Here’s what I have learned so far. This is a combination of information gleaned from family, people I have met, the speakers on our Road Scholar tour and BBC History, my ultimate authority. All the wrong bits, of course, are strictly my own.
Way back in the seventeenth century, King James II of England was a Roman Catholic king in a Protestant country.
Now that was bad enough, but in addition to going against the whole Church of England (which he was supposed to be the Defender Of), James II wanted to give all his Catholic buddies equal rights. He promoted Catholics wherever he could. He even made the Anglican priests preach tolerance from the pulpit. Which they didn’t actually tolerate very well, what with feeling stabbed in the back and all.
You see, James II had converted to Catholicism as an adult, and like many converts, went completely overboard in his enthusiasm.
Now, as happens on the other side when the comfortable majority is made uncomfortable, the Protestants in England didn’t like any of that. When James had a baby boy in 1688 (who would eventually become king in his turn), they thought, “Holy cats! We’re going to be stuck with Catholics forever unless we do something quick!”
So they appealed to King William III of Holland for help. They picked him because he was married to Mary, who happened to be James’ oldest daughter, back from when he was a Protestant. So William III had all the right qualifications: he was Protestant AND he had a wife with a direct line to the English throne – who was also Protestant – AND he was willing to help out.
So William III invaded England – and at that point the unpopular James’ entire army and navy completely deserted him. James had no choice but to run, and William and Mary were declared King and Queen.
But James didn’t give up right away. He got his French (Catholic) friends to give him an army, and took the army to Ireland, which he planned to use as a base from which to reconquer England. William heard of it first, though, and took his own army to meet him there before James could get himself too organized.
They met up in battle on July 12, 1690. It was called the Battle of the Boyne, and William won. James slunk away to France, and “King Billy” and his wife have been celebrated by the Protestants of Ireland every July 12 ever since.
(Aside: You really have to wonder if the Protestants of Ireland would be nearly as excited if the Battle of the Boyne had happened to elsewhere. Would they be hanging flags for “The Battle of Slough,” for instance?)
All of which is not to make light of a long and complicated history that has generated heartbreak after heartbreak and misery after misery for generation after generation.
The Protestants celebrate by marching in parades, flying flags and lighting bonfires. The last few weeks of June and first two weeks of July are even known as “marching season.”
We saw our first signs of marching season on our very first day in Ireland, with Union Jacks flapping proudly in the ever-present wind on the lamp-posts at a traffic circle. Over the 14 days we have been here, the flags have been replaced by larger flags, by more flags, and by strings of even more flags in miniature. These last are called bunting and they decorate buildings as well as criss-cross the length of entire streets. Flags and banners celebrating Her Majesty and commemorating fallen victims of the Troubles announce what kind of neighbourhood you are in.
They also celebrate with bonfires. These are not the friendly kind where you bring lawn chairs and marshmallows and share hot chocolate. It takes weeks to prepare one properly. We saw one being prepared in an empty field today. It consisted of wooden pallets laid down in a giant circle to an approximate diameter of 20-30 feet and stacked probably two stories high. The following photograph was taken from the window of the tour bus as we were passing, so I apologize for its quality, but perhaps you can get the idea.
And that is so far.
And it’s not the only one being prepared.
I have been told that sometimes the Irish tri-colour flag (representative of the southern Republic) will be placed at the top, along with a photo of the current pope, and hateful slogans attached.
It seems absolutely surreal to me, and must be nightmarish for all those, Protestant and Catholic alike, who just want to live and let live.