Parade Season Reflections

[ Posted Tuesday, July 14th, 2009 – 16:23 UTC ]

Americans are in the mood for summer fun right now. We've just had Fourth of July parades, and President Obama is about to throw out the first pitch in the All-Star Game tonight (he is reportedly better at baseball than he is at bowling, so hopefully this will go well for him). On Capitol Hill, the nomination hearings of Judge Sonia Sotomayor have not produced any fireworks, and she is all but guaranteed to gain a seat on the Supreme Court. But for many, it's a season of parades and fun in the sun.

It's also parade season in Ireland. But this is a very different kettle of potatoes than what Americans think of when we use the word "parade." Because, among other dates, the Big Day for parade season in Ireland is July 12, the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne.

Just to begin with, this is a rather foreign concept in America (which is actually widespread elsewhere). We don't celebrate battles. We don't parade our military hardware down the street, even on the Fourth. After 9/11 happened, there were many "flyovers" of military planes at public events like ballgames, but that has mostly receded now. Think about it -- can you name the day the Battle of Gettysburg happened? How about Yorktown? Iwo Jima? The Battle of the Bulge? We do somberly mark a few military events, such as D-Day, or the day we dropped the first atomic bomb, or Pearl Harbor -- but even then it's with hushed reverence. And we don't celebrate V-E day or V-J day nowadays (as if anyone even remembers what the letters mean who wasn't alive then). Instead, we lump all our military dates into two yearly holidays (Memorial Day and Veterans' Day), rather than celebrating them individually.

The second reason the whole Irish parade concept is foreign to us is the fact that we think of "parade" as a positive thing, full of smiles and happiness and patriotism. In Ireland, these parades celebrate the victory of one group of people over another, both of which still live on the island. The parades themselves are a giant statement: "We won." Here, it would be called a "protest march" if the same type of thing happened -- if not a "provocation."

But even that doesn't really explain it to American ears. Because while the participants of these parades see them as patriotic in the extreme, the descendents of the conquered don't have as happy memories of the event. The equivalent in America would be a group dressed up as Southern Civil War soldiers, marching through Harlem with Confederate battle flags flying. Even that's not that great a comparison, since the South lost. Perhaps a group dressed as Union soldiers marching through Atlanta commemorating Sherman's march to the sea would be closer. Or groups dressed as the U.S. Calvary marching through Indian reservations. While none of these metaphors is entirely accurate to capture the flavor of the Irish parades, you begin to get the picture. To a large group of people, they are offensive in the extreme. But, like American Southerners defending the Confederate flag as "our heritage," the Irish marching in the parades would see it completely differently.

This year's parade, thankfully, was relatively quiet. From an Irish Times article, the following took place:

"Riot[s] yesterday in Northern Ireland in which 21 PSNI [Northern Irish police] were injured. ... One member of the force was knocked unconscious under a barrage of stones, fireworks, blast bombs and other missiles in north Belfast last night. ... At one stage a bullet was fired at the police lines while burning vehicles were also pushed towards them. Officers responded with water cannon and non-lethal rounds. Crowds had gathered ahead of the return parade by Orangemen from their July 12th demonstrations. ... Elsewhere, in Derry there were minor disturbances and there was also trouble in Rasharkin, Co[unty] Antrim and Armagh. In Rasharkin, officers sustained minor injuries when they were struck by stones and bricks by youths in the village. Petrol bombs were thrown. One man was arrested. There were disturbances during the return leg of the Twelfth parade in Derry and minor trouble in the Butcher's Gate area where one policeman sustained a slight injury. Police came under attack with petrol bombs and paint during disturbances in Armagh following a security alert at Friary Road in which a minor explosion occurred. Four people have been arrested for public order offences following a number of minor disturbances."

This sounds pretty bad, but believe it or not, this was a relatively quiet year. Nobody got killed, and there's no talk of barricades either being stormed or being manned. The head Sinn Fein spokesman, Gerry Adams, spoke to this perspective: "But let's look at the big picture in terms of what it used to be like and what it's now like." Because it used to be a lot worse.

This year's problems were likely caused by a splinter group from the "Provisional Irish Republican Army" (what we know as "the IRA"), which calls itself the "Real IRA." But the violence has come, over the years, from both the Republicans (who favor uniting the island of Ireland, joining up Northern Ireland with the independent Republic of Ireland to the south) and the Unionists (who favor continued membership for the separate country of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, and are the ones doing the marching), it should be pointed out. The IRA (the main group, not the splinter faction) itself has committed to the peace process and is interested in defusing the tensions surrounding the parade season. The Orangemen (the people who put on the parades, for William of Orange, the victor in the battle) have been provocative themselves over the years, by parading through areas of the towns which are largely populated by the descendents of the losers of the Battle of the Boyne, which is why I used U.S. Cavalry marching through an Indian reservation as an American example.

To put this into some more perspective, the Battle of the Boyne happened in 1690 -- three hundred and nineteen years ago. The American Declaration of Independence was still 86 years in the future. Most Americans' understanding of Irish politics is limited to "Protestants versus Catholics," and if you don't look very deep, it's easy to see why religion is what we tend to focus on. There's a lot more to it than that, far more than we have time for today.

But even though Northern Ireland is well along the road to peaceably solving its past problems, flareups happen. The flareups this year from the Real IRA come because they do not support the peace process. Gerry Adams condemned the violence: "What happened last night is wrong. It’s reprehensible. And all of us who are leaders, and I include the Orange leadership, have a duty to look at how these disturbances occur."

That, too, is much better than in years past. There are still politicians who refuse to speak with Sinn Fein (which is pretty openly "the political wing" of the IRA). And there is a whopping amount of distrust on both sides for each other, because memories run long and the history is so deeply felt. But both sides are lurching towards the goal of peace in Northern Ireland.

I don't really have a point about the Irish situation itself. As I said, to make an honest assessment of what is going on would take a lot of background that we just don't have time for today. A lot of background. For instance, the date itself is even disagreed upon. The actual battle happened on July 1, 1690. But then the Julian calendar changed to the Gregorian calendar, and (due to this coming from Rome), some people adjusted the date by eleven days (much as most dates were adjusted when countries switched calendars -- which is why the Russians now celebrate their October Revolution in November), and some refused.

Like I said, it's complicated.

But my point here today is for an American audience. It is a cautionary point. We Americans have the luxury (so we think, at least) of ignoring our own history. And I'm not talking about the fact that we don't commemorate battle days. For many places in the world, "history" isn't "over" -- it is actively taking place today. And people who live there remember their past. If they were conquered at one point by another people, they remember it. If they have a grievance over land or national boundaries, the disagreement could be centuries old. Two ethnic or religious groups living in close proximity usually means a list of grievances that can be older than our country. And one more thing -- they remember America's actions in their region or country as well. If we helped their enemies in a recent war, they remember it. If we promised them military support and then backed out of the deal, they remember that, too. Our blatant policies of "do as we say, not as we do" strike them as unrealistic and unfair. And if our spies overthrew their government a generation ago, you can bet your bottom dollar they remember that quite clearly.

But I'm not just America-bashing here. America does try to help in many regions of the world, with differing amounts of success and defeat. But the hubris the American public affects towards our foreign policy at times is a little overwhelming. People in the rest of the world see our efforts as kind of bumbling and naive at times, because they scratch their heads and wonder: "America supports this military person who took control of his country in a coup, but they do not support that one. America supports this theocratic hardline government, but does not support the one next door. America is friends with this communist country, but refuses to speak to that one. America talks a great game about democracy, but never in places where a friendly (to America) despot is in power." And, more than anything else, people wonder why we don't take the time to learn the region's history and culture when the American public blithely pronounces their support or condemnation of events around the world.

Americans see ourselves as always doing good, and we tend to sweep anything which doesn't support this notion into our collective Memory Hole. Some people in the world, however, have longer memories than that. A lot longer. To some, celebrating James II's defeat by William of Orange on the banks of the Boyne River is a modern holiday, because their grudges go back even further. We'd all do well to remember this.


[For the record: The Battle of Gettysburg was on July 1-3, 1863. The British surrendered Yorktown on October 19, 1781. Iwo Jima's beaches were stormed on February 19, 1945; the American flag was raised on Mount Suribachi on February 23, but the battle raged on for another month. The Battle of the Bulge lasted from December 16, 1944 to January 25, 1945. D-Day happened on June 6, 1944. We dropped the "Little Boy" atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and the "Fat Man" bomb three days later on Nagasaki. Pearl Harbor -- "a day which will live in infamy" -- was December 7, 1941. "Victory in Europe Day" (or V-E Day) was May 8, 1945; and "Victory over Japan Day" (V-J Day) was August 15, 1945.]


-- Chris Weigant


One Comment on “Parade Season Reflections”

  1. [1] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    Ireland is a land haunted by its history. The south is also haunted that way -- October brings out Civil War reenactors here, waving confederate battle flags. In a sense, the Real IRA and other "splinter groups" are the KKK of Ireland. Yet Americans are unaware of any history but their own.

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