King Billy and I

John Lyttle recalls the joys of a Shankill childhood on the Twelfth of July
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The Independent Online
I liked the huge banners, of course. They were my first exposure to art, or more precisely, to the look of art, though any child could recognise, and savour, their cartoon immediacy: the bad, bald reproductions of King William of Orange - King Billy - crossing the Boyne, circa 1690, bewigged and handsome astride his white steed; the ladies in shifts clinging to a rock amidst a stormy sea, eyes beseeching heaven, and a light appearing in the black sky above; the stirring scene of the Apprentice Boys closing the gates of Londonderry during the siege, ready to fight to the last man. And woman and child.

On the morning of the Twelfth, my maternal grandfather would make toast on a fork by the open grate and fill our sleepy heads with the Apprentice Boys' sacrifice: "They were so hungry they ate the rats. But they did not bow the knee. 'No Surrender' they said and 'No Surrender' they meant." I even liked being dragged from my bed extra early, despite the morning of the Twelfth arriving hard on the heels of the Eleventh, Bonfire Night. The 24 hours before would be spent burning the Pope and various contemporary politicians, in effigy, on wasteland or in the middle of our narrow streets, atop small mountains of planks, crates and discarded settees (we'd search the back and sides for money and always find some) - the hard-earned detritus of working-class life on the Shankill Road, assembled months in advance, door-to-door, by us children, anticipating rare pleasure, celebration, community spirit.

We'd roast potatoes, boast of how our great grandmother ran guns for the UVF, swig Barr's American Cream Soda, and chant ("No Pope Here! Nor Holy Water! No Home Rule For Ireland!", "We are the People!", "Ulster Says No!", "Kill the Fenian Bastards!"). The adults would hover nearby, bright-eyed with drink, the taciturn men for once talkative and cheery, and the women, young and pretty but already running to fat, awash with unaccustomed colour, the reds, hot pinks and defiant whites prepared to compete, come the moment, with the lads' orange sashes.

Street life. Street theatre. Protestant supremacy.

But as the bands, lodges and guilds gathered, some 50,000 to 80,000 strong, in a wearisome, always ill-executed wait, thanks to hangovers and what my father dismissed as "a perennial lack of brain power", what I liked most was the sound of the Lambeg drums. Complex, chattering, tribal rhythms, heavy, insistent and hypnotic, they made the legs twinge, made the feet want to march. Primitive magic. I was literally moved.

The sound and the spectacle: the faces, mostly familiar, mostly female, waving Union Jacks, lining the route, aunts and sisters and cousins ("There's our John! Good on ya love!"), the police vans, the army Chieftains; the boys in the band wearing bright blue cardigans, twirling silver-capped batons high into the warm, sunny air, jaunty matching caps in place; the old men in grey suits, wearing bowler hats, white gloves and smug expressions.

I often wondered about those men. I wonder still. I seldom, if ever, saw them on the Shankill but nevertheless these small businessmen, local council members, Unionist small wigs - the polite but poisonously rigid middle-class - ran the Orange Order, at least until recently, when the desperate need to attract disenchanted youth - a youth that once automatically joined, as their fathers and their fathers had before them - shifted the power demographics downmarket, and perhaps, in the direction of Drumcree (because youth loves excitement, action, their gobs on the evening news). But once the old grey men ran the Order, and, for a long time, ran Northern Ireland too, as if by divine right. From 1921 to 1972 the Six Counties had six Prime Ministers, all Unionist, all Orangemen, all pathologically certain that their allegiance to God, Crown and the Protestant Ascendancy meant they were ever special in English eyes, even after the civil rights marches of the Sixties, the closing of Stormont, the wooing of Sinn Fein to the conference table.

The truth only seems to be penetrating now, an unexpected dividend of the peace process being the time to think: that despite bomb, bullet and IRA ambush, the Nationalists have played the media better, that the RUC won't lay down their uniforms and join the last hurrah, that even if John Major has to rely on Unionist votes in the Commons, the English political system still sees them as anachronisms - simplistic 19th century minds facing 20th century complexities. And they feel hard done by, pushed, forced to fight - forced to fight for their surely unquestionable right to parade wherever they choose. The symbol of their abused faith, demeaned, and in their frustration, and finally, impatience, they lash out at a world they thought welcomed them.

The banners are blowing in the breeze this fine Twelfth morning, and I am looking my best, neat and tidy, my mother's pride. As we pass a Catholic area, somewhere at the top of the Crumlin Road, the music grows louder, the shouts more hoarse, and my step picks up. I don't know why. It just does. It's not as if I intend to insult the Other Side. I don't. I'm simply exercising my prerogative; it's a knowledge running (scared) through my Protestant blood. Why shouldn't I? It's life here. It's my history and my heritage. And my future: the future's Orange.

That's what my first old grey man said, his voice low and distinct as a serpent's hiss. He emerges from the mahogany gloom in the cold hallway, his fierce eyes at variance with an aura of mechanical calm, as I wait, trembling, to endure the pseudo-Masonic ceremony - chest exposed, vows taken, congratulations bestowed - and emerge a member of my father's lodge. (Was it Clifton Street? Yes. I think it was.) His shoes shiny and oddly silent on the tiled floor, carry him towards me. He looks like a teacher armoured in rationality and he immediately launches into a lecture.

Did I know the Order had adherents in Italy, Canada, Africa, America, South Africa, Scotland - and even Eire? I shake my head. He snorts.

Did I know that the Order abhorred intolerance, embraced brotherhood, held out its red hand to Catholics, if they renounced their vile calling? No, I don't. He stares. Some sixth sense tells me to step back.

Was I aware that the Loyal Orange Institution of Ireland was formed 100 years after the Battle of Boyne, to commemorate the Battle of the Diamond, a clash between the Papist Defenders and Our Peep O' Day Boys? I shake my head again.

Suddenly his hand is on my ear, tight and tugging. I yell. I can feel and smell his breath. Did I at least know why we march? My heart pounds as I seek an answer that will please. Too late. The old grey man tweaks my ear, hard, and leans his oily face into mine. "Sure, that's easy. We march because we can."

My ear hurts, but I hear: "Because we can." We are - well we were - the people.