To read about the Edinburgh art festivals, please see the previous post, “An unexpected guest at the festival.”
One band after another passed, each comprised of drummers and pipers, each proudly hoisting a banner. The marchers were all male and all ages from teenagers to old men. Even some in wheelchairs. Their combined drumming was deafening in the canyon of the Grassmarket.
After watching them pass, I went to my hotel, changed into my running clothes and headed to a nearby park. There, I found the bands’ buses lined up around the perimeter, dozens of them. The marchers were stowing their instruments, having a smoke and boarding the coaches. I asked a couple of them, high-school-aged boys from Ireland, about the nature of the parade and which organizations the various bands represented.
Quickly, an older gentlemen in a band uniform got off the bus and buttonholed me. The boys disappeared. Glaring, he demanded to know where I was from and what I wanted to know. Once I told him, he relaxed. After determining I was a harmless American tourist, he told me the story.
The marchers represent different member clubs of the Apprentice Boys of Derry, a Protestant fraternal society with a worldwide membership in the thousands. The society was founded in 1814 in Northern Ireland. It commemorates the 1689 siege of the town of Derry (Londonderry) when James II of England, a Catholic, attacked the walled city, then a Protestant holdout.
The white-haired club leader told his story with passion. “The siege began when thirteen apprentice boys closed the gates of the city against a regiment of 1,200 of the king’s soldiers,” he said. “It was quite an amazing thing!”
When King James II arrived to take charge of the siege, he was greeted with a cry of “No surrender!” from the civilians inside the walls. The siege ended six months later when two armed merchant ships broke the barricade and unloaded food to the starving population, half of which had already died. (At least, that’s the Protestant version.)
The Apprentice Boys hold two main annual celebrations, commemorating the “closing of the gates” in December and the “lifting of the siege” in August.
Over the years in the U.S., the news media has reported the violence in Northern Ireland resulting from these religious-themed parades. We have struggled to understand the fighting, “the Troubles,” between Catholics and Protestants. But it is more complicated than that, as the Protestants are aligned with England and the Catholics with Ireland. Each side was fighting for control of the country. Just like in the Middle East, politics and religion are entwined.
The face of the seasoned club leader I spoke with looked as though he had seen his share of violence. Missing teeth, broken nose. Probably why he was suspicious of me. Fortunately, the Troubles in Northern Ireland seem to be over and the religious parades are usually peaceful.
At the festival, I saw an English comedian who joked about politicians using social media. “Even Gerry Adams is on Twitter,” he said. “Can you imagine? The leader of Sinn Féin and a suspected leader of the IRA in Northern Ireland? On Twitter? He’s an alleged terrorist, for God’s sake!”
“Well, of course, I had to follow him,” he continued. “A day later, I got an update that scared the hell out of me. ‘Gerry Adams is following you.’ I’m watching out my windows now, looking for unmarked vans!”