The 11th night has always been an important part of the Twelfth celebrations and I have very fond childhood memories of those occasions.
In everyday life there wasn’t much colour or excitement where I came from in rural Co. Londonderry, but two events we looked forward each year were the annual Sunday School outing by train to Portrush in June followed a couple of weeks later by the Twelfth celebrations.
A bonfire was a bonus on the 11th night but I don’t recall many of those in my area since we knew the value of wood to keep the home fires burning in winter. However we always looked forward to the activity at the Orange Hall the evening before as the Orangemen made their preparations for the big day aided by their wives preparing loaves of sandwiches to take to the field.
It was the ‘Belfasties’, as we called them, who squandered the wood on the big bonfires in the city, too far away for us to visit of course. Still, our more humble celebrations were just as important to us.
Obviously, over the decades, bonfires in the city and built up areas have got bigger, the parties around them more boisterous and the parades down traditional routes more controversial.
Had the Troubles not happened it’s possible 11th night celebrations would not have reached the level they have today. The Troubles and the rise of republicans with their fervent wish to destroy Protestant culture put Protestants on the defensive and they reacted by doing things bigger and better.
It’s entirely possible that if the Troubles had not happened Twelfth celebrations would be for the dedicated and the tourists only as younger generations, even those who held on to their Orange roots, preferred pub culture and disco nights.
But The Troubles did leave Protestants feeling under siege with the Orange Order caught in the middle. Loyalist groups, reacted with in-your-face bonfires and flag waving demonstrations, exactly, perhaps, what republicans wanted as they continue to attempt to deny Protestants their culture.
The Parades Commission has had its work cut out trying to control parades. Protestants, including those not belonging to the Orange Order, feel they don’t get a fair deal under the Commission and that their whole culture is under threat.
The Orange Order too has felt it isn’t getting a fair deal either. Republicans, of course, are stoking the tensions in pursuit of their idea of equality and neutrality both of which, incidentally, they denied the population in the decades they spent bombing and killing their way to dominance.
So strong do they feel about getting their way it’s even got to the stage where arch republican Martin McGuinness now has a pass granting him privileged access to the Houses of Parliament – despite never taking his seat in Westminister.
Still, it leaves him free to enjoy the subsidised facilities of Westminster. We wouldn’t want to deny him that, now would we? It’s a tremendous victory for Irish republicanism.
But maybe, in this week of Twelfth celebrations, times really are changing. Former Armagh GAA captain and school principal Jarlath Burns has bravely put his head above the parapet and suggested Irish republicans should ‘‘cherish all the children of the nation equally’’ suggesting that targeting the culture of others illustrates ‘‘insecurity’’ and compared to the burning down of Orange halls as ‘‘akin to something done by the Nazis or Klu Klux Klan’’.
He was speaking after the recent attacks on Orange halls in Rasharkin and Loughgall. He is further quoted in the News Letter: ‘‘Republicans should be giving everyone the freedom to express themselves in religious, political and civic terms’’ and he points to the historical items that will have been destroyed in the burning of Orange halls.
So what should a modern day Twelfth look and feel like? If the Orange Order asked that question they might be surprised by the answer.