Category: Archive

A View North If it’s July, it must be Mr. Hyde

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The Orange parades in Ulster have a kind of Jekyll and Hyde character. Dr. Jekyll is the charming folksy festival, the roasting of the spuds in the bonfire on the 11th night, the bands and bright banners, the ice cream vendors along the road. Mr. Hyde is the drunken mob spewing bigotry, and throwing petrol bombs at isolated Catholic homes. They coexist within the same tradition and those of us from Ulster who were brought up in a mixed (Protestant-Catholic) family have experienced both.

My grandmother was a Catholic from Rostrevor who at the beginning of the 20th Century married a Portadown Protestant. She "lapsed," as they say, and reared her first six children as Protestants, though I don’t think any of my aunts and uncles were very serious about practicing their religion. My father was the last born. He came along in 1922, a few years after my grandfather came back from the front. He was a post-war baby — that is, World War I. My grandmother had him in the Mater, where, according to family legend, the nuns baptized him a Catholic. So his mother felt obliged to raise him as one. That’s when the family woes began.

The Hollands lived on Everton Street between the Crumlin and Oldpark Roads, a staunchly loyalist area. Everything was dandy for my father, the little Fenian, during most of the year. But come July things changed. His neighbors suddenly regarded him differently. The loyalist Hyde was emerging to the beat of the Lambeg drum. My father was constantly picked on, threatened and beaten up.

Two of his older brothers, Stanly and Tom, were able to handle themselves and did their best to protect him. On one occasion, Stanly chased a local bigot into his own house, dragged him out and gave him a thumping. But it got so bad that when July came, my grandmother sent my father down to the old farm where she was raised near Rostrevor to stay with his relatives until the marching season was finished. I have an old photograph of my father as a boy, standing by a loose stone wall in a field looking into the distance, in exile from the Orange Mr. Hyde.

Later, in order to defend himself, he took up boxing. He eventually became a professional fighter and for a while an Ulster champion. In that he was following a good old working-class Belfast tradition — it always was a city where you had to be handy with your fists.

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Many years later, when he was married my father moved to the Highfield housing estate at the top of the Ballygomartin Road, not far from the Woodvale and Shankill areas. It was one of the first big housing developments designed to accommodate those moving out of the older working-class areas closer to the city center. Highfield took the people who had once lived in the lower Shankill, where the old slums were being pulled down. Our new house was on a street at the very top of the estate, right where it merged with the lower slopes of the Divis Mountain.

It was buffeted by wind and rain as storms blew over the mountain. It was a bleak, treeless place without shelter. I chiefly remember the journey to the one row of shops at the other end of the estate, with the rain pelting down and the gardens turning to mud. I also remember the local loyalist lads getting ready for the 12th. After an earlier incident when I was beaten up, my mother always made sure I was at my granny’s during the July days. Unlike my father, I did noy respond to my beating by becoming a professional fighter. I moved into my granny’s instead.

On the 11th night, the yobs came to throw stones at my parents’ house, accompanied by the usual roars of sectarian abuse. My father was not at home when it happened, which was just as well, as he would have come out fighting. My mother soon went in search of another home, and found one in Andersonstown, a Catholic estate at the top of the Falls Road, thanks to Johnny McQuade, a local loyalist politician whom my father had fought and knocked out years before when McQuade had been a boxer. McQuade went on the join the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Protestant Unionist Party and then the Democratic Unionist Party. However, my mother always has a kind word for him, thanks to his efforts on her behalf back in the 1950s.

In a way, McQuade was a representative of the same Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde phenomenon. His public pronouncements were hard-line and intolerant, but his dealings with individual Catholics such as my mother were courteous and helpful.

In fact, the troubles we experienced in Highfield around the 12th have to be balanced by the experience I had when I moved to live with my grandmother, in a mixed area, where Catholics and Protestants were neighbors in fairly equal numbers. On our street I do not recall any sectarian incidents. Catholics took part in building the bonfire at the foot of the street, and gathered around it on the 11th night for the ritual of roasting the spuds. The only problem I remember was when boys from another street raided our stack of wood and tried to steal it for their bonfire.

My uncle Tom (a Protestant) used to take me on a tour of the bonfires on the 11th night, down to Sandy Row and up the Shankill. I must confess I never felt threatened when I was there. I enjoyed the 12th as a spectacle.

The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde transformation has probably intensified in recent years thanks to the growing insecurity of the loyalist community in the North. The confident blustering on display on the 12th actually conceals a deep-seated fear as Catholics grow in numbers and influence in the North, impinging politically, economically, and socially, as well as territorially on areas once dominated by Protestants. That has provoked a backlash — seen at its most brutal in the murderous attacks that occur every July on vulnerable Catholics.

As the North changes, the question of what role the Orange Order has to play in the new society that is emerging has to be asked. Will it become the Mr. Hyde of bigotry or the Dr. Jekyll of folksiness, a festival of stubborn opposition to change or one that celebrates an Ulster tradition that all can enjoy? On the answer to that question hangs the fate of the Orange Order.

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