A toddler screamed in her father’s arms, as the pounding drums of The Orange Order marked the start of ‘The Silly Season’. On Thursday evening they marched down the Lisburn Road, flanked by armed police, followed by PSNI Landrovers, and monitored from the sky by helicopters. I used to think the Vintage Parade in Birr was fairly hectic, but all we need down there is a few bollards and a couple of stewards to keep it kosher.
And being a naive Freestater from that cosy Vintage-Week world of Midlands Ireland, when I moved up to Belfast a year ago, I made a definite point of not talking politics. With anyone. For starters, they don’t want to hear it – especially from some clueless Southerner. It’d be patronising to pontificate on a situation I’d only ever seen on the Nine O’Clock News as a child.
But this self-preserving vow of silence becomes difficult to maintain once ‘The Silly Season’ comes around again and the whole city goes on lock-down.
Like most naive Southerners, I was under the impression the Orange Order marches only took place around the twelfth of July. However, upon my arrival in Belfast last summer, I discovered they go on right up into September and, occasionally even beyond. Every single weekend, in multiple locations across the city.
Some are genuine ‘Expressions of Culture’, and just involve a load of aul’ fellas in suits and sashes marching up a road banging drums and singing songs. Others however, carry a far more threatening air, when it’s made very obvious their connection to paramilitary groups, with big letters painted across their drums, and their packs of drunk marauding supporters.
So all this week big mounds of timber pallets were being built a hundred-foot high, in multiple locations across the city – both in the city centre, and in Loyalist estates. Perched on top of these massive mounds of pallets are tricolours and posters of Sinn Fein politicians, ready to be set ablaze on the night before the 12th.
This highly charged atmosphere feels especially threatening when you’ve a southern accent. This is clearly much more than an ‘Expression of Culture’, as the Orange Order continually attempt to justify it as. It’s a show of force. And the vast majority of people – Catholic and Protestant, want absolutely nothing to do with it. A sizable proportion of the locals leave the city for at least a week, and head for Donegal or Galway. Shutters go down across the city as businesses close – some for the whole month of July.
As those marchers paraded past me on Thursday thumping their drums, what struck me was the age demographic. While some of the marchers were staggering frailly towards their pensions, the majority were much younger than me.
Teenagers born post-Good Friday Agreement, decked out in sashes, aggressively thumping drums. Totally unqualified for their hardline opinions – innocent young heads filled with romantic notions of a fight. Unfortunately, those same innocent young heads appear to have no room left in them to comprehend the brutal realities of that misplaced romanticism – those brutal realities us sheltered Southerners saw on the Nine O’Clock news for decades.
When I first arrived in Belfast a year ago, none of it made sense to me. All this flag-business, this almost-sexual obsession with a piece of coloured cloth. But Belfast has this way of making you acutely aware of who you are. It’s a city obsessed with identity, and it’s frighteningly contagious.
Maybe it’s just this city confronts you with scenarios alien to the cosy Vintage Week world of Midlands Ireland. Or anywhere else for that matter.
Your polished veneer of aloof detachment becomes quite difficult to preserve while watching a flag burn on-top of a pile of pallets. In this city it’s impossible to be oblivious, so the key is not to get knocked over by that initial wobbling dart of identity. It’s like meditation – allow the thoughts to enter your mind, but make sure the thoughs leave again fairly quickly – preferably before you join a paramilitary organisation. It’s important to keep yourself balanced. Centred.
Grounded. And over the course of my year here so far, Belfast has become my favourite place I’ve lived – and I’ve lived in so many cities I can’t remember them all. It feels like home, more so than anywhere else I’ve been. Belfast has a vibrancy that’s missing in Dublin, a definite friendliness, and an urgent sense of mischief.
But what I like about it most is it doesn’t take itself too seriously. You won’t find too many perfectly-bearded eejits with retro headphones and Yugoslavian bicycles from the 80’s poncing about eating paninis up here!
It’s a city on the rise, a city in recovery. But in order for this rapid rise to continue, and Belfast to become a true European city, the annual summer push for polarisation needs to be resisted at all costs.
And that means getting rid of ‘Displays of Culture’, such as burning flags (of any colour) on top of stacks of pallets.
Nicky Larkin, July 2015
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