LONG READ: An Irish Republican revisits the Glorious Twelfth of July…

Paddy McMenamin is a native of Belfast, a former internee and IRA prisoner and even a one time fan of Glentoran football club. He lives in Galway these days but recently received an invitation he never expected to receive and could not refuse.

I was about eight years of age and living in the Annadale estate in south Belfast, we had moved there from Mountcoyller in Tigers Bay down the Shore Road, my parents being Catholic from Tyrone and Donegal weren’t great at the old geography at national school! There were four blocks of flats at Annandale and it was 90% protestant with just a few catholic families, but back in 1962 it didn’t really matter a lot especially to my young friends who were all protestant and I, we just had fun on the streets as you could in those far off days, for the adults well maybe Yuri Gagarin being the first man in space, or the Yanks fiasco at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba; the latest IRA Border campaign coming to an end; Chubby Checker, Neil Sedaka and the gyrating sensation Elvis were top of the charts; in sport Brazil were in the middle of two World Cups with a 17 year old genius Pele; Down were the first northern team to bring Sam Maguire across the border in ’60 & ’61, not that there was any talk of that in our house as my Dad wasn’t a football man and Annandale wouldn’t be a hotbed for the GAA!

Those innocent days of youth were filled with street games; kick the tin, rounder’s, tag, hide and seek, Batman and Superman comics, but in my last summer in Annadale we went up to the bonfire that had been built nearby on waste ground, as I approached the giant pile of wood of all description I was met by a big lad of about 15, ‘fuci off you fenian bastxxd’! My wee friends said to just slip away quietly and as I walked down the hill I couldn’t help thinking to myself, ‘what’s a fenian bastxxd’? That was my only experience of sectarian bigotry at that stage; our family then moved across the city to West Belfast and the new catholic estate of Turf Lodge, it was the reverse of Annadale with only a few protestant families. The next few years were spent with new little friends but interestingly around ’65 we started going across the city to the Oval to follow Glentoran and for the next few years there we were about a dozen ‘fenian bastxxds’ in the midst of a 90% protestant fanbase but not once did we ever have a problem except ironically when we would join in the occasional battle with rival Linfield fans, sure we couldn’t support the ‘Blues’?

August ‘69 and the beginning of conflict marked a change for everyone in our society, the Falls burning, British troops on our streets, Curfew, Internment, Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, our lives would never be the same again. Leaving school prematurely in ’69 at 15 wasn’t the greatest idea I ever had but it led to working in a trendy city centre bar. On the 12th July ‘70 I was walking past the City Hall to get to work and the Orange parade was passing through, it was and still is the only time I’ve ever seen an Orange parade in the flesh, I stood for a few minutes as the parade passed but as it paused I took a chance to cross the road without getting hit across the head by one of those big sticks. I recall a banner with an elegant gay guy (can you say that nowadays?) with long hair on the back of a white horse, apparently he was called William King something or just Billy to his friends, I would learn later he was the cause of all our problems nearly 300 years earlier in a bit of a skirmish down by a river in Meath, nowadays you just use the Toll Bridge and 3.20euro to get across!

The 70’s took on a life of their own after that, sectarian violence, armed struggle, political stagnation, Long Kesh, death, destruction, hunger strikes before peace prevailed as politicians prevaricated until Good Friday became more than the day Jesus was crucified. Like many I became involved in the conflict and spent many years in Long Kesh, in the Cages I became friends with a UVF prisoner ‘Plum’ Smith, we used to talk across the wire, he would be the only protestant I ever met or talked to over many years. When we burned the place down in ’74 the loyalists gave us logistical support and in Cage 19 they hung a flag up with a green hand and red hand clasped with the legend, ‘united we stand, divided we fall’! On the 12th every year we would watch on as they had their parade in the Cages with home-made sashes and other regalia, not sure if Gusty Spence wore a bowler hat but they would as well turned out as we would on Easter Sunday with our berets and dark glasses commemorating 1916 and the loyalists in turn would watch on.

We all received our political education within those Cages in Long Kesh, as has been said many times it was a University of intrigue, as the working class flotsam of the conflict we gained an education we never got outside and used it to create a better future. One major thing I discovered in Long Kesh was that sectarianism is evil and should be eradicated. I would imagine that most born in Belfast have that sectarianism as part of their DNA to some degree, it’s unfortunate but you have to work hard to get it out of your system, thankfully I achieved that and to this day find the whole experience of sectarianism disgusting. When I left the prison camp I talked to young IRA Vols. about sectarianism and how it was evil, it was an open door as sectarian bigotry is not part of the republican ethos. For some within loyalism there is a big job to be done to try and eradicate bigotry from their lives, it appears as part of the culture yet it is as evil as racism. We have been unfortunate in Ireland that the national question has overlapped the religious divide, that it has been fostered by centuries of British rule is often overlooked.

My life went off on a tangent and new direction in the 80’s, I was domiciled in Donegal for 30 years and the one little bit of ‘Norn Irn’ that prevailed was the annual Orange march at Rossnowlagh, every year 10,000 Orangemen would march at the seaside village wedged between Ballyshannon/Bundoran and while we would be aware of it we were never inclined to travel through Barnesmore Gap to either cheer or jeer, sure it really was a sideshow with wee farmers from Fermanagh joining Donegal chain smoking bog men for their annual day out and a ’99 by the sea as some Grand Master blessed the poor locals left stranded under the ‘grey skies of the Irish Republic’.

The new Millenium brought a further change in my life as I took redundancy and went back to University as a mature student in a distinguished education establishment on the west coast, five years later I graduated as a Secondary school Teacher, that education gained in those damned Cages in the 70’s was never wasted! In the last decade through a mutual friend in Belfast I got to know a former RUC member during the conflict, a protestant, an entrepreneur, a cross border community worker, a man I now class as a good friend. The three of us have interesting discussions through the various channels on social media indeed we should have a Podcast it gets so heated. But while we have wined and dined and drank Gunpowder Gin on a disused bridge on the Leitrim/Fermanagh border he really took my breath away recently when he asked me would I be interested in joining him to attend a 12th July Orange parade in Fermanagh?

Now this was an invitation I never expected? I’ve seen and shared a lot in life, made great friends in Belfast, Donegal and Galway, and shot the breeze in many places but Wednesday 12th in a small town in Fermanagh is going to be an experience and a half? The Orange Order to me was always something strange? A secret society, a funny handshake, oh no that’s the Masons, are they the same? Every year in the middle of the holiday season when the whole of nationalist West Belfast head for the sunny beaches in Downings and Portsalon, 100,000 Orangemen walk the walk from Roaring Hanna’s statue to Finaghy in the old days, a roasting hot day and they are dressed in the Sunday best, bowler hats and sashes whereas the fenians are in shorts and bikinis drinking pina coladas by the sea in Dunfanaghy; oh no that’s where the rich Prods head off to, no marching for them just golf by Marble Hill? What does it all mean to us disaffected fenians who reject the statelet and are now in the majority; maybe soon the Belfast ones will be holidaying in Bang-gor!

We grew up with distaste for the ‘Orange’? It represented sectarianism and bigotry, bonfires on the 11th night, parades through streets they weren’t welcome the next day. A celebration of two foreign Kings fighting a battle across an Irish river with Irish soldiers on both sides slaughtered to gain a throne in England. A Protestant King blessed by the Pope against a Catholic King who wasn’t pushed and was back in Paris before the first shot was fired. And here we are over 330 years later having a piss up and winding up our neighbours, bit like BBC showing England winning the World Cup in ’66 every Xmas! The BEEB & Sky just announced the coverage live this year but nobody watches it, the Orange are on shanks mare and the fenians are in Donegal, Ryan Tubridy didn’t get such easy money!

But maybe things are changing? Derry Minor footballers won the All Ireland title last week and as they were passing through Moneymore the local Orange Order delayed their parade till the Derry team had passed through and some even applauded. Now isn’t that the way it should be? Cut out all the nonsense, the anti catholic bigotry, make it what they say it should be, a festival for all to enjoy?

So after giving it a lot of thought I agreed that I would go along on to watch the parade amongst the dreary steeples of Fermanagh, he’s promised me a good Ulster t-bone steak after the parade and a ’99, you know what, I’m looking forward to the day, and my impressions of the day will follow after the Gunpowder gin!

Well that was the day that was? We headed off from Galway at 7.30am and made it to Cavan around 10, coffee en route. 15 minutes later we met Keith at Belturbet, funny I mixed it up with Clontibret where Peter Robinson once led an advance force to invade the Republic! 30 mins later we arrive at the Clinton centre in Enniskillen where Keith is the Director, the building itself is just beside the monument where an IRA bomb killed 11 civilians in 1988. I meet up with a few of the International students who spend time at the centre every summer, one from Afghanistan and another from Libya, two from Switzerland and Ruben from Zaragoza in Spain. We then make the short 10 minute journey to the small village of Ballinamallard where the Fermanagh county 12th parade was being held this year; Ballinamallard is an almost totally protestant/loyalist/unionist village and the roads leading to it are bedecked with Union flags.

We park up and walk the last half mile to the starting point which is Ballinamallard United’s football club pitch. It’s funny but my only memory of Ballinamallard is once when my son was playing for a Finn Harps team against them, Johnny Speake from Sion Mills (45 minutes away) was Manager of Harps; apparently in the changing rooms he told the guys to get ready and Kevin pulled off his jacket and revealed a Celtic top, Speake had palpitations; ‘ffs take that off you’ll get us killed here’! Another little observation, the day previously I was golfing and a golf buddy originally from Omagh wasn’t too impressed when I informed him where I was going; ‘not too sure about that’? Like myself he’s domiciled in the Republic for 40+ years but that’s just the way things were in the 70’s, territorial boundaries prevailed.

Anyway the parade started up and away they went must have been 100 bands if there was one, I suppose you could say if you’ve seen one well….? But they each represented their local lodge and there was a pride in their manner as they stepped out, I’ve seen it before in Malta in a different context. In summer amid 40o heat each village had their ‘traditional’ parade but instead of a Sash and a big drum and ‘fleg’ the locals in Marsaskala and Ta Xbiex would be carrying a statue of Our Lady, Malta being a totally conservative and catholic country despite the British being there for 160 years! So the Orange parade yesterday reminded me of that, here we were in this tiny hamlet in Fermanagh and the locals, the in-laws and outlaws, ex ‘B’ Specials, UDR, RUC & British Army, mostly old white men as the Swiss girl observed, but this was their annual day out, did they really think about King Billy on his white stallion crossing the Boyne or were they wondering would it rain before they got the hay in?

There was a kaleidoscope of colour, red, white & blue of course, Union Jacks, Ulster flags, Orange & Purple Orange Order flags, some young ones with Rangers tops; there was bands from Donegal, Cavan & Monaghan, lots of Orange lodges in these border counties still; the bands entertained as they passed, the music was fairly muted with an arrangement of songs which wouldn’t offend, there were no ‘Kick the Pope’ bands here or guys with bigger bellies than Lambeg drums battering them like there was no tomorrow!

I found the day interesting and not in the least threatening, saying that with my fedora hat and Lanzarote tan I think I looked more like a visiting Yank rather than a West Belfast fenian. Keith introduced me to a few people at random, one older guy bedecked in a variety of badges on his Sash explained what each stood for; 60 years membership of the Order; former ‘B’ Special, RUC & UDR man and their respective lodges, his wife from Ballintra; I’m sure he felt he did his bit to defend the border from those jihad IRA men crossing from ‘Afghanistan’ as a Unionist MP referred to Donegal during the Boundary Commission in ’25?

We watched the parade set off for the ‘field’ it probably took two hours to pass us, a few times we crossed the road to Kitty O’Shea’s food van for coffee, no-one objected here as we crossed unlike in 80% catholic Ballycastle where a nationalist in his own town was attacked for breaking ranks and the jeering cheering crowds were ‘up to their knees in fenian blood’; now that’s the aggression and the other side of the 12th July? In my humble opinion there would be no noise or concern if the loyal institutions marched where they are welcome and that’s not in nationalist areas like Derry and Ballycastle where they pulled down tricolours in the morning and replaced them with Union Jacks? This didn’t happen in Ballinamallard because nobody objects there and that’s ‘grand’ as the Swiss guy said to me, ‘nobody in the English speaking world uses ‘grand’ like the Irish do? The young guy from Zaragoza queried, ‘but these people say they are British not Irish’? ‘Wait until we play England in the rugby or Rory wins the Open at St Andrews’ then see how they feel’?

Of course it’s a difficult subject, didn’t we have 30 years of conflict over the very issue? I grew up in this place, well in the urban expanse of nationalist West Belfast, we didn’t have Orange parades but the other side of the city did; it’s supposed to be a festival but in reality it’s an orgy of sectarian hatred, we see it every year yet it’s tolerated; bonfires with effigies of Michelle O’Neill, would be First Minister if the DUP allowed it? Posters of the leaders of Irish nationalism and the Pope, even this year the new presenter of the Late Late Show Co. Down comedian Paddy Kielty, they all adorned the unlit bonfire before the 11th night, then a display of drunken scantily clad women and would be UDA hard men engage in a display of disgusting sectarian behaviour not replicated anywhere in the real world except in Glasgow, that’s what it looks like to people everywhere, even in England, can you imagine what it looks like in the Republic where I’m domiciled now? As we’re in the period of looking at a possible referendum in the near future isn’t it ironic that it’s not the voting patterns in the 6 counties that will count but how the Republic will vote, the obscene nature of 12th celebrations in certain areas in the ‘north’ leave a lot to be desired and need both communities to sit down and try and come to an agreement where the sectarian nonsense is ended once and for all and then let the parades become what they should be, akin to Feile an Phobail every year in August in West Belfast, the largest community festival in Ireland!

So that’s the negative side of things as I reflect back on the day that was in it on Wednesday? Did I enjoy the day, maybe I could find another adjective? It was interesting and different, I was among people who I never mixed with much in my lifetime, I knew there were people who had been in the hated ‘B’ Specials, UDR, British Army, loyalist paramilitaries, Orange Order, Black Perceptory et al; no-one had any problem with my presence but then 99.9% didn’t know I was a fenian from West Belfast, a former IRA prisoner of war in Long Kesh, maybe if I’d swapped my fedora & umbrella for my Irish passport and Galway golf club logo I mightn’t have received a cead mile failte in Ulster Scots? Would I go back next year, I don’t know, to be honest it was pretty boring as the Scots pipe band strung up Dolly’s Brae, just as boring as the parades in Marsaaxlokk by the Mediterranean with statues of religion, isn’t that what it’s all about, religion?

My introduction to this world of Ulster loyalism for the day was mein host extraordinaire Keith. As a former RUC man in the 80’s he had been stationed in Ballinamallard when times were bad, this made the whole thing even more poignant, there was a son of a Shankill Road ‘doggie’ man who won Irish titles with sleek greyhounds and a mammy from Fermanagh still going strong in her 90’s who finds her son cavorting with a former IRA man turned Teacher and Writer as strange as big Ian & Martin chuckling in Stormont with Tony Blair and Bill Clinton? Keith’s a Brexiteer and I’m a golfer (of sorts), I find his thoughts on Britain’s role in Ireland and the EU as perverse as he finds my interest in hitting a little white projectile 400 metres and tapping it into a 6’’ hole for a birdie?

But maybe, just maybe, that’s the crux of the whole matter? As Paddy Kielty quoted recently the Down Captain after becoming the first northern team to win the All Ireland in 1960 and bring Sam Maguire across the border said to his team before the game; ‘whether we win or not the Mountains of Mourne will still be standing when we return’? I turn 70 soon, all those years ago the Orange walked down our street in Tigers Bay just as they did yesterday in Fermanagh; I’m as Irish now as I was then and so are they if even with a British tinge? We live in this shared but divided island and always will do, when the Fermanagh brethren visit England or the Republic they are as Irish as me, they aren’t like those in old colonial outposts like Malta, Gibraltar, Cyprus or the Falklands, the Med and South Atlantic are far from Ballinamallard? If we are to have a safe shared future for our grandchildren then we need to come together and pave a way ahead. We could do it back in the mid 60’s going over to the Oval for the football or when talking to ‘Plum’ Smith in the Cages. I spent a week at the Somme & Ypres post millennium in the company of ex UDR, UVF, British Army, Sinn Fein, IRA, poets, writers, thinkers and dreamers, the trip organised by Glen Barr (RIP) was an amazing week, the conflict was over and we could sit and talk and drink fine French vino without rancour, like Wednesday that was a week to remember!

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