There are few days when it would be good to be in Belfast. But July 12, last Friday is one. The big drums, the bands, the uniforms, the street theatre, the celebration and a community proud of its existence, survival but ever fearful of its future. OK part of the tradition is a bit of street violence, but as we football supporters know that can easily be avoided, and its always exciting to watch.
But July 12 is not just a celebration of the Battle of the Boyne when the Protestant William defeated the Catholic James and guaranteed the continuation of the Scots-Irish Plantation. It is a continual reminder of the blood sacrifice Ulster made in the First War. Not least at the Battle of the Somme.
The battle of the Somme started on July 1, 1916. Under the previous calendar the day that the battle of the Boyne was celebrated. Ulster had enthusiastically responded to Kitchener’s call. The men from the six counties were desperate to show their loyalty to King and Empire. Already there was talk of Ireland leaving the Empire. But Protestant Ulster had vowed to fight and be right rather than foreswear the Union Jack.
A few months before the Battle of the Somme in 1916 the Nationalists in the Easter Rising in Dublin had made the blood sacrifice which would eventually lead to Irish independence.
When the call went up on the first day of the Somme. Ulster’s regiments some wearing the Orange sash, many wearing an orange ribbon went over the top. One of the Ulster commanders stood up on the trench parapet, proud in his sash ,and called “Come on Boys, No Surrender”. The eternal call of Ulster Protestants when faced with a seemingly endless sea of Green and Popery.
Many of those boys from the Shanklin and the other mean street of West Belfast went into battle against the German positions shouting “F*** the Fenians”. It was ridiculous, it was tragic and if you like these things(which I do) wonderful. 15000 men of the 36th Ulster Division went over the top that July morning. 5500 were casualties by the end of the day. A fraction of the 57000 the British Army lost on that bloody page. But on that day the Province had sealed its destiny with the blood of its young men.
As one wrote “The casualty lists mean the Union(with Britain) is sealed with blood. They stand for the ultimate test of Ulster’s loyalty, a blood sacrifice to match any made by Irish Nationalism”. But exaggeration and hyperbole are the stuff of all propaganda. When writing of the tragedy of that day when so many of Ulster’s families paid the ultimate price another wrote.
“The same feeling which inspired Cromwell’s Ironsides animated all ranks(at the Somme) and gave them an unconquerable spirit.. they feared God and nothing else.No Surrender was on the lips of those gallant fellows as they rushed into the valley of death”.
A blood sacrifice seals and confirms the history and destiny of many (all) nations. The battle of the Somme celebrated in Belfast last weekend was Ulster’s. Next year we celebrate the centenary of the beginning of the War to end Wars. Last weekend while the drums beat in Belfast, Barnes held its annual fair. I bought some chutney and cakes.