Settled down on Monday night to watch the edited highlights on the BBC; highlights not of the World Cup, but of the annual "Glorious 12th" demonstrations (i.e. parades) held North of the border by the Orange Order. As a southern Catholic, I have to say the whole thing seems, well, a little bizarre...
I can totally see the appeal, though. On the BBC, the coverage seemed to show a great family day out, children sitting on their fathers' shoulders to get a better view of the proceedings, mothers pushing prams, ice-cream, chip vans, the usual sights and sounds of any summer festival. It seems that the Order's efforts to turn the day into a tourst spectacle are making progress, creating a little slice of Nordicana (NI Tourist Board, that's copyrighted!), something you can get nowhere else in the world. But oddly (and I'm sure this thought will make the Order and many Northern Protestants feel they cannot win) it's when the parades are in their happy-clappy inclusive mode that underlying ethnic and religious messages are most stark.
You see, what struck me about the television coverage is just how normal your average Orangeman is, how the families watching the parade could have been down South watching a St. Patrick's Day Parade, how basically they were all just like me, and my family. Except that everyone taking part in the parades was Protestant, and that while Catholics might be allowed (indeed, encouraged) to watch the parades go by, they would never be allowed to join a lodge. Even if I convert, most lodges will not allow former Catholics into their ranks. The common bond of shared humanity, of living on the same island, is only allowed to extend so far.
I can think of few organisations in the British Isles where religious segregation is so strictly enforced (the only one that leaps to mind is the Catholic mirror-image of the Orange Order, the Ancient Order of Hibernians). And what is truly surprising is how this desire to identify with fellow Protestants extends far beyond Northern Ireland; one of the points made in the broadcast was that lodges from the Republic, in Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan and Dublin/Wicklow had grown in size over the last number of years. Do Protestants in the South feel that their identity is under threat? Is there, in modern multi-cultural Ireland, a growing desire among Protestants to have their culture recognised as a key component of society as a whole?
And what of the Orangemen who had travelled to the North from Canada, Liverpool and the US - what role does their Orangeism play in their nations. Are they merely seeking to express another facet of their identity, or do they truly feel that all Anglo-Saxon nations are bound in a common bond, one of whose key strands is Protestant faith?
N.B. The title is taking from "The Sash", one of the best known marching tunes from the Orange Order marches. Apologies if I have been too general in addressing the issues at hand, corrections and complaints welcome! On a related note, I am eagerly awaiting the arrival from Amazon of Blood and Thunder: Inside an Ulster Protestant Band by Darrach MacDonald.