True Blues are marching back to Canada

GRAEME COUSINS finds out why a blood and thunder band from Co Armagh have been invited to a special parade in Canada

Portadown True Blues in Canada in 1982
Portadown True Blues in Canada in 1982

A marching band from Portadown is gearing up for a return to Canada where it will take part in the longest continually running procession in North America.

Portadown True Blues Flute Band’s first visit to Toronto came in 1982 to take part in the city’s Twelfth of July celebrations.

Orange historian Quincey Dougan said: “The Orange heritage of Canada is well known, but lesser known is that the Toronto Twelfth of July celebrations can actually lay claim to being the longest continually running procession in North America, if not the entire world.

On parade in Toronto in 1989

“This year it is will be marking its 200th anniversary, with Orangemen and women from across the globe expected to congregate in the city for the occasion.

He explained that the Toronto Twelfth takes places on July 17 to accommodate the many visitors who have taken part in demonstrations elsewhere in the world.

Quincey said: “Among those travelling from Ulster are three bands from Donegal, however another band joining them can make the unique claim of already having made that long journey not once but twice.”

Portadown True Blues first marched in Toronto in 1982 and then again in 1989 when over 50 members of the band travelled over 3,000 miles to parade.

Portadown True Blues on the march in their home town

Quincey commented: “Over the decades that have past, relationships kindled during those trips have seen Canadian Brethren make their way back to the ‘home country’ to parade on the Twelfth in Portadown, and this year several of the True Blues who made that journey over 30 years ago will be returning the favour.”

Sam Hill is part of the Portadown Trues Blues committee who are organising the band’s third trip to Toronto.

The 52-year-old said: “This will be my first time in Toronto. The last time the band was there was 1989 and I was still in the Army at the time.

“The band over the years has been speaking about going back.

“It’s a big financial commitment which made it difficult.

“We actually got a special invite from the Canadians for the 200th anniversary because the band was there before in 1982 and 1989.

“We discussed it last year and decided if we were going we’d be taking the families and all with us.

“It was thrown out to the general public as well to come with us and there’s some joining us, some of them are Orangemen.

“It’s going to be a big trip.

“We were up to 106 but a few have dropped out because of the coronavirus. We’re down to about 100 – three bus loads.

“Everything is still going ahead as it stands. We’re just going on advice from our own government and Canadians. Canada haven’t got the same flight ban as the US.

“We’ll have to sit tight and wait to hear. It could be a last minute decision.”

Of the cost of the trip which has prompted a lot of fundraising from the band, Sam said: “It’s cost £110,000 to get everybody there.

“We’ve been on the ball with fundraising since August last year.

“Now we’re into March and the marching season has started, we’re really looking forward to it.

“We did say if everybody paid their own fare to get there we would raise funds to offset the costs when we get there, to pay for things like buses for excursions.

“Some of us are going for 10 days, the majority just going for a week.

“I’m going with my wife Sharon, my son and my daughter, I’ve got an older son who isn’t going.

“There’s 12 fathers and sons going out of the band. With one family there’s three generations – Victor Graham is going with his son David and his grandchildren Sam and Bobby.

“Aside from the parade they’ll have us playing in Orange halls, clubs and places like that. We’ll be trying to get a bit of freetime for sightseeing, Niagara Falls, the CN Tower, places like that.

“There’s people who will be meeting up with family when they’re over.”

Of the ‘old boys’ going on the trip Sam said: “There’s a few boys going that were there in 1989 and 1982.

“We’ve actually a boy coming from New Zealand, Philip Currie. The plan is he’ll come back to Northern Ireland and travel with us.

“Another boy Jimmy McCullough, who was there in 1989, he lives in Las Vegas now, he’s coming up to meet us from there.

“He still has his uniform. When he comes home he guests with the band.

“Two of the boys who are still in the band – Nigel Morrison and Trevor Whitten – they’ll be there too.

“It’s going to be a bit of a reunion as well.

“We’ve been going through the band archive to see who was in the band at the time, we’ve been in contact with them.

“The reason why we’re going back is it’s the 200th anniversary or the formation of the Orange over there. It’s the longest running parade in the history of North America.

“Because it was the 200th anniversary and they did ask us back we thought now was the time to go.”

In 1968 Portadown True Blues became the first blood and thunder band to form in Portadown.

The band was founded by three men - Connie Linton, Glen Yeman and the late Eddie McKinney.

Their practice takes place in Clounagh Orange Hall.

Sam, who has been in the band since 1990, said: “The band has between 55 and 60 members, from primary school age up to older ones. Me and Johnny Burns are there the longest. Johnny has been there 39 years.

“I’ve been secretary, I’ve been chairman, the whole lot. I’m just an ordinary band member now and I’m on the Canada sub committee.”

Sam is joined on the True Blues Canada sub committee by band chairman Stephen Woods, Stuart Currie, Dickie Craven and Jamie Kerr.

Orangeism was present in Canada less than 20 years after its formation in Co Armagh, with the first documented Lodge being active by 1812 in the city of Montreal in the province of Quebec.

Other lodges soon came into existence, but they were essentially all a loose confederation until 1830 when the Grand Orange Lodge of British America was formed.

The ‘father’ of the Canadian Order is widely regarded to be the controversial Wexford born Canadian politician and newspaper mogul Ogle Robert Gowan.

Initially membership was made up of Irish immigrants, however its ethos soon saw it expand its remit to recruit heavily from English, Scottish and other Protestants from across Europe.

In the 20th Century it could boast lodges made exclusively from those of Italian descent, and of Mohawk Indians. From a membership of approximately 14,000 in the mid-1830’s, by the early 20th century it had well over 100,000 brethren across several thousand lodges.

In Newfoundland a third of adult males were members, making it more popular there than even back at ‘home’ in Ireland.

Four Canadian prime ministers were members of the institution while numerous other brethren have served at other levels, with famously almost every Toronto mayor between 1850 and 1950 unashamedly Orange.

Whilst the membership today is a pale reflection of its past glories, there are still thousands of Canadian Orangemen, and the ‘Orange Hall’ is still a part of the physical landscape.

Toronto’s Orange presence was such that it was often called the ‘Belfast of Canada’ and although numbers are reduced the annual procession is the longest running in North America.