As a long time reader of Slugger, the old chestnut of ‘big bad bands’ (over 660 in Northern Ireland alone) has had a regular airing. What is blatantly obvious however is that broadly speaking, Irish Nationalism simply doesnt understand or comprehend what bands are about. Put simply, marching and parading is an alien concept to Catholic Ireland and as such Irish Nationalists just ‘cant get their head around it’. Its overtly simplified into a practise thats sole purpose is to annoy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The following is a short essay i did a few years ago for a degree that attempts to give an insight into ‘Blood and Thunder’ marching bands…
The Northern Ireland ‘Blood and Thunder’ Flute Band
In 1985 the current Pope, the then Cardinal Ratzinger, delivered a lecture entitled ‘Liturgy and church music’ in which he described agitational music as a type of music which ‘animates men for various collective goals’. Originating in Northern Ireland and perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of Irish Protestant/ Unionist/ Loyalist culture, few types of music would fit the definition as well as the Blood and Thunder genre of marching music.
Regarded by some, primarily the Nationalist/ Republican community, as being a sectarian Ulster Loyalist male youth sub-culture whose sole purpose and motivation is to intimidate (Unknown, 2005) Roman- Catholic communities, some even go as far as calling these bands ‘conveyers of hatred’ (Mitchell, 2002). However to the people who are members of these bands and to the communities they are based in they are viewed very much differently. To these groups and individuals the bands have important social, cultural, and to a lesser extent, political significance (Witherow 2006).
The term ‘Blood and Thunder’ itself refers to a style of Marching band, essentially consisting of side-drums, flutes, and ‘big drum’ (bass drum), such as can be seen in many countries throughout the world. However the primary difference is that ‘Blood and Thunder’ flute bands combine the common elements of marching bands such as musical prowess, colourful uniforms and military style discipline, with what some describe as ‘swagger’ (Mitchell 2002), intense energy and most importantly an incredibly loud drum based rhythm (Bell 1990; Witherow 2006). Loud volume of playing is a prerequisite of being a ‘Blood and Thunder’ Band (Bell 1990).
The origins of these bands are relatively simple to determine, principally given their unambiguous relationship to Irelands well documented Protestant/ Unionist/ Loyalist parading history, and secondly given their emergence during a period of immense political/ social turbulence in Northern Ireland and the direct connections with that (Bell 1990; Witherow 2006).
Cited as beginning for the most part from the formation of the Orange Order (Fraser, 2000), the Orders first 12th of July parades taking place in 1796 (Jarman, 1997), the Irish Unionist parading tradition was initially musically accompanied on its parades in the form of fife and drums, however by the late 19th Century bands had became a common feature (Fraser, 2000). It is important to note that, as stated on online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, marching bands evolved directly from Military bands, and therefore the Irish Protestant community’s particularly strong Military lineage would have seen the development as an almost natural inevitability.
The Protestant parading tradition had by the mid 20th Century became an important tradition and expression of identity within large swathes of that community, and was a central component of it when the 1960’s saw renewed political and sectarian tensions within Northern Ireland. The I.R.A. terrorist campaign re-launched in 1969 was a catalyst for increasing feelings of political uncertainty within Unionism and a general belief among Unionists that its national and cultural identity was under threat (Witherow, 2006).
Youths/ teenagers (widely regarded as the most militant group within society) within that community during this period were searching for a way to express their anger at the IRA and reaffirm their identity (Witherow 2006), and with the Loyal Orders commonly acknowledged as the main way that the Protestant working class expressed political dissatisfaction (Jarman, 1997) that particular direction was the obvious avenue for these individuals to gravitate to express that emotion.
Perhaps by virtue that it was quicker and easier to become a member of a band than join the Order directly, marching bands (specifically flute bands as they were most common, flutes were the cheapest of all marching band instruments and the flute would have been perceived, largely incorrectly, as the easiest instrument to learn (Witherow 2006)), became the beneficiaries of these many young men and with their membership came several features common to any youth based culture. Increased volume, brashness, vibrancy, commitment and colour came to many bands, which combined with the eagerness to ‘parade’ immediately to prove/ demonstrate their strong feelings, became manifest in the birth of a new style of playing. The thundering drums, shrill (sometimes described as shrieking) flutes, and the fact that blood was a common sight on bass drums because they were being beaten with such vigour saw this style of marching music being given the name Blood and Thunder (Bell, 1990; Witherow 2006).
Many existing bands began to change towards this style as their membership changed and many more new bands mimicking this new ‘craze’ sprung up in strong Loyalist areas, both urban and rural, assuming monikers that many Orange Lodges used but in the current context took new meaning such as ‘Defenders’, ‘Sons of Ulster’ and ‘True Blues’.
While the initial reasons for the emergence and popularity of these types of bands was on the surface solely politically motivated, the nature of how the tradition has developed has proved that it was also filling a strong social function for those involved. From their inception bands united young men from the same religious and cultural background, mostly between the ages of 16 and 26, and gave them a conduit for social activities, and they continue to do so today.
To illustrate this it should be noted that today some bands practise twice a week throughout the year and during the ‘marching season’, between April and September, may take part in parades every week. Throughout the year a band could meet on as many as 150 occasions.
From the genres inception it was predominantly a working class based movement, especially within an urban setting (Bell 1990), but its popularity within rural districts and the difficulties to define class in those settings, rule out any exclusive working class context. These bands have a strong cultural relevance to what would appear to be very different sub-communities with in Protestant Northern Ireland.
Given the transitional nature of their origins (the transformation of an existing band) many can trace their existence back over a century and the marching musical tradition is entrenched within their local community. Many bands are an integral part of their town/ local district (Witherow 2006) and it is accepted that a significant proportion of individuals in many areas will pass through the local bands ranks at some stage. Today in Northern Ireland the Blood and Thunder element of the wider marching band movement consists of over 280 bands (approximately 12000 active members), with over 100 similar bands in Scotland and 20 in England.
In relation to other musical genres the Blood and Thunder style has almost universally been viewed as irrelevant, sometimes with contempt and on occasion been referred to as not being music at all. This commentary invariably comes from those within more ‘respectable’ musical areas and in a much wider musical context is commonly found when any older musical movement comments on any youth based movement, for example a Country music aficionados views on the Punk movement. This hierarchy is largely created by the practitioners of music within these ‘respectable’ areas and in many cases can be rooted in an apparent class bias or a reluctance to be complimentary to ‘agitational’ or politically controversial music. They are part of long established movements and feel accepted as part of a society norm, and are naturally predisposed to anything that appears to be on the fringe of society and therefore conflicting with that norm.
Given the general characteristics of the Blood and Thunder genre, which are easily definable, it is no surprise that the music has different meanings for different groups of people. The differing connotations taken can effectively be divided up as coming from two sources: those individuals internal to the movement and those within the same community but oblivious to the internal workings and structures of the movement; and those outside of both the movement and the community from which it emanates, some of whom also subscribe to political/ cultural philosophies and ideas that would be considered ambivalent to said movement and culture.
As already touched upon, within the Blood and Thunder movement, both its members and those within the wider community that support it, the ‘scene’ has developed into very much a social movement. The core ideals instrumental in its inception, those of protest, expression of identity, etc, are still there but they are vastly subsumed by the social importance of the bands general practises and routines. The music has therefore
became merely a part of a social system adopted by many thousands of people and as such the source of the original music has grown to have less significance in comparison to the actual performance.
All bands play lists will include many traditional Orange/ Loyalist tunes/ anthems, but even since its inception an incredibly broad range of culturally irrelevant/ diverse material will make up the majority of the repertoire. In the late 70’s and during the 80’s many pop and country music standards such as ‘7 Tears’ and ‘Lay the blanket on the ground’ where played, along with folk anthems such as ‘John Browns body’, ‘Swing low sweet chariot’ and ‘Waltzing Matilda’. Today complex arrangements of classical music, ‘World in Union’ being the most notable example, will appear along with reworked versions of traditional fife and piping tunes, yet more folk tunes and still more versions of popular music- Abbas ‘Chiquita’ was a popular tune for many bands in the 2005 ‘marching season’!
In contrast all those from outside the community approach the bands and their music from a vastly different perspective. Many opinions and views are constructed solely from sound bites on television from controversial parades. They are based on conjecture and myth, and have been reinforced by perceived bad experiences with some bands. For example it is continually quoted of the common experience of the Blood and Thunder band ‘letting rip’ outside a local chapel during a parade (Mitchell 2002), however when placed into the context that the bands will play even louder when passing each other (Mitchell 2002), the example loses some of its validity.
The music itself is often cited as being sectarian or deliberately provocative (Smyth 2002), but given that the tunes most mentioned within that context, The Sash (Some Irish Republican Flute bands actually play a tune called ‘My Irish Molly O’ which effectively is the same tune) and Derry’s Walls, are actually ‘ancient’ Irish tunes, it is difficult to give the arguments credence. It is impossible to discount that many negative attitudes towards Blood and Thunder music is actually politically motivated, and the nature of ‘music’ would suggest that those who object are doing so because of the religious make-up of the bands (Mitchell 2002).
Many images evoke memories of Northern Ireland’s recent troubled history, and one of the most familiar and striking is that of the parade. Unfortunately parades have usually only been covered by the media when there has been some controversial aspect and being one of the most visible components of any parade, the Blood and Thunder marching band has been tainted with that ‘controversial’ stereotype.
Unashamed Ulster Loyalist. Marching band activist and band member for over 25 years. Contributor for the Belfast Newsletter and currently studying History at QUB.