You’ll have to forgive me for ruining the order here. This next post is supposed to be about my road trip through Iceland. However, I was fortunate enough to be in Belfast on July 11 and 12 this year, and to have been in both England and Ireland before that. Although I would like to share my Iceland adventure and first couchsurfing experiences with you, this post is about my impression of The Twelfth (or Orangefest as it has come to be known), an incredibly divisive event that has been celebrated annually since the 18th century. I would also like to apologize in advance to anyone who I may offend with this reflection. This post is not meant to be an exhaustive description of history, nor do I claim any specialized knowledge of the events I am about to describe. However, this is my outsider perception of the discord and politics between Ireland and the UK as I have come to see them.
Right then, enough pandering, here we go.
Historically, much of the tension between England and Ireland can be traced to two main sources of conflict: land and religion. The island of Ireland is populated by a very proud people with strong ties to the land they’ve nurtured and lived on for generations. When the British first came to the country they not only threatened that land, but brought Protestantism to an overwhelmingly Catholic population. Although both are branches of Christianity, the tensions between these two sub-groups quickly escalated into violence and resentment, notably intensifying as a direct result of Protestant Dutch King William of Orange’s victory over Catholic English King James II in the 1690 Battle of the Boyne (King William of Orange, Orangefest, you see the connection).
Ironically, during this battle, the predominantly Protestant areas of Ireland that were loyal to the English crown threw their support behind Dutch King William. James II was campaigning for religious freedom for all people in England and Scotland, which loyalists feared would bring about a resurgence of Catholicism, threatening both their religion and property. Meanwhile, the Irish Catholics hoped that James II’s victory would not only grant them the right to practice their religion, but might eventually return an Irish parliament to the country, leading to Ireland’s eventual autonomy.
Well, first they lost the battle and then they lost their land. The famine which ravaged Europe’s potato crops during the 1840s affected much of the continent, but for the Irish the loss was staggering. At that time one third of Ireland’s population was completely reliant on the crop. During what came to be known as the Great Famine, approximately one million people (mostly from the lower or farming classes) died, while another million were forced to flee the lands they cherished. The end result was that the entire population of Ireland fell by about 25% and is still recovering from the loss today.
Whether you are of Irish or English, Catholic or Protestant, Republican or Loyalist descent determines how you perceive this watershed event. Some in the Republic of Ireland believe that the English purposefully denied much-needed aid to the Irish during this time. As part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the Irish were expected to deliver a certain quota of exports to the English crown, even in times of hardship. When the crops failed, more than bankrupting families, the Irish were forced to give up the only subsistence they had to feed themselves, while simultaneously being unable to afford any others owned by absentee landlords living in England and less aware of harsh Irish realities. Others go so far as to insist that the English worsened the famine for the Irish by deliberately peeing on their lands (I tell no lies, my friends).
Those in Northern Ireland remember things differently. The 19th century was the height of Britain’s colonial era. The nation had colonies all over the world, many of whom were suffering during the famine. While the Irish were the closest neighbours, the British had obligations to others as well, and simply couldn’t afford to support the Irish as much as they would have liked. Even so, the Scottish in particular sent aid during the famine and while most were ineffective, the British government did enact and repeal a number of acts to support the Irish people, a notably significant gesture given the laissez-faire economic attitudes of parliament at the time. It goes without saying that for these loyalists, the thought of their ancestors peeing on Irish land is not only untrue but preposterous (unless of course they were on their way home from the pub, but that’s another story).
You can see where the history starts to divide.
The Great Famine became a rallying point for Republicans during the Irish War for Independence. Efforts to separate from Great Britain and establish an independent Irish Republic were renewed with the 1916 Easter Rising in the midst of WWI, but the main conflict occurred between 1919 and 1921. During this period, Irish nationalists used guerilla tactics against British security forces stationed in Ireland. The British declared martial law in much of the southern states and retaliated by targeting civilians. Thousands died on both sides during the three-year conflict. Eventually, a treaty was signed that created the Irish Free State. It also granted the predominantly Protestant territories in Northern Ireland the option to opt out of the new state, which they did.
Well now there’s a whole new can of worms. Here we’ve had three years of bloodshed with Irish nationalists united against the British, but with the signing of the treaty civil war erupted in the country. The hardliners were not content to have any part of the island under British rule, while others were simply grateful to have won a free state at all. Fortunately, the civil war ended fairly quickly, but not before families were turned against each other, those with more Protestant leanings moving to Northern Ireland, and others clustering in the South. Both sides claim to have had refugees during this time – English Protestants in the Republic forced to flee to the North and Irish Catholics there put from their homes by newly arrived British soldiers.
And then there were The Troubles (this is the last bit, I promise). The Troubles lasted for about 30 years, from the late 1960s to 1990s. They were a series of conflicts in Northern Ireland regarding the constitutional status of the country. On the one hand are the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Irish Nationalist Liberation Army (INLA) who are generally Catholics, identify as Irish and want the North to leave the United Kingdom and join a united Ireland. On the other hand are the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) who are generally Protestant, identify as British and want Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom.
On any black cab tour of Belfast you can be driven around to the different neighbourhoods to see some of the political murals and hear an account of this incredibly raw period of history. Our driver had been told by his mother that the boys he had been friends with yesterday were his enemies today. In the schoolyard, children were taunted and bullied to such an extent that those with republican parents were moved to Catholic schools, effectively segregating the children by religion and political/ethnic background. Meanwhile, teenagers were fighting. Gangs would roam the streets questioning outsiders, asking them to state their name, which neighbourhood they came from, which nationalist or loyalist songs they knew. Each group learned to stick to their own community or risk being attacked. Many joined one of the local paramilitary groups. Over the next thirty years, the majority of casualties were civilian. Although The Troubles officially ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, there is still occasional violence.
SO, what the heck is Orangefest? Orangefest is a national holiday in Northern Ireland, though it is celebrated by members of the Orange Order all around the world. On that day, the union jack is flown in much of the city and thousands of people march in a parade celebrating the historical victories of Great Britain. Thousands more spectators line the roads, happily waving the parade on, giving water to participants, singing common songs and drinking. After the parade, many take to the streets for impromptu parties, some with political overtones but most as fairly innocent gatherings celebrating an event that has ceased to matter to much of the population.
During The Troubles, Orangefest was a hotbed for violent political activity, with nationalists viewing the celebration as sectarian and supremacist. Matters were worsened by the fact that large bonfires are built up in the weeks leading up to The Twelfth, the crowning glory on some being the Irish flag.
Seeing the bonfire burn, I was reminded more of a tribal ceremony than an antagonizing political act, particularly once some of the young men around me started staggering around with their shirts off swinging bottles and cheering. For many, both the bonfire and the parade are more of a family outing than an excuse to get wildly day drunk, something the city builds towards each year as a way to bring some of the population together. You can see the children who worked hard to learn how to twirl a baton, the teens who are proud to carry the flag of their neighbourhood, the adults who practiced pounding a drum, playing the flute or singing for hours on end with only small breaks to rest. Now at least Orangefest seems relatively safe, but given the political history of the island, I can’t imagine what it would have been like only 20 years ago, and I can’t imagine any of my friends in the Republic of Ireland watching the events of the 11th and 12th with anything more than a sort of morbid curiosity.
What I found most shocking about my time in the UK and Ireland was how little I knew about the recent history in the area, and how strikingly different the versions of history were depending on whether I was speaking with my friends in the Republic or in the North. Especially among the young, the conflict between the English and the Irish is more of a folk memory than indicative of current political strife. Yet there are still tensions. During sporting events in particular the Irish are more likely to cheer for any team that isn’t English than one that is. My friend in Belfast spoke of the difficulty of identification if he goes to the South says he is Irish and is told he’s British, but goes to mainland Britain says that he’s British and is told that he’s Irish. Both nationalities are incredibly proud, proud of the land they’ve come from, of the history they’ve been a part of and of the people they’ve become. It’s hard to imagine them fully reconciling, particularly since such violent history is still a very recent memory for some. What is possible is community growth, not by forgetting the past but by reaching out and supporting each other, working to put aside the once divisive ethno-political-religious tensions and to instead invest in a shared future.