Thousands on parade as Apprentice Boys open marching season

The head of the parade makes its way though the streets of Ballynahinch

The head of the parade makes its way though the streets of Ballynahinch

The official launch of the 2017 parading season has been marked 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.

A feeder parade passes St Patricks Catholic Church in Donegall Street, Belfast

A feeder parade passes St Patricks Catholic Church in Donegall Street, Belfast

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.

Members of the Ligoniel Walker Club pass the Ardoyne shops on the Crumlin Road in north Belfast

Members of the Ligoniel Walker Club pass the Ardoyne shops on the Crumlin Road in north Belfast

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.

The parade was an “incredible” family day out, organisers said.

Mr Cunningham could not have been happier.

It took an hour for the Ballynahinch parade to pass any single point in the town

It took an hour for the Ballynahinch parade to pass any single point in the town

“There was a fantastic turnout, Ballynahinch was absolutely packed to capacity,” he said. “It was a great family day, the atmosphere was brilliant with no trouble of any kind.”

Past president Cyril Jones took part in the feeder parade which passed by the News Letter office in Belfast mid-morning.

“We were more than pleased, more than expected turned out, about 350 participants including bands,” he said of the Belfast feeder parade.

Crowds turned out at York Street and Peter’s Hill in the city to cheer the parade on, he said.

There were 140 bands taking part in the Ballynahinch parade

There were 140 bands taking part in the Ballynahinch parade

But the event at Ballynahinch – where feeder parades from across Northern Ireland converged in the afternoon – was “incredible”.

“The number of people parading and at the side of the roads was so great you could not really make an estimate of how many there were,” he said.

“You could not get moving. It was a really good day, including the weather.”

One Apprentice Boy who was running late said that the crowds were so great in the town that he abandoned any hope of taking part after waiting in traffic for 45 minutes.

Although the parade officially began at 12.30pm it took around an hour for all local encampments to move out of the starting field, at Ballynahinch United FC.

He had been hoping to join his local group at the tail end of the parade but the crowds and traffic were so intense he realised it was not going to be possible to enter the town.

Mr Cunningham added: “Apprentice Boys travelled from association encampments based in Scotland, England, the Republic of Ireland and the six counties of Ulster.

“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 on Monday but also closes the 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.