Like the vast majority of Protestants in Northern Ireland apart from my Birthday, Christmas and our family holiday to Ballyferris, the 12th of July was the biggest and most important day of the year. In 1663 the Protestant King Billy defeated the Catholic King James at the Battle of Boyne and changed the course of Irish history forever. Three hundred years later on the 12th of July every year Northern Ireland came to a standstill as the Protestant majority took to the streets and celebrated the most sacred day in the Protestant calendar. As a child I loved the whole 12th experience and counted the days down until the great day arrived. For weeks before the 12th all the children, with the help of adults would gather all sorts of burnable material for the bonfire that would be lit the night before, to signal the beginning of the celebrations. After school we would rush home, have something to eat and head of in the hunt for wood and whatever else we could find that would burn. Sometimes there would be dozens of us going back and forth to the gel carrying whatever we could find and placing it on the ever growing bonfire in the middle of the square. In Glencairn alone there would be about five or six bonfires and it was always very competitive to see which area could collect the most wood and have the biggest bonfire. Competition between the various parts of the estate were fierce and as the eleventh grew closer, the older boys would be allowed to stay out all night with suitable adults and guard the wood from raids from those at the top or bottom of the estate. As the day grew closer, the excitement was almost tangible and in the early evening sunshine we would gather around the ever-growing tower of wood and play until darkness. There was always a hunt, the command centre and if we were lucky the older boys would let us go inside and wait until they returned from another hunt for wood. One day when there was only myself and a few of the other younger children guarding the wood , the boys from the top of the estate came charging through the square in a bare faced raid on our precious wood. There were only about five of us and there was about fifteen of them and they were all older than us and there was little we could do but stand by and watch as they made off with their precious bounty. Taking control I told David to run as fast as he could and find the rest of our gang. Picking up stones from the ground I began pelting the enemy with missiles. The others soon joined in and before long the enemy had to duck and hide as we threw everything we could find at them. But we were well out numbered and it was only a matter of time before they had over powered us and decided to take me prisoner, as I seemed to be in charge.
Panic and terror washed over me as I was lead away to the enemy camp at the top of the estate. To add insult to injury a boy named Y forced me to help him carry a door stolen from our bonfire. I was threatened with a dig in the face if I tried to run away or do anything stupid, so I decided self preservation was the best course of action and was a model prisoner. As we marched in single file towards the top of the estate and the enemy bonfire, I wondered with dread what fate awaited me when we arrived there. A few weeks before John Jackson had also been captured in a raid and when he was finally set free he had a black eye and a busted lip. As I marched on all sorts of thoughts of pain and torture were going through my mind, when suddenly I heard the sound of running feet and raised voices. As I turned I was delighted to see my brother and about ten of our gang running towards us. Panic set into the enemy as they realized what was happening and some of them dropped what they were carrying and fled. Before I knew what was happening my rescuers had caught up with us and a massive fight broke out between the two warring sides. I dropped my end of the door I was carrying and jumped on Y terrorising him with a blood curdling scream that rose from deep within me. I was free! The noise was deafening as the two sides fought a running battle, but reinforcements had arrived from our gang and before long we had beaten the enemy into retreat. When they had all fled, we gathered up our stolen wood and sang as we made our way back to our camp.
I was a hero and that night guarding the bonfire I wallowed as all those present praised my heroic deeds of the day and I now had access to the hut whenever I liked.
As the great day drew closer our house was always in a state of complete chaos. Dad was busy making sure everything was ready for the bands biggest and most important march of the year. There were over forty people in the band and they all had to have uniforms that fitted perfectly and instruments that were at the peak of their working year. While dad got on with that, Granny took us down town and rigged us out with new clothes and shoes for the big day. Image was everything and regardless of how scruffy and dirty we looked the rest of the year, on the 12th of July we would be immaculately turned out. Granny had an old friend called Isaac who lived in Ballysillan and although he was half blind, deaf and always drunk, he had in his day been a competent barber and Granny saw no reason not to continue sending me and David over to Isaac whenever a hair cut was in order, even though he had been retired for over thirty years. Besides he only charged £1.50 and as money was always tight it made perfect sense. Unfortunately for us he would give us a cut that would have shamed a corpse and eventually I came up with the idea that we should cut each other’s hair and pocket the money for ourselves.
These plans went well for a few months until one-day granny give us the money to go and get our hairs cut. When we got back, Granny was stood by the door waiting for us, which was most unusual and asked us had Isaac cut our hair? When we answered yes, she asked us how he was. By now we were both starting to get a bit suspicious and nervously answered ok. How were we to know that he had died the night before from a sudden heart attached and was now in the morgue having the final hair cut of his life. Needless to say Granny went ape and we got a good thumping for the lies. From that day on Granny personally escorted us to the barbers and watched with a critical eye as we had our hairs cut.
As the 12th grew closer and closer there was always an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation whilst everyone counted the days down. The various bonfires were now mountains of burnable material that towered high above the houses and flats that surrounded the area. Apart from the hundreds of bands and orange lodge’s from Northern Ireland that would be marching on the day, dozen’s more would travel over from Scotland, Mainland England and as far afield as Canada & Australia. This was the most sacred day in the Loyalist calendar. Loyalist’s from across the world would make the pilgrimage back to Northern Ireland to celebrate their culture and age old traditions. Even at nine years old I felt a tremendous sense of pride and loyalty and passion at the Protestant culture and traditions that governed my daily life in Loyalist West Belfast. I was no different from any other child from a working class Protestant family in Northern Ireland. Although unlike my peers I had a secret Catholic mother.
Like all other Loyalist areas of Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland Glencairn was awash with Loyalist flags, red, white and blue bunting, murals and countless houses had Union Jacks and Red Hand of Ulster flag’s flying proudly from the front. As the twelfth of July approached this visual proclamation of Protestant pride took on a new meaning and the paving stones would be painted red, white and blue whilst almost every house in the estate flew a Loyalist or Protestant flag of some description. As a child this added to the sense of excitement for me and I took this as a sign of the glorious party that everyone would take part in to celebrate the twelfth.
When the 11th of July finally arrived Granny would come round to our house first thing and sort dad and us all out and make sure we had enough food to see us over the holiday period. We would be almost bursting with excitement and as soon as breakfast was over, David, Shep and I were out the door and heading towards the bonfire, where we would meet up with our mates and spend the day collecting last minute material for the fire and generally playing around. As evening approached adults would gradually start to gather around the bonfire and the celebrations would get in to full swing. Loud Loyalist music would be blaring from various houses around the square and as the night wore on more and more people would gather and the whole square came alive with the sound of laughter and people enjoying themselves. Everybody took part in the celebrations and the whole community mucked in to make sure the occasion was really special and a night to remember. Local women would prepare loads and loads of food for the party and this would be distributed throughout the day to anyone who needed a bite to eat. As the evening wore on the music got louder, the adults would become very loud and funny as the drink kicked in and as darkness engulfed Belfast the time to light the children’s bonfire would arrive. Finally when everyone was in place, to cries of delight from the gathered crowds, an Effie of the pope was placed on the top of the bonfire. On this night more than any other, the two communities of Northern Ireland were divided more than ever, as the Protestant majority noisily celebrated its supremacy over the Catholic minority. Surrounded by all my family and friends I watched in awe as the bonfire was lit and the flames, slowly at first, then faster licked their way up towards the top and the pope. As the flames grew higher and higher and finally reached the pope and engulfed him in flames, screams of joy rang out through the summer’s nights and echoed around the estate and Protestant Northern Ireland.
We had killed and burned to cinders the father of the hated Catholic Church and her people and we sang and yelled with pleasure as the ritual the stirred in us. As the fire burned the crackle of the wood and the spit of the flames filled the air and children would dance round the fire, laughing and singing with the adults until it was time for bed. Eventually Granny would come and find David, Shep and me and bring us home in protest to bed. As soon as we were settled down she would go out into the square again and David and I would climb out of bed and watch from our bedroom window, the antics of the drunken adults as they sang and danced the night away around the burning bonfire.
First thing next morning Granny would be round at the crack of dawn and yell for us to get up as she busied herself making everyone a full Ulster Fry and getting us ready. Before long the house was in complete chaos as Granny washed and fed us and made sure we were smartly turned out for the day. As the morning wore on members of the band would arrive for last minute preparation and before long the whole street was out and about, as the band nervously got in a few last minutes of practice. At about eight thirty the whole band would start to gather outside the shops and take up their places. By now the route out of the estate was lined with hundreds of people, regardless of age or hangovers, who had come to see them off. When everyone was in place dad took up his position at the right of the procession and after one last check shouted, “March” and they would strike up a tune and begin to march. Every year a loyal crowd of followers would fall in beside them and accompany them on the 26 mile march to the field. Much to my annoyance I was too young to be allowed to go with them and I longed for the day when I would be old enough. As we stood on the kerb watching them go my heart was full of pride as I watched dad in his uniform lead them down the Road and out of the estate. When they were out of sight we would all travel down to Ormeau Road, where hundreds of bands and Orange men would meet before making their way to the field. Tens of thousands lined the route and as a child it seemed to me the whole world had gathered to celebrate with 12th of July. Our family always sat outside the garage on the lower Ormeau road and watched as hundred of bands, of all shapes and colours, lead thousands of bowler hatted Orangemen and women to the field.
Throughout Northern Ireland dozens of similar parades were taking place, but the march in Belfast was always by far the biggest and the most important of the day. We watched with mounting excitement as various bands passed and waited with baited breath for dad’s band to come into view, so we could cheer them on.
Each band would be attached to an Orange lodge that marched in front of them all the way to the field. They all had a unique uniform that extinguished them from the other bands marching. The hardcore Loyalist and paramilitary flute bands always got the loudest cheers and when a talented leader came into view everyone watched with nervous anticipation as he done various tricks with his pole, flinging it high into the sky, before catching it on the way down and immediately throwing it over his neck or under his legs before going into an routine.. Although dad’s band was an accordion band and we all took great pride in them being part of the parade, the flute and hardcore Loyalist bands were the crowds favourite and when they played a familiar tune huge cheers arose from the gathered crowd and people would join in and sing a long at the top of their voices until the band passed and another came into view. I always loved the sound of the Lambeg drums as they made their way to where we were standing and their mournful tunes drifted far over our heads and echoed through the streets of Belfast, as a warning to the Catholic people that today was our day and we were the masters of Northern Ireland. A sea of colour washed past as band after band marched by us on their way to the field. Apart from local and famous flute bands getting the loudest cheers , bands from the Shankill Road brought the loudest cheers of encouragement and joy , these were our people, come to our shore to support us in our never ending war against the IRA and Catholic people and we made sure they knew we appreciated their commitment. When dad’s band finally came into sight a huge cheer rang out from all of us and those among the spectators from Glencairn and the surrounding areas. As they passed us we would call dad’s name and when he and the other’s from the band noticed us they would all turn and salute us as they marched past. I almost burst with pride as I watched them move off and disappear in to the distance and always regretted that I was not going with them. The parade took about two hours to pass us and when it was all over, Granny would take us home. Exhausted from shouting and singing after dinner we would while away the time until 17:30, when we would go back to town to cheer them on their homeward journey from the field. When it was all over there would always be lots of parties in the estate as we clung desperately to the day and never wanted it to end. By the time we eventually got to bed I would be counting down the days until next year and the time I was old enough to take part in the parade and go all the way to the mystical field with dad and the rest of the band. Sleep came easily and I dreamt I was the leader of one of the more famous bands and the best leader in the whole wide world.
Every year on the 13th July the entire Chambers clan, aunties, uncles, grandparents, cousin’s, close friends and an assortment of animals would descend on Ballyferris Caravan Park to start the annual holidays. Ballyferris is a small seaside town on the east coast of County Down and like all other aspects of our life it was a Protestant town and a favourite destination for Protestants throughout Belfast and the Shankill road area. It was like a home from home and we all loved and looked forward to our yearly visits there. In the early years we never had a car and would travel down on the bus or train, depending on how much money we had. We must have looked like a Sunday school outing as 9 adults shepherded over a dozen kids through the centre of Belfast towards the train or bus station. When we finally arrived in Ballyferris we would all help unpack the luggage and settle into various caravans that stood side by side looking out towards the sea. There were that many of us that it must have looked as though we had taken over the whole caravan site and the other children always sought us out as they wanted to become part of our massive gang. There was a huge green in the centre of the site and at every opportunity two teams were rustled together and a football match would get under way. I used to love it if I got picked to play on the same side as dad and other members of the family and the rest of the family cheered on from the touchline. I dreamt that I was George Best, playing for Manchester United. When we weren’t playing football or flying our kites David, wee Sam , Pickle and me would go down to the beach in search of crabs and other sea life and if they were lucky to survive being captured , we would bring them up to the green and race them for packets of sweets and crisps etc. Once wee Sam and I got separated from the other as we climbed further and further over the rocks until we were right by the sea’s edge. We lost all sense of time as we cast our crab lines out as far as possible in our quest to catch the biggest crab. Gradually it started to rain and as it began to fall heavier and heavier we decided to pack up and head back to the caravan with our bucket of nervous crabs. As we turned to leave we noticed with mounting panic that the tide had come in and we were completely surrounded by the rising sea water. Our frantic cries finally caught the attention of a man walking his dog on the beach and before long the whole family and most of the other people staying at the caravan site were gathered at the edge of the water telling us not to move and the coastguards were on their way. Panic turned to excitement as a dot appeared in the distance sea and the coast boat came slowly into view. Wee Sam and I were pleased as punch as the boat drew up and the coastguard helped us into the boat. As the boat made its way to the beach we waved like royalty to the gathered crowds on the beachfront. Sadly our joy was short lived as when we arrived on the beach we got a severe ticking off from our parents and any other adult who felt like having a go. Not that we let this spoil our new found fame and at every opportunity for the rest of the holiday we boasted to our peers about our daring rescue by the coast guard from the jaws of certain death.
In the evening if the weather was good we would all gather as much food and drink as we could carry and go down to the beach to have a BBQ or picnic. We would collect wood from the beach and before long we would have a fire going and cook baked potatoes and roast sausages round the edge. As darkness rolled in we would sit around the fire singing Loyalist songs and telling stories and before long I would fall asleep on dad’s knee and the next thing I knew I was waking up the next morning, in the caravan to the sounds and smells of Granny making breakfast. The best part of the whole holiday for me and the other children was when we would all be gathered up and went to Millisle , a seaside town about two miles away with a huge funfair. Sometime’s when the weather was really good we would walk to Millisle along the beach front and as it came into view we would race over the sand dunes in a scramble to see who could get there first. The day would be spent going from one ride to another and although I loved it all, I enjoyed the dodgem cars best of all and I drove like a kamikaze pilot as I crashed into dad and anyone else I could catch. Dad always seemed to enjoy our time at the funfair and he took part in loads of different games until he had won us all a present of some description. After exhausting ourselves on the rides we would join our grandparents and others on the beach for a picnic and if we were really lucky we were treated to fish and chips from one of the many chippies along the seas front. After dinner dad and his brothers would go for a pint in one of the local bars and we kids would amuse ourselves by burying each other in the sand and paddling by the water’s edge. It was always with great sadness for me when these days came to an end and I would feel heartbroken as we packed up our things for the bus back to the caravan site. I never wanted these holidays to end and when the day came that we would be travelling back to Belfast I would take long walks along the beach and through the caravan site and considered hiding until everyone else had left and I could stay there forever. Dad and the others were used to my wander lust and a search party was soon despatched to find me and bring me back into the fold. As the bus pulled away from the caravan site, taking us home, I fought to hold back my tears as I said a silent goodbye to Ballyferris and the bright lights of the fun fair.
Years later as a teenager, with my life in tatters and on the brink of suicide, I ran away from home and ended up back in Ballyferris. But this time I was all alone and it was mid winter, snowing, freezing cold and the funfair was in complete darkness. And my beloved father was dead.