Growing Up in Belfast in the 20s and 30s

We had recurring seasonal occupations, kite making and flying them, whipping tops, hoop birling, ‘kick the tin’, ‘Jack, Jack, show your light’, leap frog, street football (using tennis balls), cricket and a host of other games. But, above all, as one would suspect in East Belfast, the annual Bonfires on July 12th.
We would scour the area for onion boxes, orange (the fruit!) boxes, old tyres, trees which had been felled, lopped or trimmed, butter boxes – anything which would burn. It was not so much ideologically driven, as far as we children were concerned, but a traditional folk activity, the done thing, encouraged by some adults, indulgently smiled upon by others.
This activity, in the weeks prior to the ‘Twelfth’, arose spontaneously in June, without much thought, although by the age of eleven I had largely disengaged from it.
Neither my father nor my older brothers had succumbed to ‘Wearing the Sash’. I confess to having worn one on occasions, albeit a paper one, which, purchased for a few pence, I donned, beating away on a toy tin drum. However, as far as I can recall, I stopped this childish practice around seven years old.
Nevertheless, while young, it was still an event to watch local Orange lodges, complete with accompanying bands, pass by on their way to join the main march. Then to see them again, in the late afternoon, in differing stages of insobriety as they rolled unsteadily towards home. But I never felt inclined to become a junior member, like some of my peers, and vie for the ‘ honour’ of holding the strings of the banner during parades. One of their preoccupations, even if not a lodge member, was discussing whether they would go to the ‘Field’!
When I was in my first job in a central Belfast restaurant, which couldn’t possibly have opened on 'The Twelfth’, I had a holiday, so I decided out of curiosity (I don’t condemn without seeing, I thought) not to accompany the marches but to visit the site around midday.
At this time the location varied from year to year and had been fixed in the Belmont area so that I was able to take a tram ride to the end of the line and walk the odd mile to where the celebration was held.
When one considers the ballyhoo and hype (still extant) surrounding the event, even at 15 years of age, I was not impressed by what I saw. Men, in their orange and purple regalia, sitting around on the grass eating sandwiches and assorted food and drinking out of dark bottles. Younger stalwarts were lying under hedges, with women partners, heavily engaged in ‘Encounters of the Close Kind’. Other groups were gathered around platforms from which redfaced speakers harangued them. My curiosity, on my one and only ‘Field Day’, was satisfied. For me it was a non event, just an excuse for a legitimatised booze up, plus other bonuses!
I started an engineering apprenticeship the following year, in a firm which proclaimed itself 100% Protestant, and found a good deal of Orange Culture embedded among the workforce, even among active ‘Trade Unionists’. They saw no contradiction between their industrial aims and discrimination in the job market against non - Protestants.
Having escaped indoctrination into an Orange Loyalist outlook during my childhood I still, in my early working days, had to confound covert and overt efforts to entice me into association with Orange activity. Invitations to attend social events in Orange Halls or to purchase raffle tickets or anything to finance them in any way had to be turned down – one invitation to join a Lodge was received.
It was a habit of mine, and of other apprentices, to walk round the city centre during our lunch break. One day. when walking over the Queensbridge, I was approached by two sheetmetal workers and an apprentice fitter.
The said they had decided to invite me to join the order. I feigned ignorance of what kind of order it might be, but they saw through my subterfuge, saying the L.O.L. (Loyal Orange Lodge) of course, and telling me that my Union Branch secretary voted for the Labour Party, so why could I not accept their offer. After I suggested that when they lived up to their motto, ‘Civil and Religious Liberty’ they could come and ask me again — they never did.
Certainly, I’m sure that in other parts of the city there were other boys and youths who had been raised in the traditions of the Nationalist and Republican movement, and some may, like myself, have escaped intense indoctrination from colleagues and co-religionists. However, there were few points of contact, for my Union Branch and Labour Party Ward were situated in majority community areas and thus comprised of members with similar outlook and environment.
This sort of social division or exclusiveness still exists, which is in part responsible for militating against a firm establishment of joint activities and social interchange. Such that does occur is far from being organic.
From an early age I had a strong objection to denominational schools, irrespective of which church they were associated with. And not simply now, because I have outgrown any attachment to religious belief, I hold firmly still to that view.
I am convinced, as others in Northern Ireland who still have religious beliefs are, that if reconciliation and integration of communities is ever to succeed, the process must take root and grow in the schools. The social separation is, of course, a formidable hurdle to overcome and must also be addressed.
Orange and Green are component parts of Rainbows and with goodwill, understanding and fair compromise, can co-exist in a Northern Ireland Political Prism.
Separated now in ‘time and space’, as it were, the ‘Irish in Wales’, whatever their roots, have to join in the discussion and, by example, point the way to a Just Political Settlement.
The Green Dragon, located in the history of the Diaspora, can be a voice through which different traditions can be brought together.

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran.

Published in:
The Green Dragon No 3,Summer, 1997.

Samuel H. Boyd