When I was growing up, July 12th was a fairly innocuous day. My grandmother’s birthday, but other than that, nothing significant. And then I moved to Northern Ireland where it is a day seared into the collective conscious like few others.
On July 12, 1690, a battle was fought on the banks of the Boyne River – in between modern Belfast and Dublin. The fight was for the crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland – so, a pretty big deal. The Protestant cause was represented by William of Orange, a Dutchman who was looking for more land to secure dominance for the fledgling Protestant cause. The Catholic cause was fought by the then-king of Ireland, James. When William’s army defeated James’, it would mark the last time a Catholic regent would rule a united Ireland.
As an American, when I first arrived here, I was confused as to its importance. The only date every single American knows – regarding war – is probably July 4 (and there’s an argument to be made that few know as many details about it as they should). The Battle of the Boyne didn’t really mark independence or any sort of static reality. While the crown of what is now the United Kingdom has since been Protestant, the political reality of these islands has shifted many times since 1690. Why this day?
As a sociologists, I know the answers are myriad. Just like there are many motivations and opinions regarding armed conflict and many opinions regarding Ireland’s future, the 12th means a few different things to many people. I would wager that one of the common denominatiors, though, is that the 12th does indeed means independence.
For many people who ascribe to the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist viewpoint, the 12th is their independence day. It marks the beginning of the process which allowed for Northern Ireland to become a separate legal entity from the Republic. While that reality was contested and will most likely continue to be so, the 12th marks a time where they can all remember that they have a right to be here. So they celebrate – with bonfires and parades and band performances. It’s a public holiday here in Northern Ireland and many people have off from work. For the large majority, marching is about tradition and family and
legacy and membership in the Protestant fraternal order, the Orange Order. The day is started early, with some parades beginning at 8am and lasting until 5pm. There will be music and traditional costumes and fun with the family. Throughout the province, people will gather along traditional routes that their ancestors gathered upon and remember King Billy and how he fought so bravely for the cause. There may also be prayer and thanksgiving to a God who they feel guards them from Catholicism.
For others, it’s about marking territory and defending that territory with violence if necessary. It’s about fiercely defending the fact that there are people on this island who are NOT Irish and will never be Irish and they should be accounted for. It’s the people in this category who have the rest of us on edge a bit. Many brace themselves each 11th night through to the 13th to wonder what havoc will befall us. Threats from both sides fill our newsfeeds and we plan traffic routes accordingly. Many leave the cities and flee to towns where parades don’t happen. Because while the 12th means independence for some, it means oppression for others.
And that’s the real rub of Northern Ireland. What means glory for some means hell for others. What is held dear by many is scoffed at by the few and vice versa. It is days like today where I am reminded that while we have come so far, we have so far to go in learning how to live together in respectful co-existence.
As I write this, it’s about 9am and I’ve been hearing drums and fife bands for about an hour. I’m sitting safely ensconced in my back garden in Belfast and plan to stay outside for however long the weather allows. I will go about my day as normal – writing an article, reading some books, drinking a whole lot of coffee. And I will hope. I will hope that this day can just be one of contested celebration instead of one of uncomfortable violence and confrontations. I will hope people can enjoy the day with their families without feeling oppressed or put-out – whatever identity they cling to. I will hope that this year calmer heads will prevail against tempers and we can continue to take steps forward to harmonious living. I will hope.
- Thousands prepare for Orange parades (bbc.co.uk)
- N.Ireland Protestants burn bonfires before marches (news.yahoo.com)
- Belfast Bonfires Piled High Ahead Of Parades (news.sky.com)
- Orangemen plan Ardoyne parade ban protests (newsletter.co.uk)
- Northern Ireland braces for Protestant marches (sacbee.com)
- Tensions rising over Twelfth of July after Orange Order parade banned from returning by Ardoyne (irishtimes.com)
- Political leaders issue joint warning against violence over Twelfth of July (belfasttelegraph.co.uk)