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Poetic reflections on a Belfast Twelfth

Edward Stevenson, Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, taking a '#Twelfthie' in Bessbrook

"Well, Orange Day or whatever they call it is nearly over... a procession of the Loyal Orange Lodges... mainly intended to keep up the Protestant and Unionist ascendancy and therefore a considerable political force. Each lodge was preceded by its banner, a big silk picture the size of a sheet held up on two poles, and also by a band. Then the members walked in slouching fashion – you can't call it marching... every face wore the same "taking-himself-seriously" expression...every kind of ugliness not once but ten-fold...vacant, vicious, vulpine, vulturous."

As a newly-arrived Queen's librarian in 1951 the then unpublished Philip Larkin took an instant scunner to Belfast, Ulster, people and customs. True, his letters to his (long time, tolerated rather than loved) girlfriend Monica gave the back of his hand to Ireland in general. And Belfast, of course, as well as being wet, uncultured and dull, was to the hyper-English Larkin distinctly, repulsively Irish. "First day in Ireland...brief walk into Belfast, I'm already fed up with the Irish male face (craggy, drink-flushed) and the Irish female face (bad-teethed, pinkly powdered, with a diamante lizard on the lapel)."

Eleventh Night appealed more than the Twelfth's 'stupefying hypocrisy, Civil and Religious Liberty much repeated'. Bonfires and Sandy Row were "much more thrilling (Larkin's italics); the thick waves of Guinness, War Horse tobacco, and vinegared chips, the dancing crowds and the pairs and trios of gum-chewing young girls roaming about wearing paper hats stamped "No surrender, Not an inch." Police stood about uneasily in their raincapes..."

He boggled, or professed to, at the sights of the north, ridiculed middle-class pretensions and working-class lack of style. But Dublin's literary set appealed as little. "Priest-ridden, crooked little lice" arguably out-uglied the "sly, drivelling, daft, narrow, knobby" Orangemen. Larkin the desperately serious poet was nipped by particular little lice; the well-known publisher and his advisers who took their time deciding against a batch of poems. A St Patrick's Day in Dublin trundled past: "no drink sold, and a dreary procession of biscuit wagons, Guinness wagons, tinned vegetable wagons, Electricity Board wagons – all the paraphernalia of a little Republic."

Lovely letter-writer, Larkin (Letters to Monica, edited by Anthony Thwaite, 2010). Misery that he was to himself and the unfortunate Monica Jones, he could be genuinely funny, also acute on the politics he mostly blanked. Including partition: "There was a wagon belonging to the Anti-Partition League, with four little chaps being clubbed steadily by six RUC boys, but though this was being paralleled exactly at the time in Derry nobody apparently paid it much attention".

For all its curious sheet-sized banners with their `strange symbolic scenes' one Twelfth was enough for him: "I shall not see it again." Nor he did, though halfway through his four and a bit years in Queen's he stumbled on a `little lodge marching through the country lanes with banner, band and bowler hats.' Did he find it harmless and quaint? ``I should think all the roman catholics must pray fervently for rain on these days, the processions must be so irritating."

Here we are 60 years on, Larkin's post-war, painfully poor and bedraggled Ireland transformed, if not beautifully or evenly or equally, Protestant Unionist Ascendancy decidedly departed. The lead-in to this year's Twelfth has had its ritual sputter of bonfire danger, nasty graffiti, unpleasant flag displays. The Orange Order, fresh from opening lavishly-funded premises to respectful visitors with speech-making about explaining their tradition, maintained a central practice by failing to denounce paramilitary flags hoisted alongside this year's Nazi tributes. Which, like unionist politicians, they did stir themselves to disown.

It is all of five years since UDA leader Jackie McDonald said the Orange should no longer expect to walk past protesting nationalists (though Sinn Fein had 'manipulated' disputed parades). It's three years since McDonald said he 'hated' the Twelfth for causing 'trouble', partly unleashed by end of march drunkenness. Paramilitary disintegration since then sees flags erected now, by the look of them, as much to declare local supremacy over other factions as over the risen 'Taigs'. Not even a McDonald-level loyalist leader remains to make big statements.

It was left to a football club coach to remove the Confederacy flag hoisted outside a black family's home. Civic decency filled in for political and institutional gumption.

But Philip Larkin would have thrilled to the Chobham Street bonfire.

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