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The Twelfth in a Day

I HAVE visited on numerous occasions to witness and partake in the spectacle and celebration that is the Twelfth.  I have enjoyed many memorable occasions and experienced many moments I will recount and dwell on in years to come.

This year (2003) was slightly different.  Work and family commitments meant I could not enjoy the 11th night and the 12th Night.  Initially, I had decided to forgo a trip to Belfast.  However a conversation with a friend persuaded me to reconsider missing the great day.  My friend has resisted various invitations to attend the Twelfth with a plethora of excuses from Belfast is dangerous” to “it can not be any different to the Glasgow walk”  

To my surprise he asked if I was going to the Twelfth this year and after explaining no, he suggested flying in and out on the Twelfth.  I pondered this and quickly (5 seconds later) agreed.  This was a shock as I had given up on my friend ever attending the Twelfth and this had taken me aback.  The flights were booked flying out at 7 am and returning to Glasgow for approximately 10pm. 

As usual I was buzzing on the Twelfth morning.  Though it felt slightly different, as I was not feeding off the nerves and adrenalin of other early risers who practiced on their instruments and expounded nervous energy by walking and talking.  While boarding the plane it became evident that a number of other travellers were embarking on the same adventure.  It was bizarre, as it seemed anyone travelling for the Twelfth immediately exchanged pleasantries.  I was never sure which of the three things gave it away:

1.       The huge permanent smiles

2.      The decibel level which for an early morning flight was incredible or

3.      The nods of acknowledgements from complete strangers

The flight got off well as a friend of ours was loading the baggage on our plane. A good loyalist, he greeted us with a smile and the phrase “quality lads, I have no doubt you’re going to have a great day”.  A slight delay due to an administrative error held our plane back.  Allegations of sectarian sabotage were quick to surface and conspiracy theories involving the baggage handlers and easyJet ground crew surfaced.  We dispelled the baggage handler theory as one of our own was taking care of that and surely a company who sanction orange uniforms would not conspire against us!  The problem was resolved and off we flew.

I noticed at this point my mate was talking ten to the dozen.  He had already spoken to a few fellow loyalist flyers who had recounted their past memories of the Twelfth and assured him a great day was in store.  A normally nervous flyer who hates take offs and landings he did not notice either.  The flight was over almost as quickly as it had begun helped by my mate, who had 101 questions.  How big is the walk? How many lodges?  How many bands? How big are the crowds?  What is the atmosphere like?

It was like my very own mastermind challenge and your specialised subject is ‘the Twelfth!’  We landed to rousing cheers from the plane.  No matter how often I fly to Belfast, I always feel a sense of anticipation and this was heightened by my mate’s tangible excitement.

Having been delayed slightly, I decided we would get a taxi from Aldergrove.  If I thought my mate was excited, after the taxi journey he was buzzing. The taxi driver recounted some great tales of his experiences on the Twelfth and suggested some vantage points.  Thirty minutes later we arrived in the city centre.  The numbers coming into the city – the youngsters with faces painted and the pensioners with their best suits - and all with the same shared culture and eagerly awaited anticipation.

We decided to get something for breakfast, we visited Macdonald’s and my mate appeared back with the breakfast beaming “someone heard my accent and was asking me if I was over for the walk and wished me all the best for the day.”  I could see the friendliness of the Ulster folk was bowling him over.  As we grabbed some sustenance, I heard the unmistakable sound of the drums and the flutes.  Not since we played football in our teens has my mate moved so quickly.  He was out the door and on the street straining to determine the direction of the incoming march.  I grabbed him with the breakfast and my question of “what about breakfast ?” was met with a look of incredulity and the retort “you’re worried about breakfast!  When the parade is coming!  Get real!”  The magic of the Twelfth had captured him at 9.30 am.

The parade was some of the lodges making their way to meet their district.  The scene was set - the bands, the banners, the colour, and the excitement.  The lodge members wave to friends.  I did tell my mate the march was only slightly bigger than he had just seen; he paused and then laughed “aye very good”.

I thought it best to pace him – I was worried I may have the first case of ‘Orange burn out’. We wandered down to the City Hall.  I had decided that the best place to view was Shaftsbury Square.  As they say best laid plans – another crescendo and off the big man goes looking for the bands.  He finds another parade making its way into the town and after much persuasion he moves along – I wanted to make sure he had a vantage point that ensured he did not miss any of the lodges or bands.

As we walked up towards Shaftesbury Square the crowds were already gathering, vantage points were being secured, chairs being assembled, flags being draped over the crowd control barriers and kids playing with mini drums and band sticks.  We reached Sandy Row and I walked him up to Sandy Row Orange Hall.  We admired the bunting and the murals.  What amazed me was the pace of the people around us Sandy Row was buzzing with less than half an hour till the parades arrival.  We then had a browse at the stalls on Shaftesbury Square and after exchanging pleasantries with some locals – many offering us digs if we needed them - which was appreciated. 

By the time we had finished we secured our selves a couple of good vantage points.  The streets were mobbed and the weather was good (for a Scotsman any day without rain or snow is good).  Pensioners had their chairs primed at the edge of the road; kids were running up and down the road.  The sense of anticipative excitement was tangible. 

With our vantage points secured we heard the first resounding booms of the drums, though as we strained our necks we could see nothing.  Some kids were running out to the middle of the road, others were being ushered off the road by their parents.  I always love the sound of the bands and the sense of anticipation as you await their arrival.  I may have watched a hundred parades but still enjoy the moment just before a parade comes in to view, when you know the parade is coming and the wait worthwhile.

A kid yelled “here they come” and as I looked I could just see the County Lodge officials coming into view. The parade started to pass by and applause for some of the dignitaries and visitors were plentiful and sincere.  The march itself was like a blur – almost like a sensory overload.  Trying to view the banners and remember the bands, the lodges and everything you see and hear seems impossible.

It is always good to see a familiar face and nods of acknowledgement and waves from friends from both sides of the water, added to the sense of welcome and participation.  So many great banners but ones that stood out were the banners with King William, the Duke of Marlborough, the Mountjoy, Lord Carson and Martin Luther.  Of the bands – my favourite bands are the melody flute bands and two that stood out  were the Pride of the Raven and the Millar Memorial.  Other bands that stood out were the Pride of Lagan Valley, Shankill Protestant Boys, East Belfast Protestant Boys  - I like the uniform - and the Monkstown YCV.  They seemed to have the biggest band that day with over 50 on the road. 

We watched all the districts and bands passed by and my mate just kept mentioning how big the parade was and how much he was enjoying it.  As number 10 district approached, I remarked to my mate that this was the last district.  He then suggested we follow the bands to the field.  I was shocked as he is not a man for walking.  I explained it was a reasonable distance and we would have no way of getting a taxi.  He looked at me scornfully – saying “I meant walk with the bands.” I had never been to the field and thought we may as well.  So we set following the Ballybeen Loyalists.  We set off and my admiration for the walkers with banners, regalia and the bandsmen was enhanced – given the distance they were walking.

We eventually reached the end of the parade, impressed by the numbers that lined the route throughout. We made for the field and began to wonder if we had taken a wrong turning as we seemed to walk for an eternity- eventually we reached the field and had a well earned rest in the field, while listening to the speeches and talking to a few fellow loyalists.  We started the walk back from the field and thankfully a taxi was sitting at the entrance to the field and we took this back to Sandy Row.  We were thirsty and hungry and stopped of in a wee café.  We sat down and had a lunch/dinner and reflected on the march and the day in general.  We both agreed that the day had flown in and it seemed like no time since we had left Scotland.  As usual the day had exceeded expectations.  We reflected on how a parade could encapsulate so many feelings and emotions, while having a real sense of historical and cultural significance.  With the parade meaning so many different things to different people.

For both of us it was a reflection of our history a pride in the pivotal position it holds in British history.  A recognition of our shared culture and history.  A time to reflect on the great sacrifices made by many through the years to allow us to continue to exist as a people and culture.  Figures such as Luther, King William and Lord Carson.  The appreciation of the glorious revolution and its implications for all of  the United Kingdom and the role it had in shaping our culture, beliefs and country.  The bond and special relationship that exists between the Scots and the Northern Irish.  We were made so welcome, with so many people asking us questions and the hospitality and warmth was appreciated. 

We finished our food and ventured back out and bumped into my brother and his mate having a few refreshments.  We chatted to them and discussed the day and they told us about their 11th Night party.  The difficult part was that I knew we would not see all the parade as we had to get the 7 pm bus to the airport.  I made sure we were on the right side of the road, as otherwise we would not make the bus.

It was great watching and listening to the crowd awaiting the return of the parade.  It really added to the excitement and anticipation. Kids were all over the road and everyone seemed to be laughing and joking, listening and watching for the first sign of the returning parade.  I admit to losing time due to chatting to folk around us on a variety of subjects with much humour and serious discussions.  Suddenly, I heard cheers and applause and I turned to see the bands approaching.  It was fantastic and must have been great for the participants in the parade, the spontaneous applause and the cheering was a just reward for their key role in a great day.

The pace of the march was slightly slower and seemed less formal than when it departed but the singing, dancing and buzz in the streets was a deserving reward for the parade.  It reached 6.50 pm and we walked with a couple of the bands to the station.  We watched till the last possible minute and then sprinted for the bus.  We reached the bus and on the bus debated whether we should have stayed on and worried about getting home later.  The day was another enjoyable parade but tinged with annoyance that we had watched them all go out but not watched them all return home again.

My mate vowed this would not be the case in 2004 and this has been the case.  The day the easyJet schedule came out we booked our flights out on the 11th back on the 13th.  We will miss nothing and have the bonus of visiting Scarva for the first time this year.

Entertainment, colour, music, pride, history, friendship – a better combination of factors you could not wish for in a day out.  A tribute to a magnificent people, a magnificent culture and magnificent country.

Johnstone Loyalist


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