The Blanket

Understanding Culture
An ongoing dialogue with Sean Smyth

Billy Mitchell

Sean Smyth’s article Rose Tinted Culture brought to mind the following lines of Rabbie Burns - “O wad some power the giftie gie us, tae see ourselves as ithers see us”.

All too often we see ourselves and our experience of culture through rose tinted glasses and it does no harm for us to look at how others view us and our cultural experiences. As we grow older we tend to look back on what we feel were the halcyon days of wine and roses, forgetting that at times the wine was bitter and the roses had thorns.

If my response to Sean (cf., Culture of Hate? ) focused too much on the positive side of the cultural experiences of my community, that was me remembering selectively the days of wine and roses. But it was also a genuine expression of my own current cultural experiences and preferences. Yes, there is a dark side to culture and to cultural expression, and I have experienced that too. But it would be wrong to imply that those dark experiences were the sum total of my cultural experiences. They were not. So it is with the cultural experiences of the wider unionist community. The positive experiences far outnumber the negative, and once again I will dwell on what I believe are the positive aspects of cultural activities enjoyed within the unionist community.

No cultural activity is more associated with the unionist-Orange community than lambeg drumming. John Nixon recalls that his early memories of lambeg drumming was of men beating out “ litanies of defiance, anger and hate”, and Roy Arbuckle recalls republicans in Waterford “who were not too happy that we were using the Lambeg drum…(which)…to them was a symbol of British ' Imperialism’.” Can there really be a positive side to fifing and drumming?

It must be said that while the lambeg drum is more prominent within the Orange community it has traditionally been played by both communities. As Paul Marshall has pointed out in The Lambeg Drum of Ireland “Throughout history the Lambeg was used by both the Orange and Green traditions with Hibernian and Orange members having largely the same repertoire. Naturally there was politically oriented music on either side as well, but there was a large pool of common ground”. Not only was there a pool of common ground, many a Hibernian drum has been disguised as an Orange drum and carried on the Twelfth parade. I had an uncle who drummed all his days and was always sure that if he bust a (drum) head coming up to the Twelfth there would be an AOH drum available for him to beat on the big day, and vice versa.

As a cultural activity, drumming was common to both traditional communities and need not be identified as an activity that is driven by hatred. The vast majority of fifers and drummers are more interested in the craft of building and playing the instrument than they are in beating out messages of hatred. While there are no tunes as such in lambeg drumming the rhythm of the beat, together with the shrill tones of the fife, produces a unique musical sound. It is true that the lambeg sends out a highly irritating signal to those with sensitive eardrums, and for many the noise appears to be a meaningless blatter of cane on skin. But listen to Willie Drennan on the “wee lambeg” playing in time with the highland pipes and trombone on “The Jolly Beggarman” or the Galgorm Parks Fife and Drum Group playing “One Hundred Pipers” or the “Buglers Hornpipe” and you might just begin to appreciate that there is a lot more to lambeg drumming than beating out a litany of defiance and anger.

I remember a few years back a republican friend of mine looking with unbelief as a couple of Irish dancers danced in time with Roy Arbuckle playing the lambeg. He was even more amazed when he listened to the lambeg and bodhran being accompanied by the Uilleann pipes, the Scottish small pipes and the Highland bagpipes. Again, I am putting across the positive side of a cultural activity enjoyed within the unionist community. During a conversation with Sean he suggested that unionists needed to highlight more this positive side of culture. While this is true - and I believe that groups such as the “Ulster-Scots Folk Orchestra” and the “Galgorm Parks Fife and Drum Group” are trying to do just that - understanding and respect for cultural activities such as lambeg drumming will only come about when nationalists and unionists engage both in cultural dialogue and shared activities.

The “Different Drums of Ireland” band, which includes lambeg and bodhran as well as a varity of other instruments, and which involves musicians from both traditions, is an example of how this can be done. Rina Schiller’s book, “The Lambeg and the Bodhran” is a worthy read for those interested in learning more about the traditional drums of Ireland.

Sean mentions the blood and thunder flute bands which, like the fifers and drummers of the lambeg community, get a bad name as the conveyers of hatred. Many years ago I was a member of one of the first generation of blood and thunder flute bands. And, yes, we did “let it rip” when we passed an area like Seaforde Street or a Catholic chapel; but that was tame compared to the rise in decibels produced by both drummers and flautists when we passed another loyalist band - the object was to blow the other band off the road. When the the “devils buttermilk” and the flow of adrenalin mixed it was a matter of the blood being up and the thunder being directed indiscriminately at whoever had the most sensitive ears.

The swagger of the flautists, the swirl of the mace, the pounding of the bass drum and the thunder of the double forties is an intimidating spectacle - especially if you feel that you are the target of the noise - and that is something that marching bands need to address. Organisations like the Ulster Bands Association are endeavouring to do just that. Indeed one of the reasons which the Association gives for its formation was “the lack of public and political support” for the marching bands tradition. The Association is not linked to any of the Loyal Orders or to any political party and is simply seeking to promote the cultural identity of the marching bands and to enhance the public perception and image of the bands.

This is not to say that they are going to water down their unionist identity or their rejection of Irish Republicanism, but simply that they are intent on promoting and encouraging the positive elements of the marching bands. The Association is also seeking to engage in youth development initiatives and to encourage and promote musical excellence. There are positive things happening within the loyalist community that need to be encouraged and supported for, as the Association points out, “Only when respect and equality is afforded to our culture will parades once again be enjoyed for the carnival events that they are, by everyone irrespective of creed”.

Loyalists do need to address those aspects of their cultural activities that generate anger and cause offence, and I know from my own interaction with loyalists who are involved with marching bands, lambeg drumming and the Apprentice Boys Order that there are a number of positive initiatives being developed aimed at just that. However, strict Codes of Conduct and a dedication to the development of band discipline and musical ability, will not change the minds of those who take offence at a band or a drumming group simply because they happen to be loyalists or Protestants. Objecting to a band because of the political or religious background of its members is something very different to objecting to it because it behaves badly while on parade. Raw anti-unionist prejudice cannot be addressed by the unionist community, that is something that those who are prejudiced must address themselves. Putting it bluntly, objecting to a band simply because of the religious make-up of its members is pure sectarianism.

Dialogue such as that which Sean Smyth and myself are engaged in, and outlets such as The Blanket and The Other View which encourage and facilitate it, needs to be replicated within and across our divided communities. Only then will we begin to understand and respect each others cultural identity and cultural expressions.





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Our task must be to free widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.
- Albert Einstein

Index: Current Articles

5 September 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Why Doesn't Britain Leave
Sandy Boyer


Che Guevara

Anthony McIntyre


Perfecting the Violence of Curfew
Sam Bahour


Understanding Culture
Billy Mitchell


Brian Mór


Brian Mór


Brian Mór


2 September 2002


I See Dead People

Anthony McIntyre


Faith & Politics
Billy Mitchell


Rose Tinted Culture
Sean Smyth




The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices