On 17 March 1762, some Irish-born soldiers serving in the British Army in the American colonies formed ranks and paraded to church in New York in honour of St Patrick. They probably had drums, banners and flutes (or fifes). It is unlikely that they had Mardi Gras costumes or floats and they certainly had no tricolour flags.
That was the first recorded St Patrick’s Day Parade.
Two-hundred and fifty years later in Armagh last evening (17 March), more than a thousand young men of military age – and some young women too – formed ranks and marched through the ecclesiastical city of Patrick to the brattle of drums and the sound of flutes. They played Irish jigs and traditional military airs including Tipperary and Killaloe. Most of them were dressed in military-type band uniforms.
A total of 40 guest bands joined the Cormeen Rising Sons of William Flute Band in the annual St Patrick's Day Parade which until now was held in the small village of Killylea, about seven miles from Armagh City.
To accommodate the growth of the event and stake a claim to the patron saint shared by all Christians in Ireland, this year the band changed the venue to their local city. The parade application was considered and approved by the independent Parades Commission, subject to certain conditions with which the bands readily agree to comply.
Politicians from the national/republican tradition warned of serious trouble if the parade went ahead. They condemned it as provocative and seemed to imply that the Cormeen Sons should have stayed in their Border village where their annual parade in celebration of St Patrick has been studiously ignored for years.
Yet a few hours ago in Armagh, I saw families and band enthusiasts enjoying a traditional St Patrick's Day band parade that is now established as the first event in a busy season of events involving hundreds of bands and thousands of band members.
There were no tricolours, of course, but that does not make this any less an Irish tradition. Indeed, the spectators who lined much of the route, especially around the spectacular Mall at the heart of the city, were only waving St Patrick's Cross flags.
The event passed off peacefully and well before the 10.30pm deadline imposed by the Parades Commission.The world didn't end and there were no riots or confrontations. The peace process held and those present had a great evening out.
I do not come from the Loyalist tradition, but over recent years I have learned much about the huge importance of marching bands for Ulster Protestants. My book, Blood & Thunder: Inside an Ulster Protestant Band (http://www.mercierpress.ie/Blood_And_Thunder_Inside_an_Ulster_Protestant_Band/504/) tells the story of a year I spent with the Castlederg Young Loyalist Flute Band. Last night, I met some of those young Castlederg bandsmen who had come along to enjoy the parade, even though they weren’t taking part this year (because of a wedding). It was good to enjoy a bit of banter with them and see that they are clearly excited by the start of a new band parading season.
Meanwhile, I was hugely impressed by the success of last night’s celebration in Armagh; by the way that the band and the local Armagh Bands Forum handled the issue; by their willingness to talk and engage with representatives from the other tradition that the Orange and other loyal institutions won’t countenance; by their concern for their ancient ecclesiastical city and community; by their insistence that they will not be discounted from claiming their own Irish heritage.
The peace process was enhanced, not damaged, by this year’s St Patrick’s Day Parade hosted by the Cormeen Rising Sons of William. Last night, thousands of Protestants – many of whom openly said they had not been to a parade for some time – celebrated their stake in Ireland and its cultural heritage by showcasing their tradition of military-style marching bands.
They found a reason to be proud to be Irish according to their own Ulster Protestant traditions and a magnificent occasion to express it inthe way to know best. We should all be grateful for that.