A Free Stater’s Guide to the Twelfth in Belfast…

Bill Breathnach is  Writer and TV researcher based in Connemara. Interested in economics, politics and all things cultural…

A tale of flags, flutes, and an unexpected night out in Sandy Row

Taking the Enterprise train from Dublin to Belfast on the 11th of July was a strange experience. As I gazed out of my carriage window, I sensed a slight degree of trepidation seeing the Union Jacks, bunting and the odd UVF flag adorning some of the lampposts we passed. The train itself was a little eery, far quieter than I have ever experienced it. Myself and my friend Conor, two Free State boys, were heading up for the Twelfth.

So why on earth were we heading up for the Twelfth? As it happens, we are both making an application to make an Irish-language documentary about the Orange Order. In preparation, we decided to go to the parade in Belfast to capture some stock footage and conduct a few “vox pop” interviews with attendees.

As we got off at Botanic railway station at about 6pm, I was struck by how relaxed the atmosphere was. People of all creeds and colours seemed to be enjoying the pleasant mid-summer evening as they sat outside bars, restaurants, and cafés. Later, when we had checked in to our accommodation, we went for another quiet stroll around the vicinity. The atmosphere remained peaceful as we passed by a group of middle-aged Turkish gentlemen enjoying a game of backgammon outside a shisha bar. It felt somewhat surreal therefore to look across the street and see a large bonfire structure adorned with a singular Irish tricolour, ready to be torched.

The following morning, we made our way down to City Hall to view the parade. The crowd seemed cheerful and relaxed as many were enjoying a few drinks. The attendance was far smaller than I was expecting, and we had no trouble making our way up the street. We were initially quite anxious about approaching attendees to conduct vox pops, given our accents. In all honesty though, everyone we met turned out to be welcoming, hospitable, and quite bemused to see a pair of Free Staters at the parade.

While we intentionally avoided talking about politics, we did not experience any hostility or animosity. We even heard a few good wisecracks; “Don’t be putting those videos up on any sexy websites!” one lively East Belfast woman screamed out to us as we descended into fits of laughter. Many were keen to insist that they were not hateful and that they merely wanted to enjoy a pleasant day. Others expressed regret that the attendance was “getting smaller and smaller every year”. I suspected that the high proportion of Scots we met indicated a decline in interest in the event locally in Northern Ireland.

Admittedly, I found the parade to be quite entertaining. I was impressed with how well-coordinated the bands were as they played many traditional Irish melodies such as Brennan on the Moore, God Save Ireland, and The Battle Cry of Munster. For the life of me though, I couldn’t understand why a procession designed to express loyalty to the crown would display a banner depicting a notorious republican such as Oliver Cromwell. Perhaps they were trying to imbue the event with a cross-community ethos?

As the parade dispersed, Conor and I went for lunch as Belfast quickly became a ghost town for the afternoon. I had never seen the city so quiet. Conor needed to head back to Galway that evening, so I soon said my goodbyes and headed back to my accommodation.

As I returned to the house, I could see through the window a small group of men and women in their mid-twenties bedecked with Union Jacks, Ulster Banners and orange bucket hats dancing fervidly to songs cursing the Pope and the IRA. I never expected to find myself witnessing a loyalist house party in my own kitchen. As I awkwardly greeted some of them through the doorway, one fellow in a Rangers jersey called out in a thick Scottish accent “Where are you from pal?”. Somewhat apprehensively, I replied that I was from “a place called Wexford, down South”.

“Aw man, I can’t believe you’re from Wexford!” he excitedly roared, to my surprise. He explained how he had recently heard of Wexford in an episode of Father Ted. “Ted was saying how he missed the bright lights of the big city, and the Cuban priest just replies; ‘You were in Wexford, weren’t you?’… Aw that was so funny”.

Despite my initial apprehension about walking in on the party, everyone there turned out to be extremely amiable, good-humoured, and welcoming. I was promptly offered pizza and whiskey and one of the lads even connected his phone to the speaker to play songs by the renowned Dublin band Thin Lizzy. I got chatting to a girl from Larne who seemed quite intrigued about how I had ended up attending a Twelfth in Belfast. “I’m sorry for saying ‘F*ck the Pope’” she said. “We really weren’t trying to be offensive. I actually think it’s great to have someone like you here”. Sensing an opportunity to do my bit for cross-border relations, I replied, “If you think saying ‘F*ck the Pope’ is bad, you should hear some of the jokes we have about Catholic priests down South”. This turned out to be a great source of entertainment for everyone present.

A young Magherafelt man wearing a Northern Ireland football top soon joined us and sat at the kitchen table with both myself, and the Scottish Rangers supporter who had initially greeted me. Talk soon turned to politics. While I was initially hesitant to pursue the subject, I found the conversation to be intelligent, open-minded, and respectful. Despite certain areas of agreement and disagreement, the atmosphere remained cordial as we discussed a wide range of subjects including sectarianism, the Irish language, flute bands, grammar schools, and Freddie Scappaticci of all things.

I mentioned that there was a fife and drum band near where I live in Wexford. In fact, one of my neighbours who plays in it recently informed me that much of their repertoire is identical to that played by the loyalist bands up North. Indeed, the Fleadh Cheoil, Ireland’s largest traditional music festival, facilitates competitions for flute, accordion, and pipe bands like those we had observed at the parade. While such bands in the Republic do not generally have any political connotations, they very much exist on the margins of traditional music. In truth, such bands probably haven’t been promoted outside of an Orange context as much as they could have been due their association with unionism.

And herein lies one of the great tragedies of sectarianism. We often associate certain traditional cultural practices with identity. In most cases this is reasonably innocuous, however in a context where identity is weaponised, it breeds a deeply damaging sense of cultural alienation. The Magherafelt man revealed that his granny had in fact been an Irish speaker, but she never spoke a word of it once the Troubles broke out. He also expressed regret that unionists had been estranged from the language but pointed to the work of Linda Ervine and the Turas programme in East Belfast as an example of how things were improving.

We both agreed that much of the perceived cultural divide between Catholics and Protestants had been the distorted product of political circumstances over the years. The Irish language that I speak is as much part of his culture as it is part of mine. The band music that he enjoys every year on the Twelfth is as much part of my culture as it is part of his. This is true regardless of what forms of culture are promoted or ignored in our respective local communities. That is not to say however that our cultural identities must be identical, or indeed that cultural identity should necessarily dictate or validate one’s political worldview.

Both the Magherafelt man and the Scottish Rangers fan insisted that the Twelfth meant little to them politically and that they simply enjoyed the opportunity to have a few drinks and enjoy the festivities. “I don’t see it as politics, I just see it as football banter” the Rangers man said. “When we joke about Fenians or whatever, we don’t mean you, we just mean Celtic fans. I think the sectarianism in Northern Ireland is awful. I did a tour of the Shankill and the Falls, and I hated seeing two working class communities divided like that”. He explained that he came from a small mining town in Lanarkshire and that he identified politically with the local Labour tradition there far more than the loyalism associated with the Rangers football club.

The time had come to hit the town. I was unsure about heading out but was eventually convinced by my new acquaintances that an unexpected night out in Sandy Row would be fun. “You’ll be fine, just stay with us. We’ll even call you King Billy for the night!” one of them quipped. Our first stop was The Royal, a loyalist bar bedecked with Union Jacks and a Confederate flag. As we walked through the door, a big burly middle-aged man confronted us. “IDs lads” he grumbled. I felt a chill run down my spine as I frantically searched my wallet in vain for a form of ID that wouldn’t blow my Fenian cover. Someone behind me then shouted, “Hey f*ck off, you do this every year!”, and the group burst into laughter. I felt relieved that I had merely been duped by a practical joke.

The pub itself had the appearance of a shabby, run-down sports bar. Apart from the omnipresent union-jack bunting and various footballing trinkets adorning the walls, the place reminded me of various GAA clubhouses and Gaelic League bars I had frequented as an adolescent. In my experience, the semi-dilapidated state of some of these establishments was often conducive to fostering a sense of informality, intimacy and community. Surprisingly, the pub was remarkably calm as patrons appeared happy to drink their pints quietly. I was informed that most of them had been out all afternoon and the previous night, so they were probably exhausted.

We soon moved down the street and up an alleyway to an even dingier establishment, which may or may not have been a licenced premises. There were no signs on the wall, merely a hand-painted red, white and blue bollard on the footpath adjacent saying; “All Welcome Here”. I decided to take them at their word. However, this place was a bit more raucous and as we entered, we were greeted by most of the clientele partaking in a drunken, boisterous rendition of “The Billy Boys”. While I wasn’t sure how friendly the introductory refrain of “Hello, hello” was, I felt it was probably for the best to be making my own refrain of “Goodbye, goodbye” and headed home soon after.

I’m still not sure what to make of the Twelfth. There are obvious issues with it such as the flag burning, display of paramilitary paraphernalia and a litany of health and safety issues. With proper leadership and organisation however, I don’t feel that any of these problems are insurmountable. Dismissing the entire event as a “hate fest” for knuckle-dragging, bigoted ignoramuses is unfair, damaging and degrading. I can honestly say that despite my thick Southern accent, I experienced no hostility or hatred. If anything, I found people to be welcoming, kind, and good-humoured.

To me, the Twelfth draws attention to the cultural alienation that still exists on this island. Some unionists guardedly defend the event as a demonstration of Protestant culture. While there is nothing wrong with that per se, it is unfortunate that perceptions of Protestant culture are often limited to bonfires, parades, and oath-bound religious fraternities. Language, history, geography, songs, stories, folklore, food, music, dance, literature, sport, traditional crafts, and all other forms culture from this island are just as Protestant as they are Catholic, regardless of how sectarianism has siloed, segregated, and estranged people in how they relate to such things. I can’t help but feel that Northern Protestants are perhaps the ones who have lost the most from this perverse cultural siloing.

I did not find seeing my flag on top of a bonfire pleasant. However, I can’t honestly say that I felt truly victimised or oppressed by it either. I suspect that the humiliation, demonisation, and estrangement generated by such flag burning is actually felt most acutely in working class Protestant communities, and it is this that I find most tragic about it. While it is wrong to burn flags, it is also wrong to degrade, humiliate and ostracise an entire community. The people I met during the Twelfth in Belfast were just as decent, kind and deserving of respect as any other group of people on this island.

Discover more from Slugger O'Toole

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.