The Apprentice Boys' story revisited...

LIKE them or loathe them or simply not care about them either way, the Apprentice Boys have been around here for a very long time and appear destined to remain for the foreseeable future.

Thursday, 12th August 2010, 10:52 am

The fairly straightforward format of commemoration and celebration that is proposed for this Saturday's 321st anniversary of the Relief of Derry - not the Shutting of the Gates and congratulations to all who have identifed the deliberate mistake in last week's banner - could be recognised as fairly standard procedure by observers of all that has gone before during the 150 years since the fraternity, formed in honour of those 13 youths of 1688, adopted some ownership of the two keynote events.

The Boys did emerge as the major player in events during the latter years of the first half of the 19th century amid rapidly changing times - social, religious, political problems and the like - determined that the inspiration of the heroic past should be invoked.

It is a time honoured tradition. Two major building projects, undertaken adjacent to the Walls during this century, have had a profound effect on the Boys and their various celebrations ever since. The 81 foot high testimonial to commemorate Governor Walker was completed for the Relief celebrations of 1828, when the Corporation, leading citizens and military personnel attended the opening ceremony in the company of the few Apprentice Boys type clubs that existed - all local. The Walker testimonial or pillar, as it became affectionately known, became the focal point for much of the celebration, such as the Lundy effigy burning and the firing of the Siege cannon, which included the famous 'Roaring Meg'.

The lamentable fate of the pillar is well known by my generation and will be mentioned later.

Fifty years later in the 1870s the construction of the fine baronial style Memorial Hall, an extended version of which we have inherited, heralded the phenomenal growth of a well-organised body of Apprentice Boys clubs.

During the intervening half century a number of false starts in the formation of such clubs, witnessed the early demise of groups such as the wonderfully named Death and Glory, The Fear Not, The Juvenile, The Williamite, The Bottle and Glass (my favourite), and all destined for the archival shelf.

Celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the Siege in 1838 were fairly low key in comparison to the centenary, but the growth in popularity of the celebrations and in the welfare of the Apprentice Boys from which we are benefitting can find origin in this era. In the late 1850s a general committee was eventually formed to co-ordinate the business of a plethora of clubs that had evolved from the anniversary. The Apprentice Boys of Derry, Mitchelburne, Baker, Murray, Walker, Browning and Cairns clubs subscribed to this general committee.

The Cairns club became defunct after this and was eventually replaced by the revived No Surrender (orginally formed in 1824). A Campsie club was in evidence at celebrations in 1863 but had ceased functioning by the bi-centennial and the Baker club also lapsed. Both were revived - Baker in 1927 and Campsie in 1950.

Demographic changes in Londonderry certainly influenced the spiralling growth of the Boys. The dramatic rise in the Roman Catholic population and the post-Famine clamour for a form of Home Rule along with increased communal tension prompted a unity of purpose among Protestants for the first time since the Siege and the Apprentice Boys became a natural rallying agent.

The improvement of the transport system greatly enhanced the annual celebrations in the 1860s and '70s, and the decision of the general committee to sanction branch or local clubs, adhering to the Derry based parent or administrative bodies really set the Boys on course.

Harmony did not reign supreme. While the membership in Londonderry included Presbyterians and Church of Ireland, mostly conservative, divisions still existed. When liberal members of First Derry Presbyterian Church in 1864 denied the Mitchelburne Club the right of access to the church with their banners and regalia, the Boys opted to participate in the customary thanksgiving services in St Columb's Cathedral, where during the Siege "both Church and Kirk did jointly pray and preach". This custom will be observed on Saturday morning at the kind invitation of Dean Morton.

The Apprentice Boys, in all of their colourful manifestations, had met with occasional opposition since the 1830s and, as the staggering range of 19th century social, religious and political problems reared their heads (often in tandem), the Boys frequently became the reluctant but all too convenient battering ram. Who can justly claim that history does not repeat itself?

Consider the 1860 celebrations - Bishop Higgins opted to interpret the Party Processions Act (sounds familiar), which prohibited political parading and was operative between 1850-1871, by banning the flying of the Crimson flag from the Cathedral steeple and the ringing of the bells. The Boys took over the Cathedral and observed the traditional rituals. The Shutting of the Gates ceremony of the same year proved more unpleasant when a massive security exercise was launched to prevent a reoccurrence.

The Boys relinquished their usual custom of firing the city's guns, but managed to outmanoeuvre the troops and police and fired some shot from the Cathedral and rang the bells.

A decade later, 1870, when determined efforts were made to prevent the burning of the Lundy effigy, the Boys again proved to be resourceful and successful.

The numerous skirmishes and occasional heightened tensions of this middle to late Victorian era simply clarifed - if at all necessary - the role of the Siege as an important symbol for a Protestant population who perceived themselves to be under constant threat.

The extension of membership to outside of the city, already referred to, determined a much more representative participation in the traditional ceremonies; when explanation for this participation is required, the fact that Protestants from all over Ulster flocked to Londonderry for protection and defence in 1688-89 renders it appropriate that their descendants are entitled to celebrate their deliverance at the same place.

The complete transformation in the fortunes of the Apprentice Boys can be traced from this period and in the aftermath of this Saturday's 321st anniversary of the Relief, we can, in the concluding part of this feature, follow the path that the Boys have taken through the 20th century.

I do sincerely trust that we, as citizens of the appointed UK City of Culture, can be granted the luxury of much reflection, while basking in the knowledge that a harmonious 321st anniversary has come and gone.

Our often turbulent recent history is well worth academic research, but it is in this place that it must remain and I hope that my contribution to next Wednesday's post 12th edition will clarify this.