While making my way through the crowded Grassmarket, I stumbled upon a parade. I assumed it was yet another feature of the multifaceted Edinburgh festivals.
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. Some were teens. Some were in wheelchairs. Their combined drumming was deafening in the canyon of the Grassmarket.
After watching them pass, I went to my hotel, changed into 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 for home. I asked a couple of them, high school-aged boys from Northern Ireland, about the nature of the parade and which organizations the various bands represented.
Quickly, an older gentlemen in a band uniform intercepted me. The boys disappeared. Glaring, he demanded to know where I was from and what I wanted to know. Once I told him I was an American tourist, he relaxed and related 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 Derry (Londonderry) when James II of England, a Catholic, attacked the Protestant stronghold.
The white-haired club leader spoke with passion. “The siege began when thirteen apprentice boys closed the gates of the city against a regiment of twelve hundred of the king’s soldiers,” he said. “It was quite an amazing thing!”
When a frustrated 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. One commemorates the closing of the gates in December; the other, the lifting of the siege in August.
Over the years, violence has erupted at the religious-themed parades in Northern Ireland. In the United States we have struggled to understand the fighting, the so-called Troubles, between Catholics and Protestants. The conflict was not just religious in nature, but socio-economic and political as well. The Protestants were aligned with England and the Catholics with Ireland. Each side was fighting for control of the country.
The face of the seasoned club leader I spoke with may have seen his share of violence. His nose was broken; some of his teeth were missing. His experience made him initially suspicious of me. Fortunately, the Troubles in Northern Ireland seem to be over and the ongoing religious parades usually peaceful.
At the festival, I enjoyed 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 the suspected leader of the IRA? On Twitter? He’s a 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!”