I thought I’d write this piece now as we approach marching season, the time when Orangemen set out on to mark what is commonly referred to as ‘The Battle of the Boyne’ across Northern Ireland and some of Scotland. The parades are, in particular areas, highly contentious as they are sometimes accompanied with a degree of sectarian sentiment aimed at Catholic communities that border or are in the direct path of their routes. So, I have timed the publishing of this carefully.
What prompted the thought process leading to this post was this mural that I saw during my most recent trip back to Belfast. It’s in the east of the city and references the 12th of July Parades with its pipe and drummer imagery. I like the juxtaposition of the Harland and Wolff crane too, given that the now defunct shipyard was somewhere that Catholics could never get work simply because of their religious persuasion.
But the words were what struck me most forcefully on seeing it.
‘Culture threatens no-one’.
Is that a truth? Really?
At first, I recoiled from the idea. Culture is something in my mind to be celebrated. It conjures up images of art, music, creativity, literature, language and interpretation of the human condition. That might include works we find challenging or maybe even a little confrontational, but threatening? Surely not.
But on further reflection, did I, in my heart of hearts view the Orange Parades and their thinly veiled sentiments as culture? That was now a bigger question for me. They do represent a sub-culture in the British Isles, but they aren’t cultural, per se. The Parades are foreshadowed in many areas with bonfires (google 11th Night Bonfires and you’ll see what I mean) which are often huge, precariously close to residences and almost always have an effigy of the Pope at their summit, waiting for the flames to engulf it.
Can anything that promotes or is connected to messages of intolerance and division lay claim to be a part of culture? Surely that is bordering on ideology or belief?
One of the justifications of these parades and their claim of culture is that they purport to commemorate history. There are many reasons why this is tenuous at best, but the history itself is the strongest argument against that. Firstly, Historians are divided as to whether there actually was a ‘battle’ at the Boyne. There is little or no archaeological evidence to support a full battle theory. At best there may have been a skirmish.
Secondly, even if there had been a battle there, King William of Orange was nowhere near the Boyne Valley at the time but was in Cork. And thirdly, and perhaps most tellingly, these parades seem to skate over the fact that the military strength that William brought with him in 1690 was in fact funded by the Pope of the Holy Roman Church of the day. If you’re going to commemorate, at least have the decency to commemorate fully, right?
I’m aware that the whole question of where culture begins, ends or morphs into ideology is complex and fraught with grey areas, inconsistencies and tricky lines of logic, but for me this one is pretty straight forward.
What happens in Northern Ireland over the 11th and 12th of July every year is not culture. But it is threatening. It fosters bigotry and moulds the past to fuel its own, populist narrative.
Sadly, in this age of distrust in news and manipulation of social agendas that kind of behaviour is becoming all too common. But for the sake of my sanity and for the betterment of all our societies, please don’t ever try to call it culture.
It’s simply not that.