July 12th New York – A Day of Mixed Emotions

Ben Mallon reflects on a week in New York, which was incredibly enlightening and engaging, but also, at times, frustrating.  He touches on an issue that is close to heart of the Program, and the particular journey of the Class of 2012.

This week found the WIP Class of 2012 in New York City. Not only was it an excellent opportunity for the Class to explore a new city, it was also the most important day in the Unionist calendar. The 12th July is an annual event that celebrates the victory of King William of Orange over King James II in 1690. No-one can diminish the importance and significance of the 12th July and what it symbolizes for the people of Northern Ireland. Hundreds of thousands of people in Ulster, including tourists and a growing number of Roman Catholics, took the time to watch the parades and festivities. The 12th has a very special place in the hearts of the people of Ulster- this must be recognized and accepted.

As the Washington Ireland Program is a cross-border organization, which has participants who would classify themselves as Unionists I expected to have at least a recognition of the cultural significance of this day. Alas, to my surprise I found that there was neither opportunity nor a simple mention of the importance of the 12th July to Unionists in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and throughout the Commonwealth.

To further frustrate matters, on the 12th the Class of 2012 visited the American Irish historical Society. I presumed that due to the cultural sensitivities of that day the society would put on a display of Unionism or the culture of Northern Ireland. Instead there were displays which I found incredibly insensitive- a display which supported the 1981 Hunger Strikes, the 1916 Irish Proclamation and various artifacts from the 1916 rising. In a historical context this would have been acceptable, but on a day which is to celebrate faith and culture, Unionists on the program found this entirely inappropriate.

In any other context the visit would have been intellectually stimulating and would have been a great experience. However, due to the insensitivities I found this incredibly frustrating.

However, having discussed the issues with WIP staff, Management Team and participants we all agreed that there was a need to highlight the importance of celebrating the Unionist tradition on the Washington Ireland Program.  This is a necessary step, so that our neighbours in the Irish Republic fully understand and respect this religious institution as a means of acceptance of other cultures and beliefs. Through these future discussions, I would hope that this issue doesn’t need to be raised again and those on next year’s program can celebrate the ‘Glorious Twelfth’.

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One thought on “July 12th New York – A Day of Mixed Emotions

  1. Just a few comments that I’ll also gladly discuss with you in person.

    Firstly, throughout your piece you talk of the twelfth’s significance for the people of Ulster and Northern Ireland. On this point I’d like to kindly remind you that you speak only for one section of the community in this respect.

    To my understanding, the July 12th celebrations mainly consist of a bonfire of the 11th July (which traditionally includes the customary burning of the Irish tricolour) and the Orange Order march the following day. The Orange Order are not just an exclusively Protestant organisation but they are an anti-Catholic organisation, which despite your assertions, makes the 12th an exclusively Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist celebration.

    Now that’s not to in anyway condemn or slate those who do celebrate the 12th as many, from my understanding, tend to simply enjoy the craic and buzz that goes with the festivities without paying particular heed to those who wouldn’t want to stand with them in celebration. I have absolutely no problem with that.

    In addition, one thing that I totally agree with from your piece was your point that it was insensitive for us to have visited the American Irish Historical Society that day. I remember walking around that building thinking about how annoyed I would have been had I been in your shoes.

    Having said that, I do feel that it’s slightly presumptuous of you to have expected the program to make a fuss about the 12th without a prior request from those who celebrate it. After all, many of those who you are asking to acknowledge it are the same people whose flags are burnt on the night of the 11th.

    By all means, suggest an activity or discussion relating to the 12th to help others (particularly me!) in the group understand further the nature of the celebration, but I certainly don’t feel that I should be made feel like I have to acknowledge an event that makes me feel excluded on account of my religious background.

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