd which congregates in the area all year for a few quid.

The Lisburn Road was a bit of a mess already and we crunched through glass and tins, passed groups of drunken teens lying in doorways and generally averted our eyes on numerous occasions.

A walk that afternoon from Shaw’s Bridge revealed similar sights and crowds, before we mercifully got away to the quieter parts of the Lagan Meadows.

That evening I elected to walk up and briefly watch some of the lodges and bands coming home. Searching for a suitable perspective some members of a NISC I’m acquainted with shouted for me to come over. One pint from the Edinburgh Club later I felt rather ensconced, particularly as the BDL lads were forthcoming with a refill. Certainly the parade can take on a festive hue after a pint or two and in the more relaxed atmosphere of the return parade. Some reprobates were perched on top on the portable toilets doing their best to damage them, but such things happen in large crowds. Several fellow spectators voiced their displeasure at this vandalism and lack of consideration.

Kerry joined us after a spell, and in many ways I was having a merry old time, having been presented with a pair of Ulster flag specs and exchanging some banter with the lads.

There were admittedly some fairly belligerent bands and some quite overt displays of sectarianism. Particularly as the alcohol flowed, it was easy to see how the event could be interpreted as a display of atavistic aggression. There were also examples of benign humour and even an Irish leprechaun at one juncture.

The most bellicose and rowdy bands tended to be accompanied by large entourages making their way alongside them on the pavement. The gawky youth who tend to comprise these outfits clearly acquire some manner of sexual mystique for the large groups of teenage girls who follow them along the pavement. Admittedly if it weren’t for these “blood and thunder” bands the events would be rather tedious. They add a frisson of danger and their music as one of the spectators commented to me “gets the blood pumping”.

The Belfast Twelfth was far from insidious and clearly provides a days entertainment for a large number of people. It also attracts a fairly dubious element and realistically there is little that will sustain anything more than casual interest from tourists (especially given the lack of shops, restaurants and bars open). I cannot lie and say I didn’t enjoy the two days though.

1 comment:

Toddrpr said...

I confess that i am completely indifferent the Twelth and all the nonsense that goes with it. It has almost got to the point now that us Prods are 'forcing' ourselves to endure a national day of culture, if only to show the world (or at least the few people who are actually aware of it) that we have a rival to St Paddy's day. I think it's a pretty sad state of affairs though that the highlight of Protestant culture amounts to burning a few stolen pallates and singing sectarian songs with a bunch of ex-terrorists, benefit cheats and souped up Corsa driving bastardised spides. If it was a more dignified commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne as opposed to an excuse for naked sectarian antagonism, then I, and probably the majority of moderate unionists, would take much more of an interest.