Three centuries ago, a king landed on the green shores of Ireland with an army at his back. He came with men and horses, banners and bullets and steel. And bonfires blazed on our shores, lighting the way.
Three centuries ago, another king met him in battle along the banks of a light-speckled river and the blue waters ran scarlet. The blood of thousands of men ran down the Boyne, the waters that are the lifeblood of Ireland now stained with that of both her people and men who died far from home for the whims of kings and gods.
Three hundred and twenty-four years ago, William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne, marking the beginning of Protestant supremacy in Ireland and the continuation of sectarian violence, hatred, war and rage. The bonfires burned on the coasts of Ulster in 1690 to lead William safely to Ireland, and in 2014 they’re still burning.
Two nights ago I watched them burn.
12 July in Northern Ireland is called Orangeman’s Day, the Glorious Twelfth or just the Twelfth. It’s a celebration of William’s victory over James and the Protestant supremacy in Ulster. On Eleventh night, the night before the celebrations, bonfires are lit on the streets of Belfast and Armagh, Londonderry and Newtonabbey. The bonfires are decorated with the tricolour of the Republic of Ireland, with effegies of Catholic politicians and the Pope, with Catholic banners and icons stolen from churches. And then they are lit, and the crackling of the fires mix with the whooping songs of hate.
Belfast, a city once lit with the fires of ten thousand bombs, is burning again.
On the Glorious Twelfth, the Orangemen march through the streets in parades. They carry the banners of their lodges, celebrating their heroes from William himself down to their martyrs from the Troubles. They march through our streets, past the homes where men and women and children lived in fear for decades, past alleys were men were beaten and children were slaughtered, past churches where old men and women watch with lined faces and dry eyes. The Orangemen’s tradition of marching through Catholic neighbourhoods, singing war songs and flying their banners has caused no end of grief in Northern Ireland. Grief and anger and spite. And riots, and hurt, and sometimes death.
No other day in Northern Ireland is quite as tense as this one. It’s a reminder of everything we’ve lost and everything we refuse to let go of. It tells us that even after sixteen years of peace, hate is a wound that continues to fester and grow. Ever since 1998, when the three Quinn boys died in their firebombed house, people have been more careful, less outwardly vicious, but no less tribal.
I went this year, to Belfast, just for a few days. I went to volunteer at the festivals meant to pull young people away from the more sectarian celebrations. I went to see my relatives, aunts and uncles and cousins who greeted me with warm food and warmer hugs and told me not to worry myself, they wouldn’t be permitting any of our lot to make fools of ourselves for no damn Orangemen’s parade.
But mostly I went to watch. I wanted to see it. I wanted to know, what has changed? Are we a different people now? Does peace really foster hope?
And today, on the other side of the Glorious Twelfth, I still don’t know.
I wandered through the streets of Shankhill and Sandy Row. I watched the people drinking and celebrating as the fires went up, their light dancing across the Troubles murals. My feet took me on a journey through the maze of Union Jacks and popcorn. My cousin was at my side, and then he wasn’t any longer. I was surrounded by bodies, and I was alone, and my eyes lifted up to where the Tricolour flapped in the wind and I watched as the flag of my homeland disintegrated into cinders that flared in the summer air and went dead and cold and lifeless.
The Twelfth, the Glorious Twelfth. Sectarian Saturday.
I walked through the streets my family has called home. Where I used to come to visit, and stared at the barricades and blown out windows with my child’s nose pressed against the glass of the car. I walked among the crowds on Eleventh night. I stood shoulder to shoulder with stupid kids, resentful adults, with students and parents and smiling tourists waving around their iPhones.
And the UVF. Terrorists. You sometimes know who those are. They’re the ones whose eyes are hardest, who’s smiles are the cruelest as they watch the effegies go up in flames.
The chanting cries of ‘ KAT! KAT! Kill All Taigs!” are a pretty good giveaway too.
I watched the bonfires burn in Belfast, a celebration by a tribal people to celebrate the lines that divide us and the injuries we have done to one another in the name of gods and saints and reformers. And all I could whisper to myself was, ‘These are my people.”
These are my people.
Seo iad mo mhuintir.
These people burning representations of their neighbours on 100 foot high bonfires are the people I love. This celebration of hatred is happening in the land I so sorely miss.
The Twelfth, the Glorious Twelfth. The Broken, Burning, Bastard Twelfth.
Éire, a fheiceann tú do chuid páistí? Éire, tá do chuid súl tirim?
I hugged my old deerskin jacket around myself despite the heat of the fire. Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to return to America, where Christians farewell each other on Twitter and write lengthy blog posts on who is and who is not a heretic instead of rubbing murdered friends and relatives in each others faces.
I wanted to get out.
Out of Belfast and Ireland and a world where people celebrate the stupid, stupid things they do for their religion.
My cousin reappeared at my side and we escaped to a Catholic part of the city, where the streets were dark and quiet and we could drink a cider in a pub where no one was really speaking.
The next day was the Glorious Twelfth. Orangeman’s Day was quiet this year. No riots, like last year. From what I heard, few disturbances. Some protests. A section of parade route blocked off along a sectarian flashpoint.
Just the reminder. That lines are still drawn, that we are not the same as you and you need to be reminded of that yet again.
The Twelfth, the Glorious Twelfth.
America, I’m tired, I’m poor, I’m yearning to breathe free again. And I’m coming back, across the sea.
Light the bonfires to welcome me home.
Picture Credits: The Belfast Telegraph, The Irish Times,