If every day is the Twelfth of July, what is your glorious twelfth like?
The certainty of Rudyard Kipling a century ago?
We know the war prepared
On every peaceful home,
We know the hells declared
For such as serve not Rome –
The terror, threats and dread
In market, hearth and field –
We know, when all is said,
We perish if we yield.
Or is your Twelfth like that recalled by Roy McFadden, five decades later?
At thirty, pigmy family nudging knee,
Wedged in a village dazed by roaring drums
That drowned my destination; trapped by tied
Tiers of faces blinding stonedeaf road:
Inactive, voiceless, I chewed famine crumbs.
There is no neutrality in poetry, and precious little in journalism. But photography? This exhibition is a test of the viewer as much as its creator. Frankie Quinn grew up and still lives in the Short Strand, an ‘enclave’, as often described by journalists, during the regular times of strife that have been a feature of the lives of the photographer and his neighbors.
As a child and a man, his Twelfth was like McFadden’s, wedged, trapped, inactive, his only destination home, confined by certainty, security and the tight grip of hands which feared being drowned. The other barrier around his home had concrete and mesh form, the obscene peace walls which Frankie has assiduously chronicled in his work for three decades. No-one knows more or can tell more about the interfaces which scar the social borders of Belfast.
The interfaces are anything but, of course. They help people on either side of the barriers avoid each other. We cannot even see them, but we can hear them, and be dazed by their songs and drums and shouts, and respond with our own tunes and ballads and slogans. Frankie decided in recent years to find windows in the walls and a discreet door into the lives of his other neighbors. He took his camera, and met the neighbors. These pictures are the result.
This is a job of work. All of these pictures were taken using black and white film, and the aid of an orange filter, which adds depth and mood to the images. The skies reveal their clouds more forcefully and forbearingly, the faces gain more thought and nuance. This is an industrial process, the chemistry of negative film and how it interacts with natural light, the miracle of the darkroom, when blank sheets and bottled concoctions merge with the developer’s beam and life appears and thickens and darkens until the last act of magic, the ‘stop’ is poured and the process is complete.
It is a method as old as the crafts of shipbuilding and plane creation which set the economic power base of Belfast’s most successful lodges, a trade with roots in the late 19th and early 20th century. Photographs taken on film have a quality that digital lacks. Depth of field and depth of feeling – the decisive moment when you get it right or get it wrong. The limitation of knowing that there are only a certain numbers of opportunities per roll, and the discipline that fosters. This combination of creative eye and chemical craftsmanship requires one more touch – human empathy.
Frankie met his neighbors and did not need to know their names to seek out the soul beneath the sash, and that is why these pictures work. It is not journalism in the usual sense. Very little happens.
The images we are witnessing are those of patience and preparation, of rehearsal and repetition – three years of Elevenths and Twelfths and Scarva on the Thirteenth. Derry is relieved again and again and Lundy is immolated in warning for future compromisers. The same faces, the same places, looking out for kith and kin along the traditional route. The songs remain the same and the field is unchanged, with prayers for the pious and burgers for the hungry and balm for aching feet.
It used to be said, in the days when class definitions were easier to comprehend and challenge, that one could ascertain whether one was speaking to a gentleman by the state of his footwear. The shoes of the Orangemen gave away the solidity of their class. The days when the local Stormont grandee was the local employer or landowner who also happened to hold some grand rank in the local lodge are long gone. The current leader of the Ulster Unionist Party is not an Orangeman, nor an Apprentice Boy, nor a Royal Black. A couple of decades ago, it would have been inconceivable for an MP or any other senior Official Unionist not to be in at least two of the loyal orders.
The cultural capital has moved on. The cachet has evaporated into the same mist where memories of heavy industry, paternalist financiers and solid farming folk have gone. One does not need a sash to get ahead anymore – on the contrary. The events of the past few decades have removed the Orange glow, for reasons that have as much to do with consumerism and secularism as much as the agitation of residents’ groups and the political upheavals of equality legislation, the Agreement, the demise of a compliant police force and the Parades Commission.
Middle class Protestantism is more at ease in the corporate environment of the Aviva Stadium in Dublin and the internationalist post-industrial economy to which the ‘brain drain’ of its talented young have gravitated , to Edinburgh, London, Berlin, Hong Kong, Toronto and San Francisco, the global melting pot of identity and cultural integrity where kith and kin are obstacles to ambition.
In this age of globalization, of surface diversity and cities ‘too busy to hate’, where emotional intelligence is valued more than defending your birthright, where borders are meaningless, where distance has been collapsed by satellites and Skype, where time itself never has a day off and where inequality of income and wealth has soared in direct proportion to the contempt the comfortable feel for the precarious and the poor, where is the room for Orange values?
The greatest cliché about neoliberalism is its loud insistence on skills and certificates and lifelong learning. What is the relevance of the ‘qualifications of an Orangeman’ in a region of Britain which is one-twenty-eighth of the EU, and a declining proportion of the world economy? Which parts of Britain are Orangemen loyal to in the debate on Scottish independence (especially when one considers that the main political force for Scotland remaining in the UK is the Catholic-dominated Scottish Labour Party)? How can such an avowedly Christian organization feel a deep cultural affinity with the most rapidly atheistic country in Europe, whose fastest growing faiths are Islam and Catholicism? How is the affinity to the monarchy going to survive the inevitable succession from the Queen to her heirs and successors, whose world is increasingly defined by the surface glitz of celebrity rather than the sombre fulfillment of duty and birthright?
If all of the qualifications of an Orangeman can be summarized by the word ‘integrity’, what seems appropriate behavior for the initiated, just comes across as ‘exclusion’ by those who cannot meet those qualifications or will not sign up to them. What, then, is left? The past, the old routes, the vanished influence, the martyred dead. There are 62 references to Orange Order members in the index of Lost Lives. There are several more listed in that book of the dead whose membership was not mentioned.
If you have the stomach to ask the people who can ‘explain’ why certain people had to die, they will tell you that this Orangeman was shot or eviscerated for some other reason – they were a B-Special, a peeler, a UDR part-timer, a loyalist paramilitary, a tout. Some were what was euphemised as ‘inevitable casualties’ – statistics who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, like Alexander Andrew who liked to have a drink in the Four Step Inn, or Robert Gibson who drove buses, or George Walmsley who was secretary of Ligoniel Orange Lodge, or Nevin McConnell, John Johnston, William Herron, William McKee and his son James, who happened to be members of the Guiding Star Temperance Orange Lodge in Tullyvallen, and so on and on it went.
The loyal institutions do not have a right to elevate their dead to a plane above those other groups or families whose dead haunt their dreams. There is something unseemly about speaking for the dead of long ago to support a point made for today’s press release or Twitter eruption.
But members of the Orange Order have a perfect right to remember their martyrs – all of them, regardless of the rationale exercised by their executioners, and no-one has the right to deny the fact that each Orange victim is especially special to his brethren.
But the thing is, Republicans have the same right to remember their comrades, as do the soldiers, police officers, prison staff, fire-fighters, taxi drivers and shop keepers have the right to be commemorated with decency and dignity. We can do that; we can remember our losses and respect the grief of others. We can lay off the belligerent chatter and the sham fights and the attacks on police officers as a proxy for our enemy and a whipping boy for our powerlessness.
We can do what Frankie Quinn has done with his camera. Meet the neighbors.
Belfast, March 2014.
*Writer and commentator, John O'Farrell is former editor of Fortnight Magazine and has written about politics and culture for many publications incl. The Boston Globe, The Observer, The New Statesman, FT Magazine and Foto8'.