Billy King shares his monthly thoughts
The truth about The Twelfth
If you have ever attended Twelfth of July parades in Norn Iron you will know what a great occasion it is for those involved. The sun doesn’t always shine but it often does (for weather it certainly beats St Patrick’s Day in March…) and there is a combination of solemnity and carnival atmosphere. Old friends greet each other. Families come together. At a large parade (in normal, non-Covid years) like the one in Belfast, people coming as spectacle-watchers stake out their place beforehand. Children play around. Young men get to strut their stuff and show off to their friends, male and female. Old men ditto. Young people, friends of band members, walk along to accompany their band friends, laden with bags of beverages. A good time is had by all – and more than a few sore heads that day (after the Eleventh night) or afterwards, and perhaps sore feet.
And this of course comes after the Eleventh night itself when the competition to have the biggest, best bonfire – built by young males – is as hot as the resultant blaze. Who doesn’t love a good bonfire? And these aren’t just any bonfires, they are Protestant/Loyalist Northern Ireland bonfires, some so ginormous they risk setting alight to anything in the nearby vicinity (in one area in 2021 a fire station is at risk!!!!). The bonfire is a great spectacle, lit as dark is approaching, and pallets burning like the blazes and lighting the way to the stars.
‘Orangefest’ has been the rebranding of the whole Twelfth of July package. But there are a number of problems. The sides in 1690 may have been multinational, but in celebrating the victory of King William, King Billy supported by the Pope, is is actually celebrating the victory in battle of one side in Northern Ireland (Protestants and unionists) over ‘the other’ (Catholic and nationalist). That is why it resonates today. That is not just a historical event from some hundreds of years ago but an event ‘now’. It is a celebration of ‘my’ victory over ‘you’, and your debasement.
There is no possible way that the celebration of this event can be made neutral in the Northern Ireland context. The Orange mythology may be that King Billy’s victory established ‘civil and religious liberty’ for all but that is a complete lie. Yes, if James had won the boot would have been on the other foot and it would have been Protestants discriminated against, possibly even worse than Catholics continued to be discriminated against, but that is not what happened. And at the time it wasn’t even civil and religious liberty for all Protestants – but Catholics were treated much more severely than Protestant dissenters.
And from a nonviolent perspective the militarism on display in Twelfth parades is both unfortunate and, if you permit yourself to look at it critically, a bit both blood curdling and oppressive. Military uniforms, military formations, celebrations of past wars and battles, marching music. Is this what Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist culture is all about? It looks a bit to me like inculcation of the cult of militarism and military sacrifice, preparing people to be the cannon fodder of the 21st century or, in the era of military drones, survivors when others are killed. Parades also mark territory; where we go is ‘ours’ (even when an area is very mixed); this is about dominance, not sharing. That is before we even get into the conservative ‘Orange card’ nature of Orangeism.
Then there is the whole issue of flegs and emblems, a year round issue but particularly one in the summer, associated with the Twelfth. One person’s display of identity and allegiance is frequently another person’s intimidation. Marking territory in a divided society is naturally divisive. And remembrance of people killed and murdered is frequently done in a way which is also divisive, by all sides. The report on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition (FICT), a long time in the making has been with Stormont for a year and will not see the light of day until the NI Executive has dealt with it, and when that will be is uncertain. But the matter should be expedited and the report published as soon as possible after the Marching Season (Norn Iron’s fifth season, as in the words of Colum Sands’ song on the topic).
There is much that can be celebrated about Britishness and British culture or cultures. Many British social and political movements have been in the vanguard of progressive thought and change. There is also a huge amount of British culture – music, drama, other arts – which can be celebrated. The best of ‘British values’ are second to none. And none, or extremely little, of this would be divisive if celebrated. You have to recognise the Twelfth as a major cultural and political phenomenon but unfortunately the Twelfth of July is stuck in a divisive time warp. Of course many Prods want nothing to do with it but the attempt to rebrand the Twelfth and make it more inclusive is on a hiding to nothing. The basis of the Twelfth is division and ‘victory over’ others. There is no way this can become inclusive. (full stop)
There are of course many other aspects of the situation which I am not going into here. The feeling of having their backs to the wall is a real issue for many Protestants in the North; this feeds into their sense of betrayal and danger – and with a British prime minister like Boris Johnson continually lying to them it is a sense which is readily reinforced. The DUP miscalculating their strategy so badly has added to the angst. And old habits and beliefs die hard. Prejudice and intolerance are not the preserve of some Northern Protestants, that goes with the territory being divided, but there are particular manifestations of it on different sides (including middle class liberal prejudice, I would add)..
The Twelfth of July is a great spectacle. Unfortunately it is a divisive and exclusionary spectacle and if it represents ‘Protestant and unionist’ culture – one argument used for it – that also does not instil either admiration or respect beyond the fact that a lot of people have expended a lot of effort, time and money in it, colourful and quaint as it may be. And in a way, you cannot not be impressed in some form, it is bound to make an impression on you, whatever that is. It speaks to the converted. It says something entirely different to the unconverted who look beyond the spectacle to the meaning behind it.
The colourful nature of grey
There is probably no greater insult than to call something, or someone, ‘old and grey’. The expression ‘a grey day’ summons up images of the worst of Irish weather, at any time of year, when dampness and cloudiness congeal into a feeling that everything is dull and lifeless. Grey may be a favoured decorative colour for walls and tiles at the moment but planners often permit grey superstructures on buildings which were ugly even before this superstructure was placed there, a sort of ghostly and unwelcome presence on top.
But, I am here to defend grey. Without grey days, would you enjoy sunshine so much? [Eh, yes, probably – Ed]
On a foggy or misty day in the countryside you can peer into the distance and imagine Tír na nÓg is just there, only slightly beyond reach, and let your imagination take over. Reality is no longer visible so you can rearrange everything to your satisfaction.
Looking at distant mountain ranges on a grey day you can savour the variety of greys, whether ‘fifty shades of grey’ or more.
And, particularly in a summer misty twilight, at dawn or evening dusk, there can be a period which is neither ‘light’ nor ‘dark’, neither day nor night, it is, in a sense, another realm entirely. This is not necessarily a scary twilight but certainly a mysterious one, again one where you can unleash your imagination.
The anatomy of grey, grey’s anatomy, can be a fascinating pursuit. In an Irish summer you may have plenty of opportunity to do so……. In summary though, you might conclude that that an overall assessment of the colour grey is……well, a bit grey……
Probably nothing gives me so much pleasure in the garden as the first courgettes coming on stream in early summer. Planting at the right time in the right sized pots, planting out at the right time in composted soil, protecting from the wind (and any possible frost) and slugs and snails when small, and removing the cloche covering at the right time, all play a role in getting the courgettes to produce. By a mixture of good luck and good management I got it just right this year and was rewarded with the first courgettes a week before the end of June.
Over the summer we will certainly have a go at a large number of courgette recipes. And if one or two grow too large to use as courgettes, well, they can grow on as marrows, to marrow is another day, and after decorating the kitchen for a time they will serve as a reminder of summer in the autumn or winter until eventually they succumb to being served in a stew or casserole. Courgettes are not of course the veg with the most distinguished taste but they are pleasant and versatile.
I’m not going to give you any full courgette recipes here but favourites include a courgette bake with two layers of sauteed courgette with another layer of tomato and onion in between, with breadcrumbs on top, and grated courgettes in savoury gram flower pancakes with rosemary (courgettes can go in cake too to make it moist). Sauted courgette as a plain veg of course appears frequently. They can also be parboiled and used in salads And in warm weather they produce at a very rapid rate which means there are ones to give away, and that is always good too.
When is midsummer? The so-called ‘longest day’, ‘day’ in this phase being ‘day’ as in ‘daylight’ as opposed to ‘night’? In which case it is now downhill all the way… Or somewhere in July and August based on a period of warmer weather? To be pedantic, in places with daylight saving, where the clock goes forward an hour in spring and back an hour coming into winter, the longest ‘day’, with 25 hours, is the day the clock changes in autumn.
Of course meteorological and common understandings do not naturally agree. Folk traditions are another thing again; St Brigid’s Day on 1st February may traditionally mark the start of spring in Ireland but it’s usually very much winter. And the four seasons in a day nature of Irish weather does not make for easy delineations of seasons. Climate change/heating also muddies the waters (figuratively and literally with more flooding).
We are now past ‘the longest day’ on 21st/22nd June and the cycle inexorably continues. The rain is warmer in an Irish summer and it all helps the garden or window box to grow, though it has been quite dry recently.
I wish you a summery summer and not a summary one, and I hope you get a good break from routine to relax. See you in September,