Spellbound by Joan Miró’s brilliant exhibition at Tate Modern on Monday, it was fresh in my mind as we set off early on Tuesday 12th July for Augher and Clogher – in it, his ‘Ladder of Escape’ appears and reappears as a running theme, symbolising a way out, a hopeful exit, but sometimes a ladder of futility, going nowhere, leading to a dead end. Where would the Orange commemorations be leading?
I walked down the Lisburn Road at 9.00, as burger vans and older citizens, armed with umbrellas, flasks and folding deckchairs vied for the best pitches amongst the overnight puddles; rounding the junction of Sandy Row and Lisburn Road, a vigorous feeder parade accompanied me down Gt Victoria St to gawping tourists at the Europa; the mood was boisterous, friendly and loud. One hour later, in the tender care of Edwin Graham, Moochin Photoman and Mark McGregor, we had travelled 60 miles west and a century back.
Augher was bathed in sun, as the bands and Orangemen gathered, in family format, with children tagging along, waving their flags, straightening their mini-collarettes and tuning their pipes, (Brian Ború Irish pipes we were proudly informed, with three drones), polishing their silver horns and wheezing their accordions into action.
We were greeted by our contacts and inducted into the day’s events, a feeder in Augher, a short drive to Clogher (where we might view the exhibition of banners and photos in the Orange / Black Hall), and then the main march to the field, followed by (mainly religious, rather than political) speeches, the resolutions (more anon) and return walk; we were then generously invited to tea with our hosts (politely declined, in favour on onward travel to the embers of the Lisnaskea and Newtonbutler events in Fermanagh).
Three points struck me about the experience.
First, the obvious pride and openness with which the Orange explained their traditions, musical equipment and rituals to what must have appeared as a suspect bunch of four equally oddly-attired townies from a political website with a funny name, probably intent on finding fault. People I knew in a professional city context appeared in a different uniform, talking about why they were Orange, and what community meant to them; I had forgotten.
Second, the age profile; I observe all political party conferences here, and marvel at the gerontocracy, wondering how they might attract younger generations and refresh themselves; I had assumed the Orange (was it really Mo Mowlam who dubbed them that?) would also have suffered a similar atrophy; they were certainly in the older category, but you could not say wholly so; all generations were there, numbers were healthy, and if only through the bands, an up and coming wave of younger musical activists were marching too.
Third, apart from the political context, it was little different to the Miners’ Galas of Scotland and the North of England – marching bands, colourful banners displaying history and politics together, a big family picnic, huge pots of (distressingly and unexpectedly, counter-intuitively and unstereotypically weak) tea, bouncy castles, stalls, memorabilia, the hint of youthful impatience for something stronger (musically, politically and alcoholically speaking), nostalgic rhetoric about the dignity of labour and the cohesion of community. It could even approximate to our esteemed editor’s Tolpuddle Martyrs commemoration in Dorset, or even Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. Well, half of one, anyway.
But the political context is all; although Clogher boasted no politicians, the religion was heavy-duty (understandably – it is a religious organisation), the resolutions unbending (‘Read the Bible, loyalty and faith’, with a wee dig at Alex Salmond’s SNP for endangering the Union) and the Protestantism unremitting (again, I’m not naive about the beast whose belly we were knowingly and by invitation exploring).
And yet, we who live here all know that interfaces and divisions abound, even (especially?) in the rural community; housing, territory, schooling, arts and sport, worship, of course; tension at the city bonfires the previous night, Ardoyne undoubtedly to follow… one participant told me his brother had recently been shot between the eyes with a ball bearing at this same event, another reflected that although both villages were majority Catholic, everyone tolerated the event.
Clearly not the case in Lisnaskea – where we witnessed the early removal of bunting and flags (‘we had been leaving them till Thursday’), watched by a bunch of surly hurley-stick wielding teenagers from the neighbouring Nationalist estate, after an incident attended by the PSNI the night before, now defending their tricolour from early removal too.
We tasted ‘Nationalist beer’ in empty premises, and the ‘Unionist’ equivalent in crowded bars – couldn’t taste the difference in the beer, only in the atmosphere.
Mark (McGregor) won’t mind my observing that he had woken up early and travelled 60 miles to be offended, and so, offended he was to be; but in a curious and fun-filled kind of way. Edwin (Graham) saw everything through the prism of fairness and objective assessment, and Moochin Photoman observes through the lens of truth – as I was dropped off 12 hours later on the Lisburn Road, now crunching with broken bottles, swimming with beer and urine, echoing with chants and menace from the noisy bars, we all noted that Ardoyne was only up the road, but a world of difference from the amiable Clogher Valley.
That set me pondering the ladder again; the Orange collarette often carries a facsimile of Jacob’s Ladder (to Heaven); not Miró, but a metaphor yet for escape, but escape to what? Climbing to a better future, or aiming for futility and a dead end?