When I was working on a community history project in Mid-Antrim several years ago, I engaged with bonfire committees across the district. They were in receipt of a grant from the local council to help make their Eleventh Night festivities family-friendly and to enable participants to be more aware of the traditions they sought to uphold.
As part of my work, I referred to the (possible) origins of bonfires in 17th century celebrations to greet the victory of William of Orange at the Boyne; I also tried to source what I thought would be a source of ‘grass roots’ bonfire culture in the recent and the far-off past, believing that a folk tradition is enabled to handle the pressures that inevitably come its way when it obtains an enhanced awareness of continuity.
Sadly, I struggled. The local newspapers were attuned to Unionist folk culture yet in recent times their summer editions rarely offered anything other than captioned photographs of bandsmen licking ice cream at ‘The Field’. I looked back to newspapers from the era of the Home Rule Crisis and hoped to find better information about the process of gathering wood, guarding the ‘Boney’ from rival gangs, lighting it on the Eleventh Night then singing Orange songs while watching it burn. However, I found little evidence that local journalists had bothered to spend time at the bonfire, to listen, watch and record what they witnessed.
This sense of disappointment with ‘grass roots’ pro-Union history was not alleviated when I sought to enable Loyalist bandsmen, both in Mid-Antrim and elsewhere, to obtain reminiscences by fellow-band members and to seek out more evidence of the history of their band. There were and are honourable exceptions, but it seemed that in most bands no-one had been tasked with undertaking a historical account, even though the band had existed for decades and although that micro-history was intertwined with a bigger political narrative.
On the positive side, I found that Orange Lodges often maintained a trove of banners, collarettes and sashes, regalia and instruments as well as military artefacts, lodge records and in many cases significant lodge buildings. This was probably a legacy of times when the Order had risen from folk origins to be a pillar of Ulster Unionism and then an anchor of the Northern Ireland state.
Another piece of archival solidity and good research was the work undertaken by the Ulster Scots movement which had lovingly recording the culture of lodge banners and the fife and drum tradition. There are intricate customs associated with the Lambeg drum as there are with the colourful banners which are unfurled at parades. There are craftsmen who make these artefacts and instruments and who decorate them with care.
I turned then to Ulster’s literary world of published reminiscences, autobiography, drama, fiction and poetry for possible material. Perhaps a reading of play excerpts, poems or short stories could become part of the Eleventh Night celebrations. The pro-Union culture of an earlier time had certainly a literary dimension, much of it homespun. I certainly did find mention of soirees and get-togethers when searching newspapers from the pre-Great War era. And I learned that songs were heartily sung back then, poems were recited, and anecdotes enjoyed over tea and buns.
I must confess that my ‘bonfire culture night’ ideas did not develop. Perhaps other facilitators have had more success. I would love to know of their work. There is apt poetry by the like of WF Marshall and the Rhyming Weavers which would have gone down well as period pieces with rural audiences, there is a range of fictional excerpts by writers such as Sam Hanna Bell to savour, and there are plays from the Ulster Literary Theatre tradition, which would have yielded appropriate seasonal excerpts.
But I do have to say that I sensed a paucity of dynamic writing from men and women who come from deep within or proximate to the culture of Loyalist and Unionist communities.
Thankfully, good recent writing does exist; This is not necessarily work that allows for celebration of those who endeavour to live their lives within the Loyalist experience, but it is relevant, powerful and daring. The relatively recent theatrical work of several playwrights and writers of fiction contains explorations of youth culture, bonfires, the lure of an army career and the sway of sectarian thinking; they follow on from texts like Sam Thompson’s Over the Bridge which have been part of the literary canon for decades.
Novelist Jan Carson’s is the most remarkable example of such work; her recent magical realist text The Fire Starters takes conflagration, arson and by implication the culture of bonfires as its key motif.
Yet, I still do not see a way to thread together an hour and a half of literature and music that would sit well with an audience in a rural community hall in Mid-Antrim, waiting as the pyre was about to be lit on 11th July. Someone somewhere has maybe achieved that, and I wish them well.
But I was led as a result of my experiences to think more fully about the absence of a long-term, rich and complex tradition of ‘Pro-Union’ writing. This tradition would have offered insights into the motivations, struggles and destinies that have awaited men and women who were born into a pro-Union community in the changing decades since the controversial events which led to the formation of the Northern Ireland state in 1921.
Put baldly there is no canon that matches the powerful display of (wildly different) accounts of Irish Catholic and/or Nationalist upbringing which stretches all the way from the years before James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man via much of Seamus Heaney’s verse about family and countryside to Anna Burns’ innovative novel Milkman.
And the early years of the Northern Ireland state generated no northern Sean O’Casey, portraying the kind of vigour and pathos of human experience that he so famously celebrates in his Dublin plays. Such a northern playwright would have turned their focus on both Loyalist and Nationalist communities as the sectarian horrors of the early 1920s unfolded and an attempt was being made to forge a state out of six north-eastern counties of Ulster.
So, despite recent advances by writers such as Jan Carson and Rosemary Jenkinson, as noted above, there are all too few testimonies by, or stories about, those individuals whose life has been centred on band membership and none that I know of about Lambeg drummers, fifers, flute-players and banner carriers. There is still all too little literary investigation of the inner world of those tens of thousands of men and women, boys and girls who have enjoyed taking part in bonfire celebrations and Twelfth of July festivities down through many decades, and of those individuals who make their journey towards personal identity by embracing or opposing that inheritance. Or indeed who get caught between each of these two responses.
If I am correct in my assessment, then this lack is a serious problem. In the absence of complexity, stereotypes thrive unchallenged, and misattributed, malign motivations for persistent cultural behaviour are allowed room to thrive. Worse still, literature gets written by some who are highly familiar with pro-Union culture but offer a presentation of Loyalism as delusional psychosis. One gripping, witty but ultimately one-dimensional play of which I speak is David Ireland’s Cypress Avenue.
The maelstrom of change that defines modernity presents difficulties enough for any culture that relies on folk traditions and this is especially intensified in a demographically changing place like Northern Ireland, where the future can seem almost un-navigable. Without a resource of sufficient writing talent to focus on the human condition in that culture, it’s even harder.
The Orange banners which are unfurled each year can of course seem suffused by a celebration of heroes and motifs of empire and thus a lionisation of racial and militaristic subjugation, a view given fresh momentum in this era of Black Lives Matter. But an able writer can see and communicate what it feels like to grow up inside that cultural context and to wrestle with the ethical dilemmas that a sense of belonging inevitably present.
And a tourist-related heritage that is often fondly delivered in Ulster relates to settlement of North America by Ulster Scots settlers. That story is in danger of naïve approbation directed towards behaviour that helped doom the continent’s indigenous cultures.
Celebration of the ancestral roots of such heroes of Ulster stock as the former USA president Andrew Jackson is certainly inappropriate, especially in the post-Trump era of renewed reappraisal of white American history. Jackson’s role as the originator of the ‘trail of tears’ during which ‘Indians’ were ‘resettled’ miles from their homeland is rightly held up for censure. Yet a novel, play or poem exploring the humanity of someone who grew up facing the ethical dilemmas posed by such an inheritance can humanise the inheritors of a tradition without necessarily setting out to endorse it.
Such creative work can help shift pro-Union heritage from those who merely ridicule it as deluded. All cultures will have their own dark underbelly. The individual who struggles with that reality is and always has been a suitable subject for insightful literary endeavour inside the Unionist community as in every other.
A tradition of good honest and attentive writing from within a tradition, though not subservient to it, builds a better picture of its complexity for the wider world to understand but it also builds a resource of painful but helpful self-understanding within a community. This is a necessary step towards survival. It involves wise discernment of what must be retained and what disdained when contemporary pressures build up and adaptation is required. Hopefully it lessens the risk of pessimism being fetishised.
The writer or artist who plays a key role in that cultural work is not proclaiming ideological affiliation or acting as a spokesman for acts of harm conducted in the name of any ideology. His or her job is perhaps to engender the kind of criticism and self-criticism that do not lead to depletion but rather to renewal.
In the blend of prose and poetry that comprises my recent publication entitled The Illustrated History of Flight I have tried to give voice to several under-explored voices in the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland. I want to mention only two in this essay: firstly, a voice for the surprisingly varied Protestant religious life that is experienced here, often intensely independent in its governance and theology; secondly, a voice for the life-experience of numerous individuals (and their families) who were members of the security forces during the years of intense civil violence we call the Troubles. (Of course, not all these security force members were Protestant by background).
There are excellent academic studies of Ulster’s Protestant religious life and of the security forces, but I believe there is an ongoing need to explore more fully in verse, fiction and drama the world of the fundamentalist preacher and the Ulster Defence Regiment soldier and the offspring and relatives of each.