The Same Old Song
Many years ago when I was a mere primary school lad, I walked down the High Street in Glasgow with my mum to what she called the ‘Holy Shop.’ It stood on the western side of the street not far from Glasgow Cross and sold all manner of Catholic devotional items. From Mass cards to statues; from rosaries to crucifixes the ‘Holy Shop’ was the place to go. On this particular Saturday I stood looking around the shop as my mum gabbed quietly to the lady behind the counter. To my young eyes the huge array of religious images and artefacts covering the walls looked quite impressive. There was a stillness about the place, a calmness which gave it the air of a small church.
In the distance we could hear the thump of drums being carried on the summer air like far off artillery. I looked at my mum wondering if she’d call a halt to her conversation and move on before the ominous sound came closer but she seemed deaf to it. Before long, the thump of the drums merged with the shrill sounds of flutes and came nearer. Through the grill of the window the first bands of an Orange Parade could be discerned in their garishly coloured outfits. They seemed absorbed in what they were doing although some who followed on the pavement were less focused. As I watched, a few of the more drunken camp followers took time to spit on the window of the shop and bang the grill with their fists. There were the usual tired shouts of worn out slogans such as ‘Fuck the Pope’ but it was in truth more empty posturing than seriously threatening given the fact that the Police were seldom far away at these gatherings.
What struck me even as a young lad was the way the older generation accepted such behaviour as the norm. The woman behind the counter barely broke the conversation with my mother as this occurred outside and kept up the chatter as she stepped around the counter to quietly turn the closed sign and release the bolt on the Yale lock. We waited in the shop for twenty minutes or so till the parade had passed before heading out and back up the High Street towards home.
Growing up a Catholic in 1970's Glasgow meant dealing with such incidents and learning the best ways to keep safe during the marching season. You needed to know the geography of the place; where to avoid, where was safe and not take unnecessary risks. There were pubs, areas and even closes to be avoided at certain times of the year. The city centre was usually a neutral area but even there when the flutes and drums were sounding you would see crucifixes being tucked into shirts, zips going up to cover Celtic shirts and folk heading into stores or pubs till the procession had passed. Often you’d catch people’s eye and they’d shrug or shake their heads. A few would mutter under their breath about banning this sort of thing but still it went on year after year.
My last experience of it was in Glasgow Green a year or so back and it hadn’t really changed in character since I was a boy although the falling numbers suggests it’s on the wane. It wasn’t unusual to see 70,000 at the ‘big Walk’ in days past. They’re doing well to get 10,000 now. One thing which has given it something of a boost in recent years is the ongoing issue of Scottish Independence. Despite silly talk by some of the ‘Ulsterisation’ of Scottish politics there is no serious traction for the politics of bigotry among the vast majority of Scots. The rise of the SNP may have lead some on the Loyalist fringes to talk of Scotland using some of the same imagery they use when describing the situation in the six counties but there are huge differences in the two contexts. The constitutional question has undoubtedly given a temporary boost to Orangeism just as it seemed to be on a downward spiral to irrelevance.
As I watched the drinking and singing of cringe worthy songs last summer in the park it was clear that such gatherings have little to do with religion and much to do with a group seeking to find some sort of common identity. Most of the people I saw in Glasgow Green were unlikely to be at church the following day. The Church of Scotland’s own figures suggest just 137,000 Scots are regular attendees at Church with the average age being around 60. In 1956 1.3 Million attended weekly services. Scotland is an increasingly secular country and this has forced the main Christian churches to work together in face of a hostile environment where their values are increasingly challenged and even ridiculed.
The Church of Scotland once produced a report entitled ‘The Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality’ which was basically a racist diatribe demanding the halting of immigration from Ireland and the repatriation of many of the Irish already here. By ‘Irish’ of course they meant the Catholic Irish as the 25% of Irish coming from a Protestant background were it seemed their kinfolk. The church belatedly apologised for the report and it is in fairness a document of its time. The 1920s and 30s saw mass unemployment and poverty and in such times of stress for any society there is a tendency for some to turn on the ‘other’ the ‘strangers’ in their midst. Thus we saw overtly sectarian political parties such as the Scottish Protestant League win 23% of the popular vote at elections in Glasgow. In Edinburgh the Protestant Action Society fared even better with 31% of the vote but when 20,000 of their followers stoned and attacked a Catholic Eucharistic congress in the city in 1936 the Authorities cracked down hard on them and ordered the Police to take robust action. The Lord Provost of Edinburgh said with commendable fairness…
‘The sectarian spirit is a heady thing and some people seem to have lost their moral and mental balance over this subject. Every honest minded British citizen deplores Jew baiting in Nazi Germany, we want no baiting of Roman Catholics here. There is enough ill will in the world, even in our own country, without adding the fires of religious fanaticism to it.’
Watching the cavorting in the park last year it was hard not to conclude that it all had a hollow and empty feel to it, as if the mythology of it all was somehow as important as the concrete reality of post Brexit Britain unfolding around them. Some undoubtedly do hold prejudices against Catholicism and express them in the crudest of terms but to define yourself by what you hate is always self-defeating in the end. These parades are not benign expressions of cultural identity as drunkenness and violence are not uncommon and many ordinary citizens stay home to avoid them. They remain a curious left over from more intolerant times, an echo of days most of us have left behind.
The Orange Order does try to warn the wilder spirits to behave but it remains a fact that their displays interfere with the lives of many fellow citizens. They also offer a fig leaf or respectability to serious bigots who loiter on the fringes spreading their poison. They would of course deny that they are in any way a sectarian organisation but the view from the street tells a different story. They may not be wholly responsible for the hangers on who follow the parades but I've seen enough over the years from members of the order to convince me that they do have an issue with bigots in their ranks.
A friend of mine from Coatbridge commented wryly on the bad atmosphere in the town when a big parade took place there a few years ago. He said with no little irony that a town famous for the Time Capsule leisure facility had to put up with poor behaviour from many who appeared stuck in their own time capsule. Wouldn’t it be nice to hold a celebration all Scots can support and enjoy no matter what their ethnic, religious or cultural background?
The world has moved on so much since my childhood experience in the ‘Holy shop’ but for some it’s the same old song.