A Global Research Institute of Queen's University Belfast


'Parades, Drums and Bonfires'


written by Kerdesha Desir, University of South Florida

Today’s lectures were a preparation day for the Twelfth Parades. Our first lecture was an introduction to the history of the parades, presented by Dr. Neil Jarman in a presentation titled accordingly The Twelfth Parades. For Protestants, the holiday commemorates the Battle of the Boyne, when William III, who is one of Northern Ireland’s most important monarchs, took over Ulster and a regime change took place from Catholic to Protestant. The parades themselves, since their inception, have been extravagant displays of identity and strength, centered on the idea of excluding the ‘other’, which in this case are the Catholics. A display of identity is shown through banners outlining aspects of Protestantism. Its participants range across all age groups and mainly hail from the working middle class. Counter-demonstrations and clashes have occurred throughout the years and at some points, had prompted heavy policing and even a ban on parades for a period of time.

The primary organization that organizes the parades are known as the Orange Institution or the Orange Order. Founded in 1795, their objective has been to promote Protestant interests. In the past, they’ve claimed to have over 100,000 members. Exclusively male, they are an umbrella fraternal organization with many organizations under them. One fact Dr. Jarman mentioned in lecture today that I found particularly interesting was the fact the Orange Order has resisted evolving into a top-down hierarchical organization for over 200 years, remaining decentralized and maintaining local autonomy.

Marching season in Northern Ireland occurs in a cycle from Easter to the end of August. The Orange Order and its affiliated organizations hold various parades from Easter until December. Protestant organizations organize about 3000 parades every year, with about 500 of them being considered “sensitive”, meaning they are rather provocative or have a history of tension, clashes, and possible violence as they march through or nearby Catholic communities. On the Twelfth of July, most Catholics avoid the festivities altogether, choosing to either stay home or leave town entirely. Lasting from early morning until the late hours of the evening, men march all throughout the region, side by side with bands that several organizations will invite to play music to add to the spectacle.

Bonfires are also a Protestant Twelfth of July tradition. In a lecture given by Dr. Dominic Bryan, we delved into the symbolism behind the bonfires, as well as discussed what it meant to physically have the bonfires in terms of identity. Symbolizing an act of resistance and nationalism, the bonfires are illegal in Northern Ireland, however, the government feels it’d be cheaper to let it happen than to attempt to intervene, seeing as almost every Protestant community spread throughout the region lights these massive displays. The bonfires and their symbolic significance touches on the concept of symbolic landscape, where we as people attempt to narrate meaning in the physical world. It also brings up a variety of issues that could easily be up for debate, such as the contestation of public space, what is considered public space, the freedoms to assembly, free speech, and freedom from harassment, as well as others. 

Learning about the drums that are used in the parades was easily the most exciting presentation of the day. Presented by Dr. Ray Casserly, he brought in common drums used in the parades and gave our class a small beginner’s worthy music lesson. Some facts we learned from this presentation were that the music is traditionally in the sense that it is passed down generation to generation. Most of the musicians in the bands have little to no professional or classical training in playing or reading music. They learned the songs from an early age, attending the parades and listening to the music and then being taught by an elder. The music of the bands and the drumming styles are acquired knowledge from their community

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