On the back of Alan in Belfast’s ‘Culture night’ topic, I thought I would share a relevant experience I had last weekend. On the morning of Friday 16th I left home to make my way to London, the occasion being the annual Lord Carson Memorial Parade organised by the London Somme Association. I’ve taken part several times in the past in my capacity as a member of the Apprentice Boys of Derry and a local branch of the Friends of the Somme, but this year I was participating as a guest with a local marching band. The Cormeen Rising Sons of William Flute from Killylea in County Armagh (who incidentally host their annual band procession and competition on St Patricks Day), were scheduled to lead the event.
The Saturday afternoon parade itself passed off well as always, with zero contention, protest or dissent. Three bands accompanied by hundreds of Apprentice Boys and Somme Association members took part in a hour long event that saw us pass Trafalgar Square, Westminster and a plethora of other famous landmarks. It culminated with a moving wreath laying ceremony at the cenotaph. Massive crowds of London tourists witnessed the parade as always, with nothing only a great reception received.
What I want to talk about however is the events of the preceding night, events that raised several important points with me personally in relation to and with relevance to the topic of musical and cultural contention in Northern Ireland.
The band I had travelled with were staying in a Thames side hostel, it being much too expensive to stay elsewhere, and upon arrival on Friday evening settled into the attached bar to ‘make our craic’ before bed and the day to follow. What we didn’t know however was that an open-mic night takes place in the bar every Friday night.
From 7.30pm on a continual line of performers, or x-factor wannabes as I heard some referred to, took to the stage in the corner. A large crowd almost exclusively consisting of back-packers from across the length and breadth of the world was the audience. Australians, Thai’s, an American couple, Germans and French were all represented, and almost to a person they were simply disinterested in the entertainment.
That was to change. We are a friendly lot, not just us prods of course- all of us Norn Irn people, and the guy in charge of organising the open-mic evening wasn’t long in finding out that the ‘Irish’ guys and girls present (40 of us travelled over) included some flautists. We were promptly asked would a few people perform and the answer was of course yes! To say they didn’t expect what they got would be an understatement, but a positive one.
Our bus was parked outside so a few drums, bass drum and 8 flutes were quickly retrieved. At 12pm a small make shift Ulster marching band took to the stage and floor of the bar. From the second they started playing until the last note, the reception received was amazing!! Those who had ignored the entire preceding entertainment didn’t just turn their heads, they were enthusiastically enjoying the show! Smiles all round, clapping, cheering!
They heard a short marching band set that included Pack up your Troubles, The Sash and Dam Busters. At the beginning the bar owner was a bit nervous of the noise levels, but when he realised that the entire pub was loving it he simply closed the door! All nationalities, races, and creeds in the place loved the show! It went down a storm!
So the question yet again rises, what was different from back home? Why was it that the sound of an Ulster Marching Band could be so well received by so many truly different people when in London, yet at home the same personnel and performance is challenged, demonised and hated by some?
The truth is that the reason that bands are challenged in Northern Ireland isn’t anything to do with what they actually do, it’s because of who we are. It’s not parades that aren’t wanted by those who protest, it’s simply an excuse to allow them to manifest a hatred of a people. Complaints about music, insignia and symbolism are all nonsense. The same music, the same types of regalia and the even similar symbolism are shared by many different cultures and nationalities, sometimes even by Irish Republicans!!
Music is not inherently sectarian. Set aside the hatred for the Protestant/ Unionist Loyalist people and accept it for what it is and either enjoy the music and performance or ignore it. There you go, 90% of parade disputes sorted out overnight.
Unashamed Ulster Loyalist. Marching band activist and band member for over 25 years. Contributor for the Belfast Newsletter and currently studying History at QUB.