Desmond Bell and Northern Protestant marching bands

Desmond Bell, of the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University, Belfast, wrote an article for the Irish Times, on the growing enthusiasm for marching bands among Northern Protestant working class youths. I remember Bell presenting this case at one of my undergraduate Irish History lectures in 1987. It still resonates, 19 years later.

Despite the miserable weather the lads from the Foundation estate, a Protestant enclave on Derry’s west bank, had been out on the streets since early morning. They were stacking timber, jumble and tyres collected over the past month into a massive ‘eleventh night’ bonfire. By the late afternoon the monumental structure profiled against the ancient walls of the planter’s city was over 20 feet in height.

Several teenagers were precariously perched on the top of the bonfire waving a huge tricolour. Not a post-Forum conversion on the part of Loyalist youth to the politics of constitutional nationalism, but preparations for an auto du fe. The top of the bonfire was also festooned with a colourful collection of SDLP and Sinn Fein posters. These had been carefully saved since the recent local elections and, together with the offending flag, were all to be put to the torch later that night.

The flag had been especially made by Protestant workers in one of the city’s shirt factories and smuggled out past the security gates. In Derry, as elsewhere in Northern Ireland, the battle of symbols is taken very seriously. And the young are in the thick of it.

Some of the young people of the Fountain and of the Protestant estates which ring the perimeter of the east bank of the city, had spent the last few nights sleeping rough guarding their bonfire from potential sabotage at the hands of marauding Catholic gangs. In the early hours of the morning, as the city slept, they had been out painting the kerbs and lamp-posts at the entranceof their estates red, white and blue; a reminder to intruders that they were entering inviolable Protestant territory. A few others had made the journey with elder brothers the previous night to Portadown to join the Loyalist protest against the rerouting of the Orange march away from the Tunnel.

This summer’s marching season saw youthful members of Protestant marching bands in violent confrontation with the RUC. Colourful bass drums were abandoned and flutes stuffed into tunic pockets as bandsmen and their supporters threw themselves against police lines.

Indeed even the hierarchy of the Orange Order has expressed concern about the activities of some of the wilder “Kick the Pope” bands, as they are known colloquially.

Most of the bands, however, have no formal links with the lodges. They are, by and large, independent self-governing outfits run by the young people themselves along roughly democratic lines. Certainly they leadout the lodges on the big marching days. But they get paid for this. Increasingly though they derive the major part of the income they need to replace uniforms and instruments from street collections organised during their own calendar of independent parades.

For most young working-class Protestants they are a more attractive alternative to membership of the staid and hierarchical Orange Order. Or indeed, to too close an association with the paramilitaries with its attendant dangers. Today it is the marching bands with their expressive display of Protestant identity and difference via a potent mixture of martial music, Loyalist symbol and Protestant self-image, that have become the most important mobilising agency for Protestant youth.

Throughout the long nights of the summer weekends their parades (there were over 2,000 of them last year) provide opportunities for vibrant and hedonistic leisure activity as well as for the celebration and renewal of ethnic identity. There can be little doubt about the popularity of these activities amongst Protestant working class youth. A survey I conducted in Protestant secondary schools in Derry revealed that one in six of pupils attending secondary intermediate schools were members of marching bands (though not all of those by any means of the “Kick the Pope” variety).

Moreover over half the 400 schools kids I surveyed declared themselves supporters of a specific band and attended parades (less than 10 per cent were members of the Orange Order).

Loyalism, of course, has always had its bands. The Britannia Band from Derry, for instance, can trace its pedigree back in an unbroken line to the 1860s. (It has long since evolved into a musically accomplished brass band such as would grace any park grandstand on a Sunday afternoon.) From the end of the 18th century fife and drum bands modelled on those of local militia and yeomanry regiments have been an important element in populist Orangeism. Many a riot in Ulster throughout the 19th century had its origins, as Government Commissions of Inquiry reveal, in the playing of “Party tunes” and in the parading with bands in contravention of decrees by government and magistracy.

What is distinctive about the contemporary “blood and thunder” flute bands (significantly accordion and pipe bands are less combatitive, the former comprised largely of girls) is their youthfulness and overwhelmingly working-class character.

Each sizeable Protestant housing estate in the North has thrown up a marching band over the last few years. The fierce competition between the bands involves not only questions of musical ability and appearance but local loyalties. Their marches are, as they always have been, about staking symbolic claims to territory — for the young people of the Fountain estate, which lies huddled up against the east mall of the walls of Derry, the right to parade on the fortifications of their ‘ancestors’ built is indded a symbolically important one. Their local band “The William King” is named after an early victim of the Troubles who died in a street assault.

The names of the bands inscribed on their decorated bass drums proclaim a loyalty to local community and Ulster Protestant identity rather than to any distinct policy. Loyalty is, of course, a familiar moral principle extrapolated from the realm of personal relations and obligations to the political sphere.

The marching bands and their parades, the majority of which occur entirely within Protestant estates without any trouble, can be seen as a response by the young to a crisis in Protestant working class culture occurring at the present time in the North. This crisis has been occassioned by mass unemployment. The rapid de-industrialisation of the past seven years has hit Protestant workers concentrated in the savaged manufacturing sector (Catholic levels of unemployment, it must be said, have risen even more sharply). The political uncertainties of the Direct Rule period have increased Protestant fears of a sell out by Britain. “Perfidious Albion” declares a slogan sprayed on a gable in the Loyalist Nelson Drive estate in Derry.

In addition an ongoing process of urban redevelopment over the last 15 years has shattered traditional patterns of community in areas like the Shankill in Belfast and the Fountain in Derry. In the Fountain the maze of tiny labourer’s cottage and red brick terraces which sustained a vibrant community life was replaced in the early 1970s by a severe complex of flats and maisonettes. The almost military austerity of the contemporary concrete building serves to reinforce the impression of a garrison under seige.

Following street confrontations in the early part of the Troubles, the estateis completely fenced off from the adjoining Catholic Bishop Street area. During the redevelopment many of the original residents left the Fountain to settle in the new estates being built in the Waterside area of the city. The Fountain’s population has been depleted significantly, yet it remains the last Loyalist stronghold on the city si

Despite the fact that the estate lies spatially outside the city walls, in the minds of the young Loyalists it is now located, symbolically at least, within the hallowed planter’s city. It is perceived as a last redoubt under “a 17 year seige” (as many Protestants refer to the Troubles); a siege laid by those same forces that encircled the Protestant city in 1688-89!

“It’s the band that’s keeping this estate going,” one young flautist and wall mural painter assures me, “keeping people’s heads up and proud of their traditions and history.” The “Protestant” sense of history, a potent mobilising myth, is refracted through contemporary political and territorial anxieties. It remains fixated on the metaphor of the siege.

The build-up to the 12th of July and, to the Relief of Derry celebration (which now rivals the big Belfast parade in size and interest) seems to be accompanied by a heightened concern with “Protestant” identity. Indeed these ritualised practises, in which the young play such a significant part — the bonfires, painting of kerbs and murals, erection of flags and arches, and the parades themselves — are the specific means by which an exclusive “Protestant identity” is represented and renewed in the Loyalist mind.

Somewhat significantly, my survey revealed that those pupils who declared themselves members or supporters of marching bands were twice as likely to favour living in a residential area where there were no Catholics than those who did not support bands. They were considerably less likely to have Catholic friends or to approve of inter-denominational schooling than non-supporters. They were more likely to be committed to an Ulster identity with its notion of Protestant self-reliance than to a British identity (less than 5 per cent of all the sample identified themselves as Irish persons).

Does this mean that young Protestants, especially young working class ones, are more prejudiced than their Catholic counterparts? I don’t know and I’ll leave that question to others with more direct experience of the the sphere of religious intolerance to pontificate upon. What the above results do suggest, however, is that young Protestant people play a particularly active role in the reproduction of Loyalist popular culture. It is in the experience of parade and street confrontation that militant Protestant identity is being forged.

The young are not the passive initiates into a world of sectarian prejudice constructed for them by sinister “Godfathers” or handed down with their mother’s milk. Unfortunately much of the liberal educational practice which has attempted to combat sectarianism amongst the young in the North’s schools has operated with an erroneous, overly deterministic view of the process by which the young acquire their identities and prejudices in the North. This model of sectarian socialisation can only obscure our understanding of the strange interaction that exists between the dynamics of teenage peer group association and youth cultural practices, and those of a parental culture of Loyalism in Northern Ireland.

For the Protestants of NI their sense of themselves as a distinct ethnic group is not undergirded, as it is for the Catholics of NI, by a political ideology of nationalism. The Loyalists certainly have no attachment to the notion of an Irish nation but neither do they have much of a nationalist commitment to Britain and its State. In so far as Loyalist identity has an ideological base it is one drawn from an antideluvian religious discourse that is schismatic and exclusive. Religious observance amongst Protestants is in decline — and dramatically so amongst those in the 17-to-30 age range.

In reality their positive sense of identity is primarily dependent on the ritualised practices and confrontations of the marching season. It is the sound of Lambeg drum rather than the resonance of political ideology which brings tears to the eyes of a Loyalist. The province of this cultural identity is that of the parade and street confrontation. Absent from it is the figure of the politicised intellectual — a Hyde, or a Pearse — constructing a consciousness of a nation from the bric-a-brac of liberal democratic theory and peasant folkways.

Hence indeed we see the ironic truth in the garrulous claim by Unionist politicians that the ability to mount Orange demonstrations in Catholic areas (where they are likely to lead to disorder) is central to the preservation of Protestant traditions and identity.

Hence also we can appreciate how it is that the street-active young play such a central role in the maintenance of Loyalist “tradition”.

The crisis of culture and community being experienced by the Protestant working-class is hitting the young hardest. Most of the young bonfire builders have just left school. With no jobs or possibility of them they are killing time before entering the Government-sponsored Youth Training Programme in the autumn. It is a generation that stumbles towards uncertain future given the precariousness of the dependent Northern economy and vagaries of British Government policy. The ghettoisation of residential life that has occured in the North since the 1970s has curtailed the mobility of youth and restricted both their opportunities for work and leisure. Young people, increasingly marginalised from the world of wage-labour also become excluded from the limited freedoms of mass consumption. They have little money in their pockets for enjoying themselves, even if there was anywhere safe to go. The band parades with their marching, music and colour, and with their away trips to other towns, cheap discos and drinking, offer opportunities for diversion and pleasure.

In a culture still dominated by a stultifying puritanism, despite the marked decline in Protestant church attendance over the last two decades, the parade offers an outlet for licence. Indeed the hybrid form of Loyalist parades — at the head of which stride the starched and joyless, Bible carrying mullahs of the DUP and in the rear the dancing, six-pack bearing younger generation of denim and studded leather — reflects a fundamental antinomy within contemporary Protestant culture in NI between puritanism and hedonism, authority and licence.

For the young the bands and their parades provide a form of street based youth culture. This continues to provide for the abiding concerns of a Loyalist parental culture with territory and identity at the same time as it expresses the demands of the young.

The young are voting with their feet.

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