Belfast ‘Twelfth’ 1949

'Twelfth' March

‘Twelfth’ March

Extract from Memoir of an Irish Economist,  Labhrás O’Nualláin.

From down the road came the skirl of the pipes, the rhythmic rattle of the small side-drums, and the clash of cymbals. On steadily came the marchers, headed by a horse-drawn carriage, in which sat the Grand Masters of he Orange Order. Banner after banner came into view, brightly coloured and beribboned, dazzlingly bright in the sunshine, dipping and swaying in the breeze, and giving colour, beauty and life to that long, straight and dreary-looking road. As the marching men came abreast and passed on, lodge after lodge – over two hundred of them – I gazed in wonder at their banners.
Each banner was carried by two men, who were assisted by two youngsters, holding ribbons attached to the banner, which was rectangular in shape, perhaps twenty feet high and twelve feet wide and bore a woven or painted coloured design against a background of blue or red or yellow coloured, thickly-woven material. The slogans and representations on the banners presented a variety of tastes. Some carried likenesses to Queen Victoria, bestowing a Bible on a grateful Negro clad in loincloth. This banner bore the slogan: ‘The Secret of England’s Greatness’. Another banner carried a representation of a group of cold-looking, naked gentlewomen being forced into an equally cold-looking river by a number of ungentlemanly-looking soldiers, clad in green costumes, the native Irish rebels, no doubt. This, we were told, was ‘The Drowning of the Protestants in the River Bann’.
As they passed by, in ranks of four, with quick hurried step of the cityman or with the slow, ambling gait of the countryman, I sought to read their faces in vain endeavour to ascertain their feelings and thoughts. They walked by in no military fashion, no jaunty air, despite the lively tunes that surely should have set their blood tingling.  Many of the Belfast Lodges numbered upwards of two hundred men, for the most part elderly and middle-aged, but with a sprinkling of younger men. They came from the shipyards, the engineering shops and the factories, with a number of small shopkeepers and clerks.  Each wore his yellow or purple or green decorated sash, draped around his shoulders, clad in his Sunday best of blue serge or black suiting, many of the older men wearing bowler hats and white gloves. The Lodges were led by men shouldering glittering swords and sometimes short pikes. Now and then a Lodge was preceded by a horse-drawn landau, in which sat the elders of the Order. Grim-faced, tights-lipped, hard-bitten men, they looked straight ahead. The day’s event, to them, at any rate, was a serious business.
The younger men, many of them dressed in sportswear, took the day’s proceeding lightly, waving and shouting to friends among the spectators, chaffing and joking with the young mill and factory girls that followed them, all the way to Finaghy.  Now and again a group of girls passed by singing The Sash or The Boyne Water.
To many of the older men the walk was a duty in which they took little apparent pleasure. The heat was beginning to worry them and their feet were tired and sore after two miles and more of pounding the small cobblestones. The Orangemen from Cavan and Monaghan and the Loyal Sons of county Donegal all received a special cheer from the spectators.  Long-limbed, ungainly, red-faced men, clad in black suits, white gloves and bowler hats, they certainly looked of planter stock.  Occasionally a Serviceman went by, an Army or an Air Force man.  One young sailor acted as bandmaster to a fife and drum band.  He played the part with gusto, throwing up his staff, smartly catching it: then dancing a few jig steps, while his exuberant youthful colleagues hammered out with glee, The Boyne Water.
By this time, the whole length of the Lisburn Road, back into the city and ahead to the King’s Hall, Balmoral, a distance of roughly three and a half miles, was filled from side to side, with banners and bands, Orangemen and spectators. The air was alive with the sound of bagpipes, the blare of brass and the rat-tat-tat of the drums. Periodically the procession halted, as the head wound itself into the ‘Finaghy Field’.  Groups of Orangemen would then detach themselves and crowd into a nearby pub.
During one of these halts, a small foxy-faced man slipped from the ranks, dashed over to me, of all people, and demanded: “What district is this?” I was completely stuck for a reply.  Up piped a little girl beside me, “Number seven,” says she, and I was saved. That satisfied him and he darted into the pub!
©  Labhrás Ó Nualláin

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