(the house was my Grandparents thatched cottage in Galgorm)
I remember the arch going up. My grandfather put it up. Right there in the middle of Galgorm village, right outside my Grandparents thatched cottage. It was a moment in the year. I loved seeing the village landscape change and got so excited when my dad would drive under it for the first time.
Dad put the flag out. All the neighbours did the same. Maine Park was ready for the Twelfth Day.
I would decorate my toy golf club with red and blue tape. It would be criss crossed carefully and we might even add a wee tassel. It was suddenly the band leader’s pole which we twirled through our legs and twisted round our necks and threw as high as we could. The leader of Staffordstown band at the time was the best twirler and thrower; who we all pretended to be!
The Twelfth would be a carnival of sorts. My Grandfather marched with his Orange Lodge and we stood by the side of road waving at who we knew and waiting for Granda to walk by. Maybe some day I might get to carry the strings from the banner at the front of the lodge.
I moved house in 1969. It was more middle class. No flags! None of my friends threw the pole. At the same time The Troubles started raging and all of the innocence of the above turned a little more sinister.
What am I surmising? Well, the first thing is that none of the above was in any way wrong. It was a cultural thing. I was unaware that it had anything to do with sectarianism or hatred. I even had Catholic friends who came to watch the parades too.
Somewhere this all got hijacked. When arches and flags go up today and when bands march in certain places there is a different feel, a different intent. I am in no way trying to condone the actions of some who are using the carnival, I so enjoyed, to mark territory and stoke tensions. It is not right, not civil and certainly not Protestant!
Yet, I am asking many of us to stand back, stop for a moment and consider. For many of our Protestant Loyalist communities the Twelfth is still a cultural and neighbourhood event. The young boys love collecting for the bonfire, the young men love the discipline of the bands and can play some good tunes while marching. They love their band uniforms. The arch and the bunting all adds to the colour, flavour and excitement.
Such communities should be allowed to enjoy their summer festival time. Let us be careful that we don’t just see the tabloid headlines of the few bad news events and miss the many good news stories unreported. I love the image a friend shared of the Romanian community in Ballymena out enjoying the bands with their GAA shirts on!
Yes, we do need to ask about the way the flags are flown. When a flag is used to intimidate then the flag is desecrated.
When a band plays insensitively in Catholic areas or outside Catholic Churches we should make it known that they are wrong and are bringing into disrepute the very Protestantism they are claiming to defend.
When a bonfire is so high that it threatens those living around it, it is irresponsible and should be removed. When effigies of who they claim to be enemies or the Irish flag are burned then it is a blasphemy against God who loves people from every nation. That needs called out.
Barack Obama, in his eulogy to Rev Clementa Pinckney in Charleston in 2015, spoke about the confederate flag and how it is being used in a wrong way to incite fear and hate. He most beautifully and powerfully brought the great Protestant theology of grace to bear on it. It would be an act of grace to bring it down where it offends neighbour, he preached. That would be the mark of a good Protestant.
I look back on my days in Galgorm with fondness. If done in a way that is steeped in grace then not only should our loyalist communities have the right to celebrate their Twelfth but that grace will be the power house that will cause them to celebrate with all their might but gently towards their neighbours.
Let us pray for community leaders, Church leaders, band leaders and political leaders who can steal back what is a right and a wonderful part of Northern Ireland’s rich tapestry of culture. Love your culture and when you love the God of your culture you will love your neighbour, and even your enemy, in the way you march, fly flags and light bonfires.
Enjoy the Twelfth!