Marching in Derry: Where hope and history rhyme
IT IS the sort of colourful pageant that ought to bring visitors from all over the world, and already attracts a sprinkling. On August 8th thousands of men and boys bearing banners, drums and flutes will drill, march and play their way over the stone battlements of this ancient port in a ritualised but passionate re-enactment of the longest siege in British history. They will mark the relief in August 1689 of the starving Protestant townspeople who had been penned in by the forces of a Catholic, French-backed king for 105 days. And in utter contrast with the situation only a few years ago, the Protestant marchers will be received peacefully and even warmly by the city’s authorities, who come from the locally dominant Catholic and Irish-nationalist community.
When compared with the ugly, tourist-repelling riots that can still be triggered by similar marches in other parts of Northern Ireland, especially the grimy streets of North Belfast, consensus over the main annual celebration by the Apprentice Boys of Derry ranks as an impressive success. It was, after all, this very event which in August 1969 plunged the city into a spate of uncontrollable rioting, and hence Northern Ireland into a quarter-century of conflict. Years of delicate diplomacy have been needed to get this point, involving some risk-taking on all sides: the leaders of the Irish-nationalist camp, of the “loyal orders”—the Protestant guardians of history who organise such commemorations—and the bands who follow their parades.
Contrary to what many outsiders assume, the orders and the bands are not the same thing, and that point is key to understanding the progress which has occurred in Northern Ireland’s second city. It has certainly helped that Derry’s Apprentice Boys, compared with the better known Orange Order, which parades across Northern Ireland on July 12th, have been pragmatic and flexible. But the more remarkable story has been the self-reinvention by local bands, which offer a badly needed dose of culture, pride and self-discipline in poor Protestant areas where jobs are scarce and educational results for boys abysmally low. The bands are still best known for playing at historical commemorations. But they perform at lots of non-political events such as charity functions, and within reason will tune up for anybody willing to pay them, thus defraying the cost of their uniforms and instruments.
At least in Derry, the role of bands in offering a dash of colour, comradeship and catharsis to poor Protestant areas has been acknowledged by Sinn Fein, the republican party which shares power in Northern Ireland. In March, leaders of the Londonderry Bands Forum were invited to address the all-Ireland gathering of Sinn Fein, which took place in their home city. With the approval of John O’Dowd, Northern Ireland’s Sinn Fein education minister, the Derry bandsmen tour schools in both Protestant and Catholic areas and explain their history. Some bands have long traditions, like the 150-year-old Hamilton Flute Band, whose members carried stretchers in the bloodiest battles of the first world war. Others, like the Caw, have been formed in the past few years as an alternative to the criminal activities which might otherwise absorb the energies of bored youths.
Politics aside, there may be another reason why the Apprentice Boys march is a happier event than others in Northern Ireland. The drama of the siege and its relief makes a cracking tale and the undulating stone walls, looking out over ocean and mountain, are a glorious locale. Chris McGimpsey, a Unionist politician, says he will be marching there in memory of his ancestor “Swimmer McGimpsey”, who was assigned by the city’s defenders to swim up the River Foyle, dodging the besiegers, with a message hidden in an inflated animal’s bladder for the forces poised to relieve the city. He drowned, but another swimmer got through.
Stories like that belong to the whole population of a city where lingering sectarian tensions, and sporadic violence, coexist with strong local pride. Despite their role in Protestant sacred history, “Those walls are part of my heritage, too,” insists Gearoid O hEara, a Sinn Fein leader who welcomed the Protestant bandsmen to his party’s gathering five months ago.