Protestant drums: A harsh echo in memory

I remember as a boy in Scotland waking up in mid-July to rattling windows and unnerving thuds - the marching season in Northern Ireland and Scotland had begun.

The window frames vibrated to the pounding of the huge lambeg drum. The air was pierced with the shrill whistle of the Orange flute band sending Protestant war anthems across the Glasgow sky. The crack, crack, crack of the band's march echoed in the distance. Their swaggering bodies were pumped up with their call and creed of "No Surrender" to Catholicism.

It made me shiver then 25 years ago, just as it must still for those witnessing this week's surge of marching season violence in Northern Ireland. Protestant hard-liners attacked police and Catholic properties in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in an effort to force British authorities to reverse their decision to bar a traditional Protestant parade through a Catholic neighborhood this Sunday.

During the marching season, the fraternal Protestant organization, the Orange Order, celebrates the history of Protestantism with marching bands and rallies. July 12 is the high point of the fervor. On that day in 1690, King William of Orange, a Dutch Protestant, defeated the Catholic King James, abruptly ending Catholic monarchy in Britain. It has remained that way ever since. For Glasgow's Catholics the defeat sent word that Britain was a Protestant country, with a Protestant Queen and a Protestant work ethic. Catholicism was an evil that had to be defeated at all costs.

My mother is a lapsed Catholic, but on the evening before the big mid-July Orange Walk, she prayed to St. Peter for torrential rain and storms. She hoped lightning from heaven would strike directly into the marching Orangemen.

Many Catholic churches in Glasgow would close up their doors on the day of the march, access to the St. Peter version of God temporarily interrupted.

The local Orange Order in my Glasgow neighborhood made sure that its procession route passed by the Catholic chapel. There, the marchers would stop and play their war songs louder. The Fenians (Catholics) would know that "No Surrender" was forever.

It seemed that the local authorities were part of the demonstration of threats - a conclusion I drew on account of the British Union Jack magically appearing above the town hall in the Main Street. It was the only time of the year when it would fly. It was a reminder that we were to be British first and that we supported the rights of Protestants in Northern Ireland to be a part of our union, the United Kingdom.

My street was a mixture of Christian schism. Next door was an Orange family. They were actually members of the Orange Order. On the day of the march, they'd stand in their concrete-paved yard dressed in suits, their traditional Orange sashes draped over their jackets, their black shoes glistening with glory. There stood the father proud with his two sons, loyal to the Crown, always ready to fight for the Protestant ascendancy. The queen's face adorned the windows.

This was directly across the street from a Roman Catholic family that had posted pictures of the pope on the exterior of their home. The old pope's beady eye was glaring at the fresh image of the queen (a lot younger then). He may have been asking her: Why is it that the British monarch is forbidden by law from marrying a Catholic?

She may have replied to the Roman vicar: What do you know about marriage, celibate?

For the Orange Order, Catholicism represents backwardness. It often holds up the civil rights restrictions that the Roman Catholic Church has been instrumental in implementing in the political history of the Irish Republic. Orangemen imagine the Catholics will impinge on their sense of freedom, should Northern Ireland be united with the Irish Republic.

Many believe that Protestants would be discriminated against just as Catholics have been discriminated against in the short history of Northern Ireland.

My family was not part of the tribal displays going on around us. My father and mother were from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds, and to us social class was the key, not religion. As a kid, I always had the impression that the Protestant side was unfair to the Catholics, and that made me side with them when it came to choosing which side to be on.

This decision was important in the grander scale of Glasgow things. It was often a choice question that a potential assailant would throw on you at close combat quarters: Are you a Hun (Protestant) or a Tim (Catholic)?

Choosing the wrong side could prove dangerous to body and limb. I recollect being asked once. I scanned the angry face spitting his sectarian venom on me and noticed he had freckles: a Catholic. I guessed right. No kicking for me.

An old tired joke in Glasgow was: A Pakistani was threatened by the big question: Are you a Hun or Tim? He said: "Neither. I'm a Muslim." The reply: "Aye, sure, but are you a Protestant Muslim or a Catholic one?"

And that joke is a powerful message about Glasgow. Unable to be nationalistically Scottish, many Glaswegians have chosen to be closer to their Irish history. The tension is there, but the Irish bombs never were. Now peace is growing stronger in the Irish world. Old enemies are talking. For the Orange Order, the question now is whether "No Surrender" remains relevant.

*Alan Black, a British citizen, is a promoter of Scottish culture and arts in California.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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