It is Old But it is Beautiful

Last week saw me indulge in my usual mid-July trip back home to Northern Ireland, a trip home that I have been doing each year since leaving Northern Ireland some 11 years ago and I hope to be able to continue to do so for as often as is physically and financially possible.

Of course there is a chance in the future when it may not be possible to go home at this time of year – personal situations can change at any moment - and perhaps I will even miss the occasional Christmas time with my family, but up until now, I’ve managed to get home for at least these two occasions every year.

And long may it continue.

For you see, the 12th July is a very important time for my father’s side of the family – a time when we all get together and celebrate that most traditional of events in our calendar, a time when the family get’s a bit carried away with things, dancing, singing, drinking, playing music, just generally Having a Good Time.

So what’s the special occasion that falls on the 12th July every year back in Northern Ireland every year that is so important to my family and me?

You’ve maybe guessed it already but yes, every 12th July I go home to celebrate….

My Father’s Birthday.

A great time had by all and a good excuse for that side of my family to get together and have a wee party. The hundreds of thousands who join in all around Northern Ireland and beyond are of course more than welcome to join in the celebrations and boy do they!

For you see, the 12th July sees the carnival of bands, lodges, men, women, children, pensioners, taking place at various locations throughout Northern Ireland as well as the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Canada, USA, Australia, and many other far flung places.

This year was no exception.

Arriving on a flight from Amsterdam early afternoon Tuesday 11th, into Belfast International Airport (Aldegrove – not the newly renamed George Best Belfast City airport), I was picked up by my Mum and Stepfather and whisked off for a nice lunch in the afternoon sun with Nana in the garden of my mother’s.

The wine flowed almost as much as the conversation and we were soon to be joined by my brother and his fiancĂ© along with their dote of a baby boy who has just learnt to walk. As I played with him in the back garden, I couldn’t help but see the similarity between him and his father walking home after a session on the drink, as he continually wobbled and fell over.

Later on that night, long after we said goodbye to Nana, the baby and his mother, My mum Stepfather, my brother and I headed up the road to see the other brother and admire the work that he has been doing on his newly purchased home.

How he lives there is beyond me. Not content with tackling the job on a room-by-room basis, this guy has gone for the let’s-do-everything-at-once-method.

Walls have been knocked down, windows blocked off, windows created, garden dug up, radiator installed in the attic to protect his books, garden shed is being built, and water mains have been extended out to the garage.

It is the only house you wipe your feet AFTER you leave.

It’s a helluva job he’s undertaken, but fair play to him, he is getting and will get there. Forgoing the option to go visit the many bonfires that they light on the eve of my father’s birthday, we stayed in my brother’s house, sitting on old chairs, buckets, basically anything we could find amongst the mess (after dusting it down) and had a great wee time. More drinks flowed and the back door of the house was more like the revolving door of a busy hotel foyer as people came and went.

At around 04:00 in the morning, we called time on the evening’s activities; the following day, my father’s birthday, if anything like the previous years was after all to be a busy one.

The following day, woken up by my mother at 09:00, I got out of bed in a panic. This was the latest I had ever woken up on the morning of My Father’s Birthday. Springing into the bathroom, I take care of the “3 S’s” in record time and then rushed downstairs to put on my suit, freshly ironed by my stepfather.

It is, after all, very important to look my best at My Father’s Birthday.

For the first time in history my youngest brother was ready and patiently waiting for me. Folks, this goes to illustrate just how late I was. He NEVER has to wait on me.

Suited and booted, and grabbing a piece of toast on the way through my mum’s kitchen, we rushed to the top of the town to join in with the rest of the festivities in the hope that we weren’t late.

As we arrived at the Orange Hall at Ballyclare, I was greeted by the smiling face of the man of the moment, My Father. After (manly) hugs and kisses were exchanged, as well as a heart-felt ‘Happy Birthday’ we started to prepare for the occasion.

Dues were paid to the secretary, orange sashes were adorned with Sweet William flowers, sashes were carefully pinned to suit jackets and white gloves were put on. Silent prayers were offered in the hope that the somewhat overcast skies wouldn’t burst, soaking us as we set off for our parade through our town. On this occasion we needn’t have worried. The weather turned out just fine.

God’s, as the saying goes, a Prod.

Following the banner of our lodge looking resplendent with King William of Orange on one side and the portrait of my father’s departed brother looking down on proceedings on the other side, we proudly paraded through the town to the buses that would take us all to the main party, in a town called Randalstown, where we would be joined by thousands of others for the main parade.

We got down to the bus station and boarded the buses. On the bus that we travelled on, the passengers started to sing “Happy Birthday.” Everyone was in fine spirits.

Upon arriving in Randalstown and after a bit of organisation not to mention the obligatory hanging around, the parade of tens of thousands of lodges, flag-bearers, string-carriers, flute bands, accordion bands, pipe bands, brass bands, silver bands, Lambeg drums all began following a route through the town which would give the tens of thousands of spectators a chance to catch a glimpse of the parade.

We waved at friends, family, ex-school chums, ex-work associates, colleagues, football chums, who had all come out to show their support and join in the celebrations, continually looking out for good looking girls in the crowd. Well at least I was – you gotta do something to pass the time of day when you walk for the best part of ten miles in a day, don’t you?

Arriving at our destination, a field on the outskirts of town, we made a bee line for one of the many fish and chip vans for some much needed sustenance before settling in for the next couple of hours to catch up with old friends and family, or listened to the preachers, or went shopping amongst the many stalls offering many bargains to part with our hard-earned money.

Alas, there were no beer tents. This is, after all, not Belgium, where beer tents are erected at the drop of the hat and considering the lodge that I am a member of is a temperance lodge, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to be seen necking a few cold beers. No matter how much in need of them I may have been.

Some of the braver amongst us headed back into town for a drink but with, rather strangely, only one bar deciding to open its doors on the occasion, I decided there wasn’t much point in going to join in with the undoubted scrum that would be going on down there.

So a lazy afternoon was spent in the sunny afternoon, before gathering up and beginning our return trip. With the weather improving, the crowds had swelled in size giving me all the more opportunity to “scout for talent” although I must confess; there was not a lot on show that day!

Once our buses finally arrived to take us back to Ballyclare, we returned home and paraded once more through the town. Some of the spectators had obviously been indulging in one or two many bevies in the afternoon and spirits had been raised higher but all in all, everyone was having a good time.

Children joined their proud father’s for the homecoming parade including my nephew and we returned to the hall where a rendition of “God Save The Queen” was respectfully performed by our flute band and observed by the lodge members and the spectators.

As we dismissed we shook hands with each other, discussed the events of the day with our brethren and family.

“So that’s it for another year” was uttered on more than one occasion with a wry smile as we all wished each other a good evening.

Our evening was to involve going to a Chinese restaurant for a birthday meal for my father. A table of 8 was booked for Daddy and his wife, my brothers and their girlfriends and my girlfriend and I. Needless to say the seat beside me was empty.

My embarrassment was further compounded when the waitress came over and asked me if I was waiting for somebody else to join us. *sigh* The meal ensured lots of wine flowed and then we headed off to the local for the karaoke / disco / pool evening they had organised to spend the next few hours enjoying the party.

It was here that I gave my father his birthday present – me singing “Mack the Knife” and “Happy Birthday” (ably assisted by the customers in the pub).

Afterwards, we said our goodbyes and headed off into the night.

“Same time next year?” my father asked me as he gave me another hug.

“You’d better believe it!” I replied.


I would like to say at no stage were Catholics, antagonised, victimised, burnt at the stake, beheaded, ostracised, demonised or any other form of ‘-isation’.

Don’t believe all you see on the TV.

“Sure it is old but it is beautiful…”

Cheers my friends.

12th July 2006