The official launch of the 2017 parading season was marked today with up to 4,600 people from across the British Isles taking part in the Apprentice Boys of Derry Easter parade in Ballynahinch.
Christopher Cunningham, secretary of the Belfast and District amalgamated committee, said some 45 feeder parades fed into the main Co Down event.
The morning feeder parades, hosted by various local amalgamated committees, took place right across Northern Ireland, he said.
Then a religious service took place in Ballynahinch at noon, ahead of the single unified parade in the town, beginning at 12.30pm.
Up to 3,000 members of the Apprentice Boys took part in the event with the rest of the 4,600 participants made up of over 140 marching bands.
In addition, the town was thronged with crowds of spectators who massed to enjoy the spectacle of music and colour.
The procession was so long that it took around an hour to pass any given point of the route around the town.
Starting at Ballynahinch football ground the parade began at 12.30pm and wound its way through the town until 3.30pm without stopping, concluding at Lisburn Street where the governor of the association, James Brownlee, took the salute from members.
“Apprentice Boys travelled from association encampments based in Scotland, England, the Republic of Ireland and the six counties of Ulster,” Mr Cunningham said.
“We gather to remember the Siege of Derry, when 13 Apprentice Boys closed the gates in 1688, and we gather as Protestant Christians in a peaceful and dignified manner.”
The association not only launched the parading season for the loyal orders yesterday but also closes the same marching season with its parade in Londonderry at the start of December.
In December last year hundreds of Apprentice Boys marched peacefully through the streets of the Maiden City to commemorate the anniversary of the shutting of the gates.
Apprentice Boys Governor Jim Brownee said the event was almost faultless.
Attended by at least 2,500 people, it yielded a “positive economic impact” for the city.
He added that the annual Londonderry parade now has a reputation for being a family-friendly event.
Mr Brownlee said: “It was once portrayed as a sectarian event, but that is no longer the case.
“People from all walks of life can come along and have an enjoyable time.”