Orange Parade (2004-07-14 - 1:40 p.m.)
Belfast is a very strange place. It seems to have two sides to it, as clearly demonstrated this weekend. The first was shown by the tension in the city during the 12th of July holiday. To begin with, the entire city seemed to be deserted. It suddenly got very quiet, as all the Catholics went away or stayed home. Sunday night, the 11th, was bonfire night. The preparations for this had been set up for weeks in advance, mostly by the wee'uns (though they must have had adult help as well).
What basically happens is that vacant lots in every Protestant part of the city are piled high with rubbish. Usually the bottom part is formed by old mattresses, furniture, couches, even bits of old cars. Then piled above this are pieces of wood, skips and crates, to form a huge tower. The one on Tate's Avenue was taller than the surrounding blocks of flats! Pasted to the top of this wooden tower were Sinn Fein political posters, and it was topped off by an Irish flag. I found this very disturbing, as they are symbolically burning the Catholics (not to mention the flag, which seems like an extremely aggressive thing to do).
Anyway, despite being warned to be very careful, Bee and Paulina and I couldn't resist going out to see what went on. We saw three bonfires around the city. The first one was across the river from us. There was a group of Catholic kids on our side of the river, throwing bottles at cars crossing the bridge and shouting. They yelled at us because Bee was wearing a red scarf (Union Jack colours). You could sense their frustration and anger.
The second bonfire was already burned down by the time we got there. You could see the Union Jacks and Ulster flags hung around it. There were still some people in the lot, drinking and singing marching songs.
The last one was the Tate's Avenue fire. It was still going strong, and the fumes were horrible. It smelled like burning mattresses - pretty awful! The heat of the fire was so strong that it destroyed the billboard that had sat on the lot. Only twisted poles were left. The streetlamps in front of the fire were actually melted, which is how hot the blaze was. And yet, there were no firetrucks out. They wouldn't dare. The only official presence we saw were loads of armoured cars, the typical vehicle of the Belfast police force.
The corner of the lot was taken up with Protestants, playing their music ("we're simply the best... better than all the rest") and shouting slogans. "*%&* the Pope and the IRA!" The street we were standing on ran above the lot, so we had a perfect view of the fire (though the stench was awful). We were joined by a group of guys from Glasgow, who had come over to see the bonfires. Apparently there is a strong link between the Scots and the Irish Protestants.
It was a very strange and sinister night.
I talked to my housemate Amy, who is Protestant, before I left. She said the holiday reminded her of being a wee'un and making the bonfire to celebrate her heritage. If that's all it was, I don't think it would bother me. Maybe that's all it is in some places, but here they were burning Irish flags and the faces of the Sinn Fein.
The next day was the Orange Parades. I got up and went to see some of them. Apparently there were 250 Orange Lodges represented, and more than 100 marching bands from all over Scotland and N. Ireland. It was mostly old guys in orange sashes interspersed with marching bands. Normally I love parades, but I couldn't watch this one for long. It seemed more like a show of force than a happy family occasion, though perhaps I'm reading too much into the motives. But it was very sectarian, and it bothered me. Maybe in the future it will become a family occasion to celebrate heritage and nothing more... I really hope so. But the fact remains that the Belfast Telegraph was reporting sectarian violence around the city.
The marching went on all day, literally from early morning till about 6 pm. The streets were a disaster, littered with broken glass, rubbish and even people passed out. Bee and I went to Paulina's house because she was scared to stay alone - people wearing Union Jacks had climbed onto the building site beside her house and were shouting slogans.
But then last night, the day after all the marching, the city seemed totally different. Everyone who had fled the city came home, and there was a free opera presentation in the Botanical Gardens. There was a live satellite link from Covent Garden in London showing Tosca, on a huge screen in the beautiful surroundings of the garden. Thousands of people turned up to see it and it was lovely.
Of course, this being Belfast it rained, so the crowd had thinned out considerably by the end! (And I have to admit we skipped the second act to go have a drink at the Empire Hotel). But it was still very cultural and very cool that so many people showed up to see the opera. I guess that's the other side of the city. It can be a very beautiful, very welcoming place.
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