'Blood and Thunder'
A FASCINATING new book giving an insight into loyalist band culture will be launched tomorrow night at the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall.
Book store shelves across Northern Ireland are full of volumes pertaining to examine the nature of marching band culture. However, few if any of the authors have spent 12 months in the company of a marching band to examine the socio-political and historical culture of such entities.
But, this is exactly what Darach McDonald, author of 'Blood and Thunder' has done. Tomorrow night at 7pm in the Memorial Hall Darach will talk about his experiences in writing the book which focuses on a prizewinning group - the Castlederg Young Loyalists Flute Band (CYLFB).
'Blood and Thunder' has already been described as a fresh and fascinating look into loyalist culture as it followed the Co Tyrone band throughout the 2009 marching season.
There are almost 600 marching bands in Northern Ireland, yet their activities are rarely reported apart from news reports of violent flare-ups at flashpoints across the country.
'Blood and Thunder' in examining band culture tells the inside story of the most dynamic Irish cultural phenomenon of the early 21st Century. The book contends that the marching bands in many ways fulfil a role similar to that of the GAA by passing on traditional skills and installing local pride in young members who compete against each other over a season that runs from March to October.
Darach McDonald has been a journalist since the 1970s and now lives in Tyrone where he has previously edited the Ulster Herald, Tyrone Herald and Strabane Chronicle between 2001-2009. He has also worked for the Irish Independent, Sunday Tribune and Irish Press. He also spent ten years living and working in Canada and is the author of two previous books, 'Sons of Levi' (1998) and 'The Chosen Few' (2000).
So, what prompted Darach McDonald to write a book on loyalist bands? Speaking to the Sentinel he said: "It was curiosity and the need to know - the basic motivations of journalism. Nobody had written about the bands as a cultural phenomenon and they seemed to disappear into the folds of the Loyal Orders.
"Most people assume, incorrectly, that the Blood and Thunder bands are merely the 'musical wing' of the Orange Order, if not the musical wing of loyalist paramilitary organisations. I wanted to find out more and understand this aspect of Ulster Protestant culture."
The Sentinel also asked the author why in particular he chose to follow CYLFB for his book?
"Living in Tyrone, I knew that Castlederg has a reputation as a troubled interface. During my time as editor of the Ulster Herald we carried many stories of communal strife, many of them related to the parades of the CYLFB. Also, I knew that Derek Hussey, former MLA and now Strabane councillor, was involved with the band and had been the founding bandmaster. I approached him with my proposal to write a book and he was most welcoming and open - as indeed were all the others involved in the band,” said Darach
It is safe to assume that many people on both sides of the political divide in Northern Ireland operate on unhealthy assumptions about the activities and motivations of ‘the other side’. But it is impossible to spend a year on a dedicated project and not have some of the myths about your subject debunked.
Darach McDonald’s experience was no different and he told the Sentinel: “Most, if not all the myths were debunked because most start out on the presumption that the bands are merely a pretext for something else. Infrequent and cursory contact with the bands has led to all kinds of presumptions about their political motivation and links and many of these are rooted in the conflict of the past. I soon discovered they are comprised of people who are interested in the music, the discipline of marching bands, the uniforms, the social life and the competitive nature of their hobby.”
Taking it as fact that loyal bands owe more to cultural pursuits than political baggage, what then was the single most interesting facet of the band culture the author uncovered in his examination of the CYLFB?
Darach said: “It was the realisation that this is a unique and compelling aspect of Ulster Protestant heritage. The bands are invariably comprised of young men and boys aged from their mid-teens to their mid-twenties, the same age group that has always been expected to take up arms in defence of their homes and community.
“Since the Plantation of Ulster with its Muster rolls, men of this age group have been expected to join militias, yeomanry, locally raised regiments - Ulster Volunteers, Special Constabulary, UDR and RIR. This is the very first generation of young Ulster Protestant males that is not expected or required to take up arms, yet the martial traditions live on in their DNA. The culture of following fife and drum, putting on uniforms and parading in disciplined bodies to martial music, has an extraordinary appeal for those who take part, far beyond any similar appeal across the community divide. So the bands are far more than entertainment and far more than clubs.”
To this end Darach points out that there has been a large growth in the marching band movement and that there are now over 600 bands in Ulster, traversing both sides of the border.
“The strongest growth has been in Blood and Thunder bands, but many of these are moving more into concert flute combinations with more ambitious musical programmes.
“These bands were born of the conflict at a time when the Ulster Protestant political edifice was crumbling, but they have thrived in peace because they are a vital expression of Ulster Protestant pride and tradition and they feed that compulsion for martial activity,” he said.
Darach continued: “I don’t believe that the bands are political beyond being expressions of Ulster Protestant pride and culture . Indeed, bands such as CYLFB probably encompass people whose views run the entire spectrum of unionist politics. I suppose that the bands are primarily loud expressions of working-class Ulster Protestant culture. Rather than reflecting the views of the more staid and traditional Loyal Orders, they have acted as a safety valve for young men to show they are ‘Proud to be Prod’ and also to vent their anger in thunderous music and marching.”
Whilst from a different background than the subject matter of his book Darach McDonald readily admits to being a fan of the music and the spectacle of the parades themselves. He told the Sentinel: “I suspect that most of us from this part of the world are secretly thrilled by the bands and the colour and the spectacle of their activities. Most of us have been conditioned to reject them as ‘coat-trailing triumphalism’ and claiming to be offended by their music.
“Yet the remarkable similarity of the tunes played on both sides of the community shows that we have far more in common than we admit. If we choose to be entertained rather than ‘offended’ it can be a marvellously liberating experience.
“I saw this at the Relief of Derry parade last year when I encountered many visitors from home and abroad, including many from across the border, who were absolutely enthralled by the parade with its spectacular colour and music. We need to step beyond our conditioning and enjoy the sound and spectacle.”
Yet, whilst this opening of hearts and minds is an admirable sentiment, in Londonderry at least the situation is far from a broad acceptance of loyal order parades. Does Darach McDonald anticipate a time when the nationalist community will wholly welcome the parades?
“The first stage is to acknowledge that this other culture exists, that it is of Ireland and not something imported or imposed, and that it has huge depth and significance. The next step is to understand that culture with an open mind. If we get to that stage we can all enjoy a good parade, but the loyal orders will certainly not cut the mustard without the bands.”
The author hails from Clones, now regarded as a devoutly republican town. It is represented by a Sinn Fin TD and once elected an IRA hunger striker back in 1981. But, Darach McDonald says the Clones of his childhood in the 1950s and ‘60s was a place with a strong Ulster Protestant feel to it.
“In my childhood, an avowedly unionist councillor, Robert Molloy, presided over the local urban council and the Protestant Association, founded in Monaghan after partition, is the natural political successor of the Ulster Unionist Party and still influential there.
“The economic and social links - as well as most cultural links of the town are, and always have been, with east Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh - has invariably reflected the politics of Northern Ireland far more than any other part of the Republic.
“While Clones today is quite changed in many respects from the town I grew up, that is a consequence of its border location and the economic and social deprivation that it has caused. Yet it still has a large Protestant hinterland, and indeed two of the loyalist parades I write about in the book take place in separate places of the locality - Magheraveely, Co Fermanagh, about two miles from the town where Arlene Foster of the DUP grew up, and the other in Drum, Co Monaghan, a small totally Protestant village about five miles south of Clones.”
Like all good authors Darach McDonald has already moved on to his next project - one that is far removed from this latest offering.
He told the Sentinel: “I am working on a book that takes a thoroughly contemporary look at places of traditional pilgrimage in Ireland from Donegal to Waterford and from North Antrim to the Skelligs off Kerry’s coast.
“It’s a travelogue-type narrative of walks along ancient paths - called Trails and Tribulations - and is set against the collapse in spiritual faith and the economy because of church scandals and personal greed. After that, who knows where I’ll turn my eye.”
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Weather for Londonderry
Sunday 26 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 17 mph
Wind direction: South west
Temperature: 7 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 21 mph
Wind direction: South west