In Blood and Thunder, Darach MacDonald does for marching bands what Ruth Dudley Edwards did for the Orange Order in The Faithful Tribe. Entering the bandsmen’s world as an outsider, the Catholic journalist evaluates loyalist parades on their merits, as positive cultural phenomena, rather than intimidating displays of supremacy.
Last year MacDonald followed the “tight wee band”, Castlederg Young Loyalists, as it toured Northern Ireland during the marching season. He discovered a group of disciplined musicians, committed to their music, who form part of a subculture comprising 20,000 young people.
And MacDonald is particularly good connecting flute bands within broader frameworks of culture. The author not only sketches a long history of fifes and drums in Ulster, rooted in Orange and martial traditions, he also examines the similarities between ’blood and thunder’ and other types of ‘youth music‘.
His conclusion is that, although the bands are a product of age old Irish Protestant customs, they owe a great deal to popular culture as well. The raw edge to the music coupled with thunderous percussion produced by the drummers, bears comparison with types of modern dance, or even the aggressive heavy metal favoured by American soldiers in Iraq and Afganistan.
MacDonald is adamant too that marching bands are rapidly evolving. There is a shift away from cacophonous sound and edgy bandsmen, towards virtuosity and discipline.
The journalist is clear that the early ’blood and thunder’ movement could be rough and ready, with an emphasis on alcohol, aggression and paramilitary trappings. However he argues that, two or three generations later, the most popular bands comprise accomplished musicians, who have made concerted efforts to express their culture positively.
With its youth, its competitive element and its political edge, MacDonald draws analogies between loyalist bands and the GAA. He believes that both movements fulfil a similar role by inculcating values of discipline and local pride into young people in their respective communities. Each offers young males “a controlled and energised environment to explore and give voice to their cultural identity”.
Aside from its cultural commentary, Blood and Thunder provides an intimate portrait of the bandsmen and women from Castlederg and a blow by blow account of the marching season.
The latter, recorded in diary form, can become rather repetitive, with long lists of venues and participating bands, drawing heavily on the News Letter’s weekly bands’ column. The former provides the book with colour and human interest, depicting the Castlederg Young Loyalists as an engaging and motivated group, who welcome the journalist into their midst with good humour and openness.
As a border town, the scars of the Troubles are deep in Castlederg and despite the youthfulness of the band members, their outlook is shaped by a tragic events in the area. The books contains powerful stories, which recount violent deaths in the small community, including those of members of the band. Twenty three people from Castlederg were murdered by terrorists during the Troubles and no charges were brought for any of the killings.
It is this backdrop of recent, unresolved violence against which the author believes the occasional defiance of bandsmen should be judged. And he also portrays great resilience in the book, without any political edge. Neil Johnston, a young bandsmen involved in a serious car accident, is spurred on by his participation in marches to complete his rehabilitation and walk, against all the odds.
Blood and Thunder makes a lively and fair-minded companion to this year’s marching season. It also immediately becomes the chief resource for an aspect of Ulster culture which has previously been ignored by the media and academics.