'Tis the Season to March in Belfast

To an outsider, even a sympathetic one, Northern Ireland feels strange at the height of the marching season. The zenith comes on July 12, when tens of thousands of Protestant men, wearing sober suits, bowler hats and orange sashes, parade through the streets to celebrate the Battle of the Boyne.

That was the victory, in central Ireland, of a Dutch Protestant king, William of Orange, over a Catholic English monarch, James II, in 1690. In these commemorations, Christianity and newer forms of sacred history are fused. Indeed, there is an old joke about a tourist, caught up in an Orange parade, who shyly enquires who King William was. “Read the Bible!” a marcher retorts.

As a Frenchman who teaches and researches Irish history, I know which holy texts the Orangeman had in mind: the historical and semi-historical episodes that have become part of the sacred mythology of Ireland’s rival tribes.

But I still find the 12th an odd experience. After the din of flutes, bagpipes and giant drums, bonfires transform Belfast into a strange city of light.

Two days later, a quieter celebration takes place in Belfast. In a pub called Kelly’s Cellars, supporters of the Irish Republican cause mark Bastille Day, seeking to fuse their political movement with that of revolutionary France. Wine and cheese are served, and a group of men — tippling Guinness rather than Beaujolais — sing the Marseillaise. In a surreal touch, bits of red, white and blue bunting — used two days previously to celebrate Britishness and the Union Flag — are recycled to recall the French tricolor.

The history lessons proclaimed by the Bastille festivities are a bit more subtle than those of the indignant Orangeman. On the pub’s walls, there is a mural that tells a significant story. It features Wolfe Tone and Henry McCracken — leaders of an Irish uprising in 1798, and both Protestants, as it happens — and a French flag crossed with an Irish banner, surrounded by France’s revolutionary slogan. What this recalls is the French force that landed in Ireland and helped the rebellion until the Franco-Irish cause was crushed by the British crown.

All true enough. Still, flattered as I am by this attachment to my country, I have to admit that Bastille Day in Belfast has little to do with France — just as Orange parades are remote from the Dutch dynasty of that name. Both events reveal more about Northern Ireland in the 21st century than they do about other countries and epochs. They tell us that although violence has largely ended, and Catholics and Protestants grumpily share power, they are still deeply divided — and keen to use any historical symbol to prove how different they are from one another.

It would be nice to believe that the determination of a few history buffs to celebrate Bastille Day marked a desire to break the cycle of religious violence — after all, the French Revolution was anticlerical. But most of the time, the only thing that unites Northern Ireland’s competing versions of the past, and their exponents, is a determination to exclude any real sense of shared memory.

Even those institutions that could help the communities form a common narrative are missing opportunities. Take a new section at the Ulster Museum. The events of 1914-1918 are shown on facing walls: One depicts World War I, remembered by Ulster Protestants as a time of huge sacrifice for Britain, and another the anti-British rising in Dublin of 1916. Wouldn’t it be better to create a single panel, incorporating all the awkward details — like the fact that many Catholics fought for Britain?

The frustrating thing, especially to an interested outsider, is that Northern Irish Protestants and Northern Irish Catholics do have a common history. They have all undergone a unique sort of suffering, the kind that goes with urban war in a small, introverted place where everybody has some connection to victims and perpetrators of violence.

One day, shared suffering could create a better social glue than any artificial links with other places or centuries. Because of its raw wounds, Northern Ireland really is different from Ireland or Britain. A Catholic from West Belfast and a Protestant from East Belfast really do understand one another at a level that outsiders cannot grasp.

If it ever takes hold, a common understanding of the past could open up the space for entirely new ideas about the future. But in the marching season, with the sound of drums vibrating in the air, such an understanding feels far away.

Pierre Ranger, a teaching assistant in the history department of Queen’s University Belfast.