Two big days in the calender and some history for you.

Hello again and I do realise it is a few days since I last posted so I thought I had better catch up as I do not want to get too far behind. Although it was not the reason for my visit, as previously explained, I am here in the middle of what is generally known as the “marching season” which has been the cause of much contention and violence in recent decades although thankfully it seems to be relatively peaceful in the last couple of years, but I am getting slightly ahead of myself here.

Whilst I may be getting ahead of myself there is little to report as my life continued in a very regular way that will be of absolutely no interest to the reader. Daily visits to see my Father, occasional laundry, cooking for myself which I love but I confess has amounted to not much more than big “fry ups” as is my wont here and ready meals from a local supermarket. This is not something I usually do too often but I have to say that we are very well served here in Northern Ireland as there are several local companies producing such meals that are of a far higher quality than the comparable products churned out by the huge multi-nationals and sold just about everywhere in England. A couple of additional benefits are that these companies tend to use very local ingredients which are excellent and this keeps local farmers in business as well as cutting down on food miles if that is a concern for you.

On now to yesterday, Friday 12th July which is the largest of the marching days where members of the Orange Order parade to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. If you are not too well up on Irish history, and believe me it is a fairly complex area of study, I shall attempt to give you a very brief rundown. After a falling out with the Pope in the 16th century, King Henry VIII had broken away from the Catholic church and formed his own religion, the Church of England aka Anglican church. It was effectively part of the beginning of what we now know as Protestantism.

Protestantism had mostly held sway throughout the 17th century but there were still many who would have had a Roman Catholic monarch in England (and by default Ireland as well) and it eventually came to a showdown between the Dutch Protestant Prince William of Orange (hence the Orange Order) and the Roman Catholic King James. For various reasons, this confrontation happened in Ireland rather than mainland Britain.

William had landed in Carrickfergus, quite close to Belfast, in 1689 and there had been a series of indecisive battles at Derry, Aughrim and Enniskillen. The decisive conflict was at the River Boyne, now in the Irish Republic, where William defeated James and subsequently ascended the throne of England. This is seen as being the beginning of a Protestant monarchy in what is now the United Kingdom where Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is not only Sovereign but also the titular head of the Anglican Church. To this day all British coinage carries the legend “ELIZABETH II DEI GRATIA REGINA FIDEI DEFENSATRIX, meaning “Elizabeth II, by the grace of God, Queen and Defender of the Faith” reflecting her position in relation to the official religion of the country.

The 12th of July is a very big deal in Northern Ireland to the extent that it is a Bank (public) holiday. There are a number of parades all over the country with Orangemen marching, all wearing their sashes to denote their membership of the Order and accompanied by bands and a specific type of drummer of whom more in a moment. The largest parade is in Belfast as you might expect and then each county has it’s own parade. Whilst the Belfast route is the same every year, in the counties the location rotates round the various Districts of the Lodges in the County. In Co. Armagh, which is where Tandragee is, the rotation is an 11 year cycle and this year it happened to be in the town so I didn’t have to go far to see the festivities. It took me my usual 15 minutes to walk to my local, the Montagu Arms, which had very helpfully opened early so I took myself there, grabbed a seat at the bar with a couple of friends and awaited the parade which was going right past the door.

One of the bands which did rather catch the eye and was the subject of much subsequent discussion was Latery Fife and Drum LOL #222. who were all attired in tweed flat caps. I do not know if this is a tradition of theirs or if it is a nod to a massively popular UK television drama series called “Peaky Blinders” which, for the benefit of people who do not have access to it, is about a criminal gang in the English Midlands in the interwar period. The rather unusual title derives from the fact that they sewed razor blades into the peaks of their flat caps which they then used in fights to slash opponents across the bridge of the nose and eyes thereby blinding them – charming! I am quite sure Latery only have them as a fashion statement.

I was surprised how quiet the bar was initially as they had lot of extra staff on, they had constructed a beer garden complete with mobile bar in the back carpark and my mate Scoot was running a burger / hotdog stall in the archway beside the bar. I need not have worried with the place soon filling up as the parade approached and the first part of the parade began.

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The local Lodges assemble at the War Memorial at the top of the town (I shall provide a full history of the Memorial in due course) and then they do a circuit of the town before returning to the top to “greet” the visiting Districts. The other Districts had previously assembled in a field a little way out of town and then processed into the town before going all the way to the bottom end (Tandragee stands on a hill) and the to “the Field” where there is a religious service and a few speeches before everyone processes back up the hill. At the top of the town the local Lodges disperse to their Lodge buildings and the visitors return to the assembly field before being bussed back to their respective towns and villages.

It was a great family day out and I was surprised by the very light police presence, at least overt police presence although I was told by friends that there were plenty of plain clothes officers about the place, everybody knows all the local cops in Northern Ireland as it is such a small place. When I left Northern Ireland in 1988 the 12th was one of the major policing operations of the year with all police leave cancelled and a huge Army backup in support. Yesterday, in what was the second biggest parade after Belfast I saw four officers on traffic duty at the top of the town, one motor cyclist at the conclusion of the march and another two pedalling slowly on bicycles in the middle of the parade which struck me as an eminently sensible method of policing. The Ambulance Service had the same idea and there were two paramedics on bicycles as well. The only problem I could see with it was that pedalling that slow they were all having difficulty staying upright! Have a look at the photo.

It is perhaps no surprise that the Armagh parade is always so big as it was in this County that the Orange Order started in 1795 in the cottage of one Dan Winter at the Diamond just outside Loughgall which is about seven or eight miles away from where I am writing this and where Loyal Orange Lodge (LOL) #1 was formed. All Lodges have numbers and names and I was chatting to a guy yesterday from LOL #3 which is obviously a fairly early Lodge.

The Orange Order is easily the largest of the Protestant fraternal groups but they are not the only one. There is also the Royal Black Preceptory (RBP) which was formed two years after the Orange Order in 1797 and is generally regarded as being the more exclusive “senior” arm of the whole grouping. To quote from their XXX attached website they were formed “with its foundations based firmly on scriptural truths and the propagation of the Christian Reformed Faith”.

They were parading today in Tandragee although I did not go to see it prior to everyone decamping to Scarva, which is about three miles distant, for another annual tradition called the “Sham Fight” which takes place every 13th of July. People dress up in costume to re-enact the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and it is always massively attended even though the weather is anything but summery today. Overcast and not too warm would best describe it. I am not a huge fan of large crowds, less still a six mile round trip walk with the very real possibility of rain. The RBP hold their main marches on the last Saturday of August.

I have mentioned the two major Orders but there is yet another one known as the Apprentice Boys of Derry, a somewhat odd name which probably needs a bit of explanation and so here it is.

I know there is considerable contention about the name of the second city of Northern Ireland as in Londonderry / Derry (or even Doire in the Gaelic) but in the days to which this story refers it was known in English as Derry before the London prefix appeared. In 1688 at the beginning of the Williamite wars the city was strategically important and was walled for purposes of defence and, indeed, the walls are still in good order and walkable for the full distance. A Catholic Jacobite force tried to attack the city by way of a surprise attack on the 7th of December of that year and very nearly succeeded but for the actions of a group of 13 apprentice boys who charged down to the gate and barred it just ahead of the invaders. Tere were subsequent attacks including one where James himself appeared and was commanded by French officers.

The initial attack had been thwarted but there then ensued a 105 day long siege from 18th April to 1st August 1689 which led to appalling starvation and death. Rats were changing hands for huge amounts of money as sources of food. To prevent any sort of relief force sailing up the River Foyle the besiegers erected a boom across the river a couple of miles downstream. As a child (I lived there until I was 11) I remember playing with my younger brother and local friends round the remains of an old semi-derelict manor house which probably wasn’t the safest thing to be doing as it was just about falling down even back then in the 1960’s. The name of this crumbling edifice was Boom Hall as it was where the boom had been sited. Today, Boom Hall is long gone and the whole grounds are now a rather salubrious housing development. Eventually the siege was relieved without the town capitulating and the event is commemorated every August with the Apprentice Boys parade through the city. Of all the various parades in the “marching season” this one probably has the greatest potential for violence as the Cityside (as opposed to the Waterside across the river) is predominantly Roman Catholic / Nationalist / Republican and the route goes very close to some extremely hardcore Republican areas. I suspect the PSNI (local police) will not get away with two bicycles, one motorcycle and a few foot officers on traffic point for that one.

 

I realise that anyone writing about Irish history and politics, specifically those of Northern Ireland, runs the risk of allegations of bias one way or another and so I have been at great pains to be as objective as possible. I do hope I have succeeded as the last thing Northern Ireland needs is more rubbish talked about it.

There are a couple of other things to mention in relation to the images you can see here and the first is the banners. Nearly every Lodge has a large banner of the type you can see which will have generally have the LOL number, Lodge name and two artworks on front and back. Some of the smaller Lodges make do with a smaller bannerette but that is not usual. The banners range from religious scenes to historical events to depictions of the people for whom memorial Lodges are named. In this category I noticed Stronge Memorial a lodge named for Sir Norman Stronge who was murdered along with his son by the IRA in 1981 at his home in Tynan Abbey in Co. Armagh. I worked for a while in nearby Caledon and revisited Tynan a few years ago with my Canadian friend Lynne.  I wrote a piece for the Virtual Tourist website at the time and I shall reproduce part of it here to explain about Sir Norman.

“Although I had lived in Northern Ireland all my life I don’t believe I had ever even heard of Tynan until an event in January 1981 which, even by the standards of a country that had witnessed so much brutality in the previous 12 years, shocked most people and it is this incident that people probably most associate with the place.

On that date, eight heavily armed IRA terrorists attacked Tynan Abbey, murdered Sir Norman Stronge and his son James. Sir Norman was 86, a decorated veteran of both World Wars, having fought in the Battle of the Somme in the First before pursuing a career in politics where he rose to be Speaker of the Northern Ireland House of Commons. James, his 48 year old son was also a retired Army officer who had taken up politics on leaving the Forces and actually succeeded his Father as Speaker when the former retired due to ill-health. He was also a part-time volunteer RUC (police) officer. After murdering the occupants the terrorists fire-bombed the 230 year old building leaving it irreparable. It eventually had to be demolished on safety grounds in the late 1990’s”.  Interestingly, the IRA Active Service Unit (ASU) who perpetrated this atrocity, led by a mass murderer called James Lynagh were effectively wiped out in a joint SAS / RUC operation in 1987 in nearby Loughgall as they set out to perform another act of mass murder.

 

Regarding the banners of historical events, one which particularly caught my eye was the “Drowning of the Protestants” in the River Bann in nearby Portadown in November 1641 during the Irish Rebellion of that year. It was fairly graphic with naked women standing waist deep in water and protecting their modesty with their arms whilst surrounded by leering armed men. Whilst it is a representation of an actual historical event, it is hardly likely to engender cordial community relations.

 

Basically what happened was that the “plantation” of Ireland had begun in the very early 17th century whereby Protestant English and Scots were given grants of land, predominantly in the North of the island. This created much resentment amongst the indigenous population and there were many instances of armed Irish rounding up “planters” and marching them to boats on the coast to be forcibly repatriated to mainland Britain. One of these “roundups” happened in Co. Armagh and the prospective deportees were imprisoned overnight in a church in Loughgall which set me to thinking how many momentous events have occurred in what is still little more than a village there over centuries and right up into my lifetime.

The next day the prisoners were marched out and it became clear that there was no intention to repatriate them. At the River Bann they were stripped and herded into the water. I can personally attest to how brutally cold an Ulster November can be and most perished by drowning or exposure with those that remarkably did not immediately perish being dispatched by musket fire. It is now believed that approximately 1,250 Protestants were murdered in Co. Armagh, just another sorry episode in the history of this part of the world which never seems to end.

 

Speaking of cordial relations as I was above before my dissertation on the massacre, I should note that my local is a mixed bar and whilst there is some good-humoured banter loosely regarding religion and politics, it never gets nasty and several of my Roman Catholic friends, at least one of whom I know is very Nationalist minded although not violently so, were in and happily drinking with men in suits who had obviously been marching.  Orangemen are not allowed to wear their sashes in places serving alcohol and there are even temperance lodges although I think this is merely nominal nowadays but it was obvious who they were, most of them were locals in the bar anyway. Even as the night wore on and with a considerable amount of drink consumed everything remained very convivial which is exactly as it should be.  Would that it had always been thus.

The second thing of note are the large bass drums played with long pliable malacca sticks and are generically known as “Lambeg drums” after the village of Lambeg in Co. Antrim, perhaps 25 miles away from here. I have also heard them referred to as Killyman Wreckers for the townland of that name near Dungannon which straddles the Armagh / Tyrone border. They do not accompany bands as would a standard bass drum but beat out unusual rhythms unaccompanied.  Part of the reason for this is that they are, along with bagpipes, one of the loudest acoustic instruments on the planet and can easily reach volumes of 120db thereby effectively drowning out completely the melodic instruments they are meant to be accompanying.

 

During the summer months there are often drumming competitions in various towns and villages across Northern Ireland. These consist of a number of drummers standing about in a circle and are not so much a musical contest as an endurance test. The drummers batter away until they drop out and last man (it is always men) standing is the winner, a process which can literally go on for hours. I have personally lifted one of the drums off the ground and they are very heavy so it really is a tough business as the drum is generally held in place by a single leather strap around the neck. As you can see from one of the images, they do start them young and you will sometimes see quite young lads drumming pretty competently on appropriately downsized drums.

 

Whenever I work out how to do it I shall post a collage of the several film clips I took of the event on Youtube and post a link here as it will give a much better general idea of what the whole event is about than any amount of my prose.

 

After the parade had been and gone, I retired to the bar to avail myself of the internet and have a couple of pints but the early start meant that I was just about exhausted and was home and in bed shortly after 2200 which is ludicrously early for me but it did have the knockon effect of causing me to rise at the equally ludicrous hour of 0600, oh dear. A few hours, a bit of offline writing of this piece and a breakfast and it was time for a rather early version of my customary afternoon dozette. I should point out a couple of things here in relation to this, a) I took breakfast which is a thing I rarely do and b) despite the Montagu being open I am writing this at home at 1740 having consumed  nothing stronger than green tea and coffee all day. I must be getting sensible in my old age but I am considering a move imminently so I will hopefully get this posted when I get down to the pub this evening. There will be live music and it is generally good fun.

 

I have another ten days here and in the meantime I shall content myself with trying to get my Malta series finished, a situation that actually looks vaguely possible now.  There will obviously be other things to report on from this trip so stay tuned and spread the word.

Time to catch up.

For those few of you that may have been following my little excursion back to the place of my birth I thank you and I do realise that it is getting on for three weeks since I posted here. As we have now entered another new month I thought I had better bring you up to date a bit once I have finished wondering where this year has gone to. Like so many clichés the old one about time moving quicker as you get older does indeed have a basis in truth and I really have no idea how the last seven months have slipped by.

I am still in Northern Ireland and enjoying myself although doing nothing worth writing about which is the first reason for the long absence here. I have not been at all idle on the blog front though despite my very limited internet access as I have been concentrating on constructing pages about my rather crazy ramble about Europe last year and have been quite pleased with my progress although it is time-consuming. The only way I can hope to keep myself vaguely organised here is to back publish entries to the dates to which they refer which means that you may not have seen them as they are buried away at the bottom of the homepage. If you would like to have a look you can click on the link here and see what you think. Believe me, it was a pretty mad journey one way and another.

There are a few bits and pieces for me to share with you and I shall start with the World Cup which was in full swing the last time I posted in this section. Despite the increasing hype in the British media football didn’t “come home” as England did very well but eventually fell short losing to Croatia in the semis. They are a young side who should get much better especially if manager Gareth Southgate remains in charge as he seems to know how to get the best out of them. They certainly did not disgrace themselves by getting to the semis.

When I saw the way the semis had worked out I actually managed to predict what would happen although in truth it was not too difficult. The fixtures were France vs. Belgium and England vs. Croatia and I said that either team in the first match would beat either in the second and so it was to prove. France beat Belgium and then an ageing Croatian side who are probably just about over as a group defeated the considerably younger English team.

In the game that I never see the point of i.e. the third and fourth place playoff a very decent Belgian team saw off England fairly comfortably. I didn’t think England looked that good in the game.

On to the Sunday and the Final and naturally, with the odd things that happen to me something a little strange took place. I was going to the pub quite early as I knew it would be crowded for the game and I wanted to get a seat. I popped into my local supermarket and saw a middle-aged guy wearing a Croatian football (soccer) shirt accompanied by a teenage lad who was almost as tall as me. I know that number of Eastern Europeans have moved into the village of late but I had not heard of any Croatians and I was intrigued as they seemed to be poring over a computer printout of a map with the young lad who works in the shop.

All soon became clear and it transpired they were a Father and son, the Father indeed being Croatian but they were now resident in the USA where they had flown from into Dublin airport that morning. They were heading for Limavady in the Northwest of the country as the son was playing in a large international youth football competition in that area. Almost unbelievably, the shop assistant did not know where it was which surprised me as Northern Ireland is such a small place and Limavady is a comparatively large town. How they had managed to deviate off the A1 and ended up in Tandragee is something of a mystery to me but here they were and in a bit of a bind as their hire car had no satnav and the guy could not get his American mobile (cell) ‘phone to work here. I told them the place was the best part of two hours drive and had formulated a route for them but when I told them that they would be struggling to get there in time for kickoff they asked if there was somewhere local that they could watch the game. No better man to ask and I told them to come with me for the 100 yard walk to the Montagu Arms of which I have spoken often.

In I walked with the two Croatians and announced to the assembled company that as it was the biggest day in Croatian footballing history I had arranged a couple of my own fans to help interpret the finer details of their team. Utter nonsense of course but my mates looked incredulous until the situation was explained and I bought the guys a drink (Cokes all round for them), introduced them and we all began to chat. As you probably know by now I am a great believer in the “interconnectedness of all things” as the late Douglas Adams so wonderfully termed it and also “what goes round comes round” as they say. Some years ago I had been in Zagreb during a major football tournament and I was staying in an obscure local area as usual. It was my practice every evening to go to a particular little locals bar to watch the games and I was treated brilliantly despite not a single word of a common language and here was I returning the favour to a couple of Croatians all these years later.

There still remained the problem of getting them to their ultimate destination after the match and fortunately my mate Ritchie was on hand. When Ritchie is not entertaining people with one of his selection of excellent guitars he is by trade a lorry driver and knows every road in the country. I had picked my route not because it was the shortest but because I thought it was the simplest involving mostly motorway driving but Ritchie came up with a shorter and apparently equally simple alternative which he managed to get printed off on the bar computer and explained in detail to our new Croatian friend who seemed well pleased.

When we are not slaughtering each other the people of Northern Ireland are the friendliest you will ever hope to meet and I am hope the man and his son will take home happy memories of their brief unplanned stop in a tiny village they had undoubtedly never heard of. What are the odds of such a thing happening? If I had been five minutes earlier I would never have run into those lovely people but, as the late Terry Pratchett once very intelligently remarked, “Million to one chances happen nine times out of 10”!

Whilst they may have been happy with the hospitality the result of the game was less to their liking with their home nation going down to a very talented French side who had played some stunning football throughout. Still, for a nation of a shade over four million people they had done remarkably well. For those of you who do not love “the beautiful game” that is the end of that although the domestic season is merely days away now.

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An unusual departure for me.

My other two staples of blog entries are breakfast and the weather so I’ll do breakfast first and it rarely changes although, in an unusual departure it was bacon sarnies (Brit slang for sandwiches), orange juice and coffee today which is not usual but I do like a bacon buttie (more Brit slang) now and again. I have posted photographic evidence of same here! I did hear once that the majority of vegetarians who go back to being carnivores do so because they want to eat bacon. This was borne out as one of my Father’s carers came round when I was “slaving over a hot stove” and the incomparable smell of bacon wafting about the kitchen. She told me that although she had eaten recently that her mouth was watering with the smell. I genuinely feel sorry for those that for religious or dietary reasons cannot enjoy this quintessentially British item that has kept armies of builders and the like going since time immemorial.

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Hard to beat.

Other than that it has been fries all the way so I’ll include another image here of one of my better efforts. This really is causing my poor Father some bemusement as he regularly sees me photographing whatever I am about to eat and, on the odd occasions my sister-in-law does not cook for him, what I have prepared to eat for him. I suppose he has a point but I reckon I shall have enough for a decent gallery of “Fry-ups of Northern Ireland” when this little jaunt comes to an end. I promise to post a warning at the top of it so you can pass quickly on if you do not want to induce a heart attack at the mere sight of my cholesterol-laden offerings.

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Normal Northern Ireland weather service is resumed.

The third part of my unholy triumvirate of topics here is the weather, that perennial staple of conversation here, and I really do not know where to start. I have been telling you about the record-breaking heatwave we had been having but, with it being Northern Ireland, that didn’t last. We had been hearing horror stories on the TV news from farmers (are they ever happy) that there would be no carrots for Xmas dinner as the crops were failing, we had a hosepipe ban and so on and everyone was praying for rain. Be careful what you wish for as last weekend not ten miles from here in Lurgan there were homes and businesses destroyed by flash floods. Today was absolutely awful with rain all day being driven by a blustery and none too warm wind.

In due course I shall get round to writing a series of entries here about my wonderful trip to Sri Lanka earlier this year where I had enjoyed 30 degree temperatures every day and watched TV images of Western Europe gripped by blizzards and battered by Atlantic storms. Six months later and we are having a heatwave and flooding in the space of a few days. What is going on with this weather?

In local news (as they say on TV) we have had what they refer to as “the marching season” in Northern Ireland which can be a lively time of year to say the least. Without boring you it revolves around a series of marches by the Orange Order which is a Loyalist organisation and which have caused (the marches, that is) untold trouble in years past for reasons mired in centuries of history in this all too volatile country.

Traditionally, the “11th night” i.e. the eve of the marches was a time when huge “bonies” (bonfires) were lit and when I say huge I mean huge. Vast pyres of wooden pallets and tyres were constructed over a period of weeks if not months and usually dwarfed the surrounding buildings leading to all sorts of issues for the Fire Brigade. There were some problems this year when contractors, who had to wear ski masks to avoid reprisals. were brought in to dismantle some of them. Yes, when I say that things have changed out of all recognition since when I left, there is still an undercurrent of fear which I think will last for many generations. I should be clear here and say that the visitor has absolutely nothing to fear because, as I mentioned, we are the friendliest people imaginable towards outsiders, it is purely an internal friction.

With the bonfires done, the marches themselves passed relatively quietly but all things are relative, especially here. In the lead-up to the marches there had been all sorts of trouble in the City side of Londonderry / Derry (they cannot even agree on the name) at the interface between the Nationalist and Loyalist areas with shooting incidents and so on. They have been roundly condemned, and rightly so, by community leaders on all sides and seem to have calmed down and yet again I must stress to the potential visitor that they have nothing to fear from this as they would need to be Hellishly unlucky to stumble upon it accidentally.

I have some more observations to make about the last few weeks but, as usual here, time is against me and the delightful Sam is going to kick me out of the bar shortly so that is my internet done until tomorrow. I think that if I work quickly I can get this posted and the further observations will wait so stay tuned and spread the word.