'Parading Culture', by Neil Narman
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Belfast Telegraph, 10.7.97
Holding parades to mark significant
anniversaries, to assert political power or simply as a social
event, is a long established custom in Ireland. The earliest report
of a parade describes a Corpus Christi procession through Dublin
in 1498, but it is unlikely that this was the first such event.
Parading therefore has a long `tradition' and one that predates
the loyal orders by some 300 years.
Although one can trace a common thread
from this early parade through to the present, the practice of
parading has obviously changed considerably. One consistency has
been that the wider culture of parading: the scale and the number
of the events, the music and the symbolic displays associated
with them, have always been part of the broader political culture
of the island.
It is impossible to separate the religious,
from the political, the social and the cultural at parades. Most
operate at a number of different levels. The Corpus Christi procession
formally marked a religious anniversary but it was organised by
the City Guilds and therefore also served as a display of their
wealth and power. For those watching it was an enjoyable holiday
Parades are always complex and dynamic
events, and they will mean different things to different people.
Although they may appear the same from year to year, in relation
to the wider social context they are always changing. The impetus
for changes in the nature and style of parades has often been
greatest at periods of political tension or transformation as
a few examples will illustrate.
The modern era of parading began when
the Volunteers established the practice in the north of Ireland
in the 1770s. Initially a paramilitary force (another longstanding
`tradition'), the Volunteers swiftly turned their attention to
supporting demands for reform of the Irish parliament.
Volunteer companies regularly paraded
the streets of Ulster in support of their cause and these recurrent
displays of strength increased the pressure on Westminster and
helped to achieve their political demands. But their parades also
became a fashionable pastime, attracting large crowds and admiration
for the elaborate uniforms, flags and music.
The parading legacy was taken up by
the Orange Order and from 1796 they celebrated the Williamite
anniversaries widely, but by the 1820s Catholic Ribbonmen were
also organising regular parades on St Patrick's day. With a background
of transformation to an industrial economy and O'Connell's campaign
for Catholic Emancipation, parades became the focus for local
struggles for power, dominance and control of territory.
Violent clashes throughout the 1820s
and 1830s regularly left people dead or injured. The police were
often unable to maintain order and attempts to ban parades were
widely ignored. It was only when parades were banned under the
Party Processions Act in 1836 and the policing system completely
reformed, that the annual violence and disorder was halted.
Legal parades resumed in 1872. Most
events were peaceful and parading became respectable. The major
anniversaries were co-opted by politicians trying to mobilise
support for, and opposition to, Home Rule, and the gatherings
were used to make important political speeches.
Parades increased both in scale and
in number from this time, but the most dramatic developments were
in the accompanying visual displays. Banners had long been carried
on parades but it was only around the turn of the century that
the current style was adopted. A profusion of new images appeared
as the ideals and heroes of Irish nationalism and British unionism
were elaborated and celebrated.
Some trouble did continue, particularly
when nationalists tried to claim the right to parade in Lurgan
and Portadown, and on a number of occasions police had to remove
Apprentice Boys who protested at the annual St Patrick's day parade
around the walls of Derry. However these disturbances were less
serious than before and more readily dealt with by the authorities.
Generally the police and magistrates tried to accommodate the
rights of both communities, although this was often in the face
of stern opposition.
With partition parades took on a new
significance. Orange parades were encouraged: the Twelfth became
a national holiday, and the Black, Apprentice Boys and juniors
all established new parading days. In contrast nationalist parades
were regarded as a threat and a challenge to Stormont and were
restricted to predominately Catholic areas, if not formally banned.
Since the 1920s the Orange tradition has flourished, while the
Green tradition has withered.
These brief examples highlight the way
in which parading has been irrevocably entwined with wider political
debates and concerns. But parades, and disputes over parades,
are never just a response to wider issues, they must always be
seen in their own terms, as expressions of local concerns, as
ways of asserting local rights and displays of power. History
shows us that the culture of parading is deeply embedded in the
social life of the north of Ireland, but it also warns that any
resolution to the current disputes must address this constant
interplay of local concerns and national issues.
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CAIN is based within Ulster University.
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