July 12th Hitching For Hope blog. Ruairí’s Hitching For Hope national listening tour is a one month project to hear, document and promote the visions and visions of the people of Ireland in advance of speaking at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties on July 29th & 30th . More info
Blogging from the road, please excuse errors and sound quality issues etc.). Press the orange play icon on sound files to hear audio.
I woke up in the union jack cloaked streets of Derry’s waterside area. I was on ‘the other side’ of the divide. Mark Patterson, the BBC Radio Foyle presenter who interviewed me the previous day, had offered to put me up and bring me as a ‘southern voice’ to their outside broadcast at the orange order’s 12th of July parades. Having grown up south of the border and being from what is supposed to be the opposite side of the divide, I thought it was an offer too good to be true. The only issue would be getting to Kildare in time for a wedding the next morning but I’d figure that out later.
Mark had also brought me to a bonfire in the Protestant enclave of the fountain area at 2am the previous night (see previous blog) and my head was still pounding from the drums as he woke me whistling the tune of the sash my father wore, the traditional orange song.
I grew up in a border town and 20% of our school was Protestant, with some of them possibly more linked to orange or British traditions than others. There were no real issues at school but the conflict was still in full swing across the border and this would have fed juvenile bigoted comments and songs from time to time. I had a big interest in history and was interested in the military check points when we crossed the border on our way to Donegal, so I was always very conscious of the orange order and saw them as a divisive, racist and negative force in society.
I particularly remember watching the Garvaghy Rd. marches on TV when the two main unionist politicians, Ian Paisley and David Trimble, led triumphalist and provocative marches through a Catholic housing estate. At one stage the tensions throughout Northern Ireland reached fever pitch.
There wasn’t much time to consider all of this when I arrived downstairs bleary eyed to meet Mark’s friend Boyd and his wife, children, mother and father in-law, and 2 dogs. All were in festive mode with the dogs dressed up in British flags. A general buzz of excitement was in the air. I was introduced as ‘the hitchhiker’ which was beginning to sound like some kind of Stephen King novel, and tried to explain why hitching had brought this southern boy from the republic to this particular place in time.
Over cups of tea and a bacon sandwich I ended up having the craic with them all and realised that for them this was like any other family on a festive day, not so much about politics as about fun. They were more than happy to embrace me as the curious listener willing to learn.
It turned out that Boyd had travelled the world and had a good perspective on life, history and religion. He is a photographer and has just completed a book on orange halls so I figured he’d make a good initial interview candidate as I sought to challenge myself for the day. Recording coming soon..
Outside the house the streets were decked in blue and red bunting and the union jack as bands, marchers and spectators prepared for what was going to be a noisy and colourful spectacle. It reminded me of Paddy’s day except different colours and perhaps a more militaristic style of music and marching. I suppose it has to be said also that Paddy’s day, although religious in origin, feels more open to different religions and races. There was also a clear gender divide with the marchers all being men due to the order being solely a male organisation. Still , I was here to watch, listen and learn.
Boyd asked me if I wanted to meet the top dog, the no.1 orange man, the grand master. So off we went to find him and I managed a quick interview before the parade kicked off. He was fine but not overly friendly and he gave me a few stock lines that I wouldn’t have minded exploring more if we had time. I later heard on the news that day that he had made some unhelpful comments in relation to the rioting of his members in Belfast.
The parade went on for well over an hour as perhaps over 100 bands strutted their stuff. The sun was shining and people were in great form and it was hard not to compare it to the St. Patrick’s Day parades when families stand by the road side to watch and cheer. However the emblems, flags, and logos were a constant reminder that this was about one thing – celebrating the orange tradition and the Protestant faith. It was particularly interesting to see so many orange bands from across the border in Donegal.
Up at the cricket grounds, or what is called ‘the field’ when acting as a gathering point of orange parades, I joined the BBC lads and observed their outside broadcast while doing some of my own interviews including one with an ‘apprentice boy’ and a couple with a nationalist historian from Co. Monaghan and a young Catholic actor dressed in period costume, both of who were attending a march for their first time.
On and on the marching went, the drums, the flute, the flags. I can’t say I felt in any way threatened but I probably knew I had allies around and the cover of the BBC or at least my own recording mission. But more than that, I just wasn’t too bothered. Once upon a time I might have got worked up about these things but things have changed. Perhaps it would be different if I lived in the north and felt intimidated or isolated by this expression of culture and identity. I know this is the case for my friend who lives near Belfast who previously witnessed an orange order member shouting 5-0 into the Ormeua road betting shop where 5 innocent men were shot.
There was a chance that I could have ended up the day thinking it was indeed the ‘orange fest’ fun day that it was being re-branded as but there were a few tell tale signs on flags, banners, tattoos and t-shirts and were a reminder that things were more political than that. I observed little indicators that there was a paramilitary and aggressive element in or around this. Militaristic uniforms, an anti Bobby Sands t-shirt, a UFF flag.
As the BBC broadcast started to wrap-up I was called over to give my observations. I was introduced to William Hay, a Donegal Protestant who is the speaker of the Northern Ireland assembly, a member of the DUP, and it seemed a proud orange man. We shared the interview together, two men from the other Ulster. I explained how I grew up with some hostility to this tradition but could see that for many or most people it was something handed down to them, and in practical terms a family day out for fun and meeting friends and neighbours.
I understood too that it’s about religion and identity, things that I think we need to move on from. I talked about how when I went to college in Scotland I hung out with both sides from Northern Ireland and through interaction, fun and dialogue we realised we were all one. I said the challenge is to find our common humanity and common struggles.
I said that on the whole I thought it was a positive experience but may not be for the Catholics who feel they have to leave their home towns and cross the border en masse on this day each year. I mentioned that it might be different if I lived here or in the Ardoyne, which turned out to be a major flashpoint later that night. To many northern nationalists and republicans the orange order represents a bigoted organisation that is anti Catholic, anti women and anti gay, and it is unclear how they will ever be fully accepted as a positive force.
One thing that stands out for me was Mark Patterson’s interviews with various members of the orange order, young and old. Mark, who has a Protestant background, was trying to better understand the tradition, the reasons for marching, the identity politics. Many said it was about honouring their ancestors, about connecting with history and tradition, seeing it as a social thing, and a fun family day. However it was hard to find a clear sense of what the ‘Protestant identity’ is that so many talked about. One young woman when questioned further, and to the backdrop of continued drums, said it was just something that was just ‘drummed into’ her.
So much of our culture, our religion, our politics, our beliefs and behaviours are also just drummed into us. By parents, priests, preachers, teachers, politicians, media and advertising. This is of course true on the nationalist and republican side where bigotry can also exist. The challenge is to navigate through which bits were handed down or pushed onto us, which bits we really believe in, and which bits are positive and life serving.
I left Derry with plenty of food for thought as we collectively work to find a new future for both sides of the border on this small island. I was once again impressed by the warmth, wit and kindness of the people of this great city and inspired by their hope for the future and hard won peace. It seems that there still remains a huge amount of reconciliation work to be done. There has been such much hurt over the years. However things are moving in the right direction and the peace train cannot be stopped so long as the people stay committed and find ways of listen, talk, debate and share together.
Thanks for all your support.
Places I have visited so far
Galway City, Spiddal, Moycullenl, Oughterard, Cleggan, Inishbofin, Clifden, Mam Cross, Leenane, Westport, Croagh Patrick, Newport, Achill Island, Rossport, Belmullet, Ballina, Sligo, Bundoran, Donegal Town, Mountcharles, St. John’s Pt, Letterkenny, Derry, Leixslip, Dublin, Aughrim Co. Wicklow.
Galway Bay FM, iRadio, the Galway Independent, Mid West Radio, Ocean FM, Tipp FM, WorldIrish.com, Highland Radio, BBC Radio Foyle x 3, the Derry Journal, DonegalDaily.com, RTE Radio One Mooney Show, the Irish Times, theJournal.ie, Newstalk breakfast show, Today FM (KC show), TV3 Morning Show.
Links to media coverage