Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Welcome home Fenian B*****d

One week ago my holiday ended. My flight left Barcelona at 6.00 in the afternoon in bright sunshine and temperatures of 27º. Just over two hours later our steward opened the doors on to darkness, wind and rain. Passenger after passenger descended the steps, many of them in flip flops, complaining about “Norn Iron” weather. Not me. I was elated, relieved to be home after an absence of three months. My spirits continued to soar even as I wheeled my suitcase through puddles in the deserted streets of Belfast city centre.
         Last Saturday morning the balloon burst and I came tumbling back down to earth. While on my way to the market in the city centre I crossed paths with one of the biggest marches by Orangemen in recent years. Around thirty thousand of them were commemorating the centenary of the Ulster Covenant, signed in 1912 by Protestants opposing Home Rule for Ireland. I halted at the kerbside while lines of marching men filed by to the sound of brass bands and military drum beats. Uniformed brigades were followed by their comrades wearing black suits, bowler hats, orange sashes and grim expressions.
         All this is standard for an Orange parade. I’ve seen many on television news clips but rarely have I been physically present at one, and if so, only by accident, which was the case last Saturday. An Orange march is not a place for a Catholic, for any Catholic, regardless of sex or age. Still, I wasn’t concerned for my safety as I deliberated on how I could continue on my way to St. George’s Market, for that was my plan. To cross the ranks of these men and they were, without exception, all male, is to run a risk. But I was becoming impatient, and so too was a man on the other side of the street, who stood regarding the seemingly unending parade with despair. Finally, after glancing at his watch, he picked up his suitcase, appeared to take a deep breath, dashed through the lines and headed over to the train station behind me. Dozens of bowler-hatted heads turned to follow him; there was murder in their eyes but, fortunately, all that rained down on him was abuse. Nobody thumped him (this time).
         It was while I was trying to summon up the courage to do the same that I overheard a remark about the “Fenian Bastards”. It’s a term of abuse used by Orangemen and their supporters for Catholics, and what stunned me was not the contempt, but the casual deep-rooted hatred behind the remark. I glared at the speaker in his neatly pressed black suit, orange sash and bowler hat, struck by the incongruity between his civilised appearance and his loutish bigotry. The rage I experienced brought an equally offensive rejoinder fluttering on the tip of my tongue, but it was fear that held it in check. “Had you spoken, they would have killed you,” my friend Roisin said later. I looked down at my green – all green – shirt and immediately felt vulnerable. When the march paused briefly, I dashed through the ranks murmuring apologies to the black suits and orange sashes. Minutes later I was surrounded by organic fruit and vegetables, relieved to be away from that sinister scenario.
         That same morning one of the bandsmen was pictured urinating in the entrance to St Matthew’s Catholic Church in east Belfast. At St. Patrick’s in north Belfast, where a loyalist band had played a sectarian tune that provoked days of rioting earlier this summer, the bands were bound by a legal ruling to play only hymns as they passed by. UTV video footage shows the Lambeg drum* being hit with such force outside the church that the hymn can barely be heard. The band was reported to have struck up the beat of The Sash** while still well within earshot of St. Patrick’s. Other video footage shows Nick Griffin (MEP), leader of the extreme right-wing British National Party, in attendance. “Fenian Bastards” was the term he used to respond to criticism from Irish Nationalists (Catholics) that day on his Twitter site.
         Throughout the summer, when I was teaching in the south of England and taking a holiday in Catalonia, my thoughts rarely dwelled on the political situation in back home, not even during those three days of rioting. When I’m here I take little interest in local politics because they are just too depressing. It’s a cop out, I know. By copping out I’m choosing to ignore that I don’t live in what passes for a normal society. The casual hatred with which that remark was made on Saturday morning, and subsequent behaviour, makes it very difficult to carry on pretending.
* A powerful drum popular with loyalist marching bands. Legend suggests that it was brought over from Holland by William of Orange’s troops, who fought and defeated the Catholic army of James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
**A favourite of marching bands which celebrates the defeat of the Catholic army at the hands of William of Orange.