Everything we have been learning about since our arrival in Belfast culminated in a single event today: the 12th of July parade. I’ve been in a number of parades in my life and I want to make it clear to readers of this blog that the word parade as Americans comprehend it doesn’t fully cover the spectacle we witnessed today. The 12th of July Parade, or Orange Fest as participants affectionately call it, is a commemoration deeply rooted in both tradition and memory.
A lot of information has gone into reflecting upon my understanding of this event. From the history of Ireland, to Northern Ireland, to Belfast and the Conflict itself our class has been working to grasp the essence of the people and their troubles here in Belfast. The events of this parade are hard to completely understand, so I wanted to share with you my thoughts, emotions, and struggle to unpack the parade.
We met this morning at the gates to Queen’s University. It was a beautiful site as normal, but there were a few key differences today. The front gates were closed and locked, as was the beautiful wooden door to the main building. There were few people milling about and normally people stop by the bus full to see the University. It was already clear based on the lack of people and closure of local businesses that this was no ordinary day. We had a brief chat about what we would be seeing today, and essentially a few warnings about appropriate and safe behavior:
- We shouldn’t enter the road for any reason. This parade is about taking up space, claiming territory. As opposed to parades we may be used to with children throwing out candy, this was a serious and somber affair.
- They will know we are outsiders. They say you can spot Americans from a mile away and many of us didn’t believe that until we arrived here in Belfast. It is clear we don’t belong here. Although many people respect and even welcome our arrival and academic work, you do not want to put yourself in someone’s way.
- Many (all) people are drinking. Alcohol can make people do or say stupid things. Know that there will be many intoxicated people.
- They will know that our guide Ray is Catholic. This is a Protestant celebration. They will be able to tell the moment Ray speaks that he is Catholic because of his accent. Be aware of this and ask questions that can be answered quietly and at a close range.
This final point was shocking to many of us. There was apprehension and fear throughout the group. It isn’t easy to be an outsider, to know you are an outsider, and to know that everyone knows you’re not from here. We were assured time and time again of our safety, but the Conflict is difficult for us to comprehend, and members of our group shared fear. We began our walk to the parade site with a mix of feelings of apprehension and anticipation of the event to come.
We found a spot in a large open space near a park and settled in while waiting for the parade to come up the street. Children and adults alike were clad in red, white, and blue. Flags were flying everywhere and being worn in a variety of ways from cowboy hats to overalls. The celebration had already begun. Copious amounts of alcohol were being drunk and smoke lingered in the air. Drums could be heard beating fiercely in the distance and when the police motorcycle sped past we knew the procession was soon going to come into sight.
We watched for nearly an hour as group after group marched past. We witnessed baton twirlers, flute bands, accordion bands, and drummers. Their uniforms were militaristic and made purposefully in remembrance. It was eerie. At moments I felt we had gone back in time, like I was in a different world in which my iPhone and sunglasses were completely out of place. The groups marched forward purposefully, playing their tunes and beating their drums. At times the crowd joined in song with the bands and I found myself wishing I knew or understood the words. At some moments I felt myself also swaying to the music, the beating of the drums. It was a whirlwind of an experience, and overwhelming for some.
The phrase that kept running through my head as I watched the different groups march past in time, swinging their arms to the music was “This is in their blood.” They were claiming their territory, their Belfast. The history and conflict of the past was very much alive in them.
Earlier this week we had the opportunity to explore West Belfast and see a prominent peace wall near Shankill road, a major Protestant area. People leave messages on this wall and there were many along the lines of “bring down the wall! Spread love!” or “tear down the wall and have peace” written by visitors to this torn city. Our guide Erin expressed to us that she finds some of these messages to be insensitive, or even ignorant of the actual struggle that these people have to create or maintain peace. And that is the sentiment that the parade instilled in me today.
Though Belfast has made progress, especially in recent years, it is clear that the passion for their history and their beliefs still runs deeply in the people. As groups marched past today they held banners demonstrating their battalion number or paramilitary group. There were many weathered old men, some with limps or obvious scars from the Conflict, marching decorated in sashes, medals, and pins. The Conflict is not a distant memory to them. The Conflict was apart of them as much as they are apart of this city.
Watching the parade today I had a hard time imagining a peaceful Belfast, and I am still trying to work through that notion.
Written by Carolina Vogel