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Ready for an Orange blast

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These are mind-boggling times both nationally and internationally. We are almost daily seeing things we thought we would never view in our lifetimes. 

Internationally, the elevation of President Obama is perhaps the most striking global evidence of this clearly different new world. 

Nationally, incredibly for my generation, we have become used to seeing Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness sitting smilingly together on power-sharing sofas, clearly "as thick as thieves," as the old country folk used say up there in the Six Counties. 

The old order changeth for sure.  Today I learned that the once so nakedly sectarian Orangemen's parade on the Twelfth of July this year has somehow between converted into what is to be known henceforth as the Orangefest family festival. 

City center shops will open throughout Belfast. It is to be a big fun day out for all the families  Orange and Green alike.  Ye gods and little fishes! 

And I never thought I would live to be able to write the sentence  that follows -- I'm delighted that this is happening. Vere dignum et justum est.  It is a mighty and nationally enriching development. 

Being freed by that statement, I cannot wait to enlarge upon it.  The facts are that the Orange parades of our high summer, when distanced from the fearful sectarianism which they generated all my lifetime, are one of the most colorful and powerful spectacles that you could see anywhere in Europe. 

They have everything. They have marching bands playing warpipe skirls.  They have color and ceremonial and ritual. They have that crazy touch of Celticity which somehow garnishes all occasions celebrated by either of the Irish communities. 

They have passion and they have pride in identity.  They celebrate an ancient battle in Ireland in which, nearly incredibly, the Pope of Rome, for then current political reasons, was actually supporting King William of Orange. 

They are driven along the parade route to the field where the big speeches are made by the embedded beliefs of history amongst the ranks of Orange. They are blazingly bright to the eye and to the mind. They generated more "soul" than any 10 parades here at home on St. Patrick's Day.

If you were the little Nationalist boy I was in Fermanagh in childhood they quite properly frightened the life out of you -- that was maybe the purpose then -- but they also blazed against your blinking eyeballs with all the brightest and loudest sensory triggers there were. 

I've seen many of them in my lifetime, both in the provinces and in Belfast. They always put that fear of God into me before and during The Troubles, and properly so.  

But there were always a few fascinated and impressed cells that so wished to be able to watch the Twelfth parade just as a stirring spectacle.  Maybe the time has come at last. 

If it has, God willing, then the Orangefest on the Twelfth of July in Belfast this year will be special indeed. 

It is the way of this world, especially given recent events involving IRA splinter groups, and the fragility of  the North in the marching season of July, that it could all go terribly wrong on the day. 

It only takes one gun to speak dissent on the Green side, one group of Orange hotheads to go astray in the evening after a few Belfast scoops and "hot" speeches. 

Our new Ireland -- like your new America -- is as brittle and as beautiful as Belleek china. That is life. 

But it is heartwarming that an Orangefest family festival in 2009 can even be planned and promoted, shops open, ice cream and Coke, crowds watching the passing parade, the bands and the banners, the  Orange celebration somehow mutated into a kind of cultural event rather than a triumphalist display of naked hate.

I so hope that it works out well.  I think I will probably go up myself and see what happens. 

I would not have even dreamed of going voluntarily to Belfast for the most of my adult life. I only went under orders from news desks to bring my jotter and biro and record the riots and the murders, the beatings and the burnings, the hideous workings of what was really a full civil war on the mean redbrick streets of a tortured city of division and fear. 

But my old guts tell me that the moulds have indeed broken, and it just might be enjoyable this year. That's almost beyond my ken. 

You see, there is another thing that always irritated me hugely about the comparison between St. Patrick's Day and the Twelfth of July. 

St. Patrick's Day in Ireland is guaranteed to be the most miserable wet and windy day of a miserable wet and windy month. The weather, with about three exceptions all my life, will always be atrocious. 

The drenched parades take place along drenched and goose-fleshed streets and pavements. Flags hang soddenly over sodden people, all suffering sorely. 

There are no natural flowerings or shrubs at that time of year. Ireland is gray at its worst.  Even spiritually it is at heart of the penitential season of Lent. 

No primary color, either, takes rain as badly as green. It becomes as near as dammit black. Even happy Irish families can't get away from the drowned streets fast enough.  

Visiting American marching bands, I know well, vow that they will never return again, and only the hardiest of them do. Second generation majorettes in short skirts swear behind their bright smiles they will never come back either. And I think they never do, not even one lovely pair of legs of them. You could not blame them either. 

God forgive the man or woman who selected March 17 as St. Patrick's feast day. He or she was as ascetic as the stern old saint was.  

The Twelfth of July, on the other hand, being high midsummer, is always a brilliant long sunshiny day. The sun comes up with a bright warm Orange face at dawn and does not go down until the middle of the night. 

It warms the Orangemen, especially the old dignified ones, supples up their marching joints, glints on their colorful orange sashes and bowler hats and white, white gloves and totally unnecessary umbrellas.  Their ceremonial silver swords glitter as brightly as the badges on their sashes and the shine on their shoes.  

The marching bands are energized, the drum majors are amazing, King Billy on his white horse, on banner after banner, has no trouble at all crossing the Boyne. He surely might not have made it in March, even with the help of the Pope! 

The music of the pipes marries perfectly with the sunlight.  Stripped of the sectarianism, as I said, it is a sight to gladden even a Fenian heart. 

And if the Celtic madness thing is typified by the big burly men beating the huge Lambeg drums with rods until  their skinned fingers bleed then that, even, is redolent of a history where the planters who begat the Orangemen bled more than their share in their troubled time and season. 

As I say, it could easily go wrong, this Orangefest of the new era. But the recent years have been largely peaceful, the omens are good, and it is totally positive that the effort to de-sectarianize an old hurting thing are being made.

I welcome it without reservation. I honestly think that I will go for the craic. 

I think my father Sandy might be tempted to turn in his grave at this piece, but then he was a wise and gentle old soul in his time and he'll have well settled down again come July. 

P.S.: Have not heard the cuckoo yet over this new Ireland but, at a deeper level, maybe she is indeed here already! 

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