Its the morning after, it is raining steadily outside, it also seems to be “Raining on my Parade” from the usual suspects. But I don’t care there is still a smile on my face, my head is in the clouds and my feet are sore, the flutes are still singing and lambegs ring, the Parade of the Century lived up to expectations and more.
Got up shortly after 7am, although the alarm was set for half past, suited and booted I travelled with the members of the Bawn Silver Band, passing bus after bus on the M1 was the first indication of the scale of the occasion. We arrived at Clifton Street Hall just in time, as the Grand Lodge members were getting ready to line up. I have to say they did Tyrone proud, for a family band from the heart of the country, leading such a parade was a big ask, they excelled and I was very proud of them as they walked off into the assembled hordes of media on Clifton Street.
As I’m not a member of Grand Lodge I was unable to parade with them, falling in behind the next available band, The Pride of Ardoyne Flute Band, a little apprehensively at first but was welcomed by the brethren as we made our way past the the landrovers and media, our only spectators as we crossed the westlink. The first protesters started at the end of the slip-roads and continued well past St Patricks, many with scarves pull over their faces and some with bits of black cloth on a stick. They numbered well in excess of the 150 allowed and were freely allowed to come and go, but kept a dignified if surly silence while we passed. The band played “Abide With Me”, it is quite beautiful on the flutes and reminded me of the Olympics, I’m not a fan of bass drum thumping it detracts from genuine talents of the rest of the musicians, but I wasn’t particularly aware of it, you have to understand all marching bands sound completely different from the front, side or behind, from my position I could see nothing in the behaviour of any marchers that was anything but respectful. When we reached Royal Avenue there were some cheers, but that was common throughout the day.
From we left Clifton Street till we crossed the Lagan we were parading through a dense urban commercial landscape quite different from Tyrone villages & towns, echos resounding of the high rise buildings, unexpected gusts of wind, and crowds cheering along, one of the funniest things was the number of kids with hands held out for “high 5s” from passing marchers. The final stretch of the “feeder parade” was up Royal Avenue with City Hall and a gigantic Union Flag straight ahead, the crowds were so thick at this point the bands were barely getting room to pass through, the buzz in the air was electric, as I went in search of the rest of the Tyrone contingent.
On the way I got to chat to a few interesting people, Cllr. Colin McCusker had the UUC banner with him and told me about the Unionist dinner at the Titanic Centre the night before, somehow I ended up discussing resolving parade disputes with Winston Irvine, who I didn’t recognise till the end of the conversation, then the BBC in the form of Padraig Coyle came over and interviewed Colin, or more accurately they discussed their memories of being in Spain for the World Cup in 1982, I posed for a few tourists, German, Indian, English and a bus load of Italians, who all seemed to be really enjoying the show and were glad of an explanation what it was all about. Met a friend watching who’s membership had lapsed, but for whom the parade had possibly convinced him to renew his ties, and some folk from Donegal who knew my family from there. It was the type of day where complete strangers felt relaxed enough to strike up an easy conversation.
The Main Parade started at 11:00am on the dot in front of City Hall, my district from Tyrone reached that point at around 2:30pm, with half an hour of the parade still behind us, there were very few stoppages and no gaps, with the members generally walking 4 deep. Two brave Pipe Bands paraded the entire route, four or five Silver bands, twenty or so Accordion bands, and a wide variety of flute bands, melody, part, traditional as well as Blood and Thunder. The Orangewomen were supposed to join the parade on the Upper Newtwonards road, but I saw many of them also parading from city hall.
The Crowds thinned out after Customs House square, but built up again to fill the footpaths when we turned into the Lower Newtownards road, was told the Short Strand & St Matthews Church were the other side of a dense hedgerow at that point, but you couldn’t see much apart from the spire, the crowd were livelier along the whole stretch of that road, probably a bit too much for my tastes to be honest, although we were passing quite late in the day. Was told Stormont was just round the next corner! which is true. For the next few miles I admired and despaired of what people had did to the lovely victorian house on the road, the crowds were quite sparse for that middle stretch but built up again as we approached Knock.
Turning into the front gates of Stormont is spine tingling any-day, but to see bands, banners, brethren and onlookers along its full length was breathtaking, the fact that the end was in sight might also have lifted a few weary heads! I now realise that The Hill is a lot steeper than it appears, it was especially tough on the brethren in their 70’s & 80’s who did well walking so far. The official proceedings had concluded by this stage and the Belfast Bands had already left by the side entrance, it had taken us just over two and a half hours to get there, being so close to the end we saw the last few bands, got a burger and made our way back to the bus.
I don’t think I heard a compliant all day, and credit is due to the organisers for coping with such mammoth logistics so ably, although some were saying it is a once in a lifetime event, other are possibly thinking, you know maybe the Centenary of the Establishment of Northern Ireland could be worth a wee parade too, till the next time then…..