The Twelfth – Respecting Difference

Ben English, WIP Class 2012, reflects on the Twelfth of July

The Fourth of July is a day that is renowned not only in America, but around the world. It is a day where Americans celebrate their independence, their collective interests, and what makes them unique as a nation. As we drifted from event to event during this year’s festivities, it was amazing to see the sense of community and belonging ─ children playing, parents talking, and all in celebration of pride. As we walked to the host family barbeque, one of my friends from the North commented on their own anticipation and excitement for celebrations which would take place on 12th July in Belfast. Although I live just three hours from Belfast, I had little idea as to what he was referring to and began thinking whether he had previously mentioned an upcoming family birthday or graduation.  In truth, I was unaware of an enormously important part of this person’s culture and a key part of what makes people proud to be Northern Irish and British.

For anyone else uninformed like me, 12th July or ‘Glorious Twelfth’ celebrates the revolution  and victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic king James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. As I began to consult various internet resources to inform myself of what else this celebration entailed, I learned of the tradition of bonfires in many Protestant communities. These bonfires are generally seen as family-friendly community celebrations but there is often a controversial element too. When I consulted members of the class to learn more about this aspect, I was overwhelmed with a sense of uneasiness to learn that some bonfires include the burning of symbols of Irish nationalism, including the Irish tricolour. The sense of unease and to a certain extent anger that I felt at this time was something which I had never experienced before.  Being from the South, I had always been taught about what the Irish flag symbolizes, and the fact that someone would disrespect it in such a way left me frustrated, patriotic and curious to learn more about such a tradition. I wondered about the true aspect of ‘celebration’ that such an action entails. Moreover, I had learned a great deal about the idea of a shared future to date and was disheartened to wonder how it would ever prevail when the younger generation in the North still bare witness to the site of a burning tricolour at the top of a bonfire. I began to think that while the symbol of a burning tricolour might in fact, resemble a tradition for older people, it could only serve to further disenfranchise the younger generation from the idea of  peace and reconciliation.

Furthermore, I was more than satisfied that my thoughts were not biased or prejudice. I explained that if someone from the South were to burn the Union Jack, I would immediately try to disassociate myself from them.  Over discussions with some of the class around this tradition and many other aspects, I slowly came to the realization that the problem was not the action taking place, but my own understanding of it.  I am and always have been incredibly proud to be Irish. Whether it be telling almost every American where exactly Wicklow is located, to singing Amhran na Bhfian and celebrating St Patrick’s Day, the badge of Irishness is something I wear with pride. These are events that remind us of being Irish but celebrating them together is actually what makes us Irish.

Unfortunately, the Twelfth was marred by a minority of violent instances which of course, got widespread media coverage with the true message of the day perhaps forgotten in the process. That is, that identity is incredibly important and should be celebrated and nurtured. My initial reactions to this day were based on internet searches and articles, but if  WIP has thought me one thing when it comes to the North, it is that the best way to learn is from the people directly involved. In this sense, I learned that July 12th is a celebration, an event where families and communities come together for barbeques, parades and a collective realization of their identity ─ who they are and what makes them unique.

Upon reflection, I am still far from attending a bonfire and still disagree with the burning of a nation’s flag regardless of its origin. But to say that the Irish can have St Patrick’s Day, American’s July fourth, but to be intolerant of those whom we may disagree with is not only subjective but it flies in the face of the progress that has been made in the North to date.  For me, the future of progress does not mean that everybody has to accept each other’s identity and background, but we should definitely make every effort to respect it.

Respect is the essence of learning