The Loyalist Bands



With the recent release of Government files in Belfast accordingly it has been claimed that the Ulster Unionist Leader James Molyneaux made admission during 1985 talks over Orange Parades that there were too many ‘Kick the Pope’ bands getting involved in Orange Marches. This has lead me to look at the development of the Loyalist Bands and while one might say that Unionism has diminished slightly over the last 30 years this cannot be said about the Loyalist Bands which have flourished and become stronger during this period.

I will try to chart a path of progress to this phenomenon. So let’s start by asking the question of which social background do the members of these bands come from, it is clearly evident that they come from a Protestant Working Class Social Background. These would be the type of people who have come through the Northern Ireland Secondary School Education System and would hold a various range of blue collar jobs and a lot would be unemployed. Apart from being interested in bands you will most likely also find these people very much active in either playing or supporting football teams and socializing around bars and clubs.

The Loyalist Bands can trace their origins back to the Old Irish Military Bands of the British Army. These bands would have lead and paraded thousands of young men through Ulster’s Towns/Villages and Belfast of to the Great War.

Traditionally Orange Lodges on parade would have been led by a Lambeg Drum and Fifer, but as lodges swelled in size bands began to be formed both inside the lodges and independently. To this day there is a lot of bands still connected to a particular Lodge (typically know as Lodge Bands who will show their Lodge Number on their Bass Drum on parade).

It is significant to talk about the Lambeg Drum Culture as this also gives an insight and parallel to the culture of the Loyalist Bands. My Grandmother would always say ‘They’re a curse them drums they cause more bloody fights than enough’ Not only would the Lambeg Drums parade on the 12th of July but during the summer months they would be played at Drumming Competitions across the Fields of Ulster. As a young girl she loved walking into them fields behind her brothers playing the family drums into them competitions. It was also an exciting place to meet new friends and young men. Even when the Whiskey started to kick in on the participates and the arguments followed as to who had the best drum and the fists flew with some having to get cuts stitched up on the spot with needle and thread and a splash of whiskey you can still see the appeal and excitement of all the events for youthfulness.

The number of bands began to grow in the country after the Second World War and loyal order lodges would now pay fees to bands to accompany and lead their lodges at parades.


Donegall Pass Defenders FB Belfast 1954 parade in Civilian Clothes until they are able to afford to buy uniforms
Donegall Pass Defenders FB Belfast 1954 parade in Civilian Clothes until they are able to afford to buy uniforms

                                                                                                                                                                      The biggest drive and dramatic increase in the Loyalist Bands occurred from the early/ mid 1970’s. It is difficult to analysis why in this period of time band numbers grew so dramatically but I have listed below my opinion.

  1. Commencement of Northern Ireland Troubles and Polarization of Communities.
  2. Formation of a band with like minded people to protect ones identity and culture.
  3. Formation of a band to identify and support a specific town or district of city where it is from.
  4. Formation of a band due to no other recreational facilities for youth within a community.
  5. Disenchantment of political direction of Orangeism by Protestant Youth.

It was not a problem getting young members for these new bands sprouting up all across the country, however its members would have to go around collecting for money donations and raising funds to purchase instruments which was the biggest financial expenditure. Uniforms would be kept simple and cheap to allow all band members to be able to afford to purchase these themselves. Trousers/Shirt/Pullover would be the normal dress code. So mobilized was the so called ‘Kick the Pope’ bands. Unsure who invented the KTP name for these bands but it seems to stem from the fact that these bands would play Loyalist Party and Folk Songs while out on parade which would make them popular with the general public watching these parades who would know the words of these songs and therefore could sing and dance along and participate with these bands while watching them parade.

These bands would parade with lodges on the following dates. Easter Monday – Orange Junior Parades, Easter Tuesday – Apprentice Boys of Derry (Belfast District), 1st July – Orange Somme Memorial Parades, 12th July Orange Parade, 13th July – Royal Black Institution, Scarva Day, 12th August – Apprentice Boys of Derry Parade, Last Saturday in August – Royal Black Institution Parade, 18th December – Apprentice Boys of Derry Parade. They would also parade from an old orange lodge master’s house to a new master’s house (Lifting the Banner) and other Loyal Order Church Services.

The bands would meet weekly in Band Halls, Orange Halls, Community Centres, Public Houses, Social Clubs to practice tunes, arrange fund raising events and hold meetings.

Band Officers would consist of a Band Captain, Deputy Band Captain, Leading Drum Tip, Deputy Drum Tip, Chairman, Secretary, Treasurer, and a Committee.

Loyalism is very tribalism and the bands reflected this in their behavior while on parade. During the parade the game was to try to ‘blow off the road’ a rival band from another town or district playing in front of you in the parade, this would entail your Drum Major (Leader) instructing his drummers to keep as tight and close to the backline of the band’s lodge in front to get as close as possible to the other band so that the noise produced by the band behind would disrupt the playing of the band in front (more so its fluters who would be unable to hear it’s on band drums). As with any teenage/youth culture alcohol would play a major part in the activities of the bands. As soon as the parades arrived at their interval destinations which would normally be a field it was straight to the closest bars for the bands and its members. This is where the songs would start, Band Songs, Football Songs, Loyalist Songs against each other. Unfortunately young bandsmen do not politically negotiate, their fists and boots is the only form of negotiation they know, so the inevitable fights would occur between bands and their supporters and be carried back onto trains and other modes of transport until the various tribes dispersed back to their own towns or districts.

Discipline would be conducted by the organizing bodies of the parades, the Loyal Orders. However the Loyal Orders could only adjudicate and make decisions regarding their parade, but most commonly the fights between the bands in the bars got carried back into the parades on the way home anyway. This would result in the bands concerned in the parade disturbances being banned from that particular Loyal Order’s parades or commonly known at the time as ‘Kicked off the Road’

Most of the bands who faced such discipline would maintain their instruments and members, regroup and reappear under a new band name.

I was often told Competition produces Quality and this was the biggest transformation that revolutionize the Loyalist Bands. This occurrence arose because of the bands needs to fund raise. It commenced in the late 70’s and early 80’s. An individual band would decide on a date to stage a competition, they would then decide on a parade route and get approval from the Police for this route, they would then invite bands to attend the competition and collect money from the general public and participating bands for the musical entertainment of the event.

It is interesting to note that very few loyalist band competitions parade routes cause controversy or disputes and protest from the Nationalist/Republican community. The organizing band wishes to parade in as much districts to be able to collect as much money as possible, therefore in the city and towns of such events you will have parade routes that will endeavor to take in as much financial opportunity as possible.

Judges would be selected and positioned at different locations of the parade route to judge the participating bands and marks would be scored for various categories of a band , Drum Major, Drum Corps, Bass Drum, Style & Appearance, Colour Party, Overall Performance. The Bands further split into two categories, Melody Flute (A band which wished to play marching music and wished to be highly disciplined in marching and parading). Blood & Thunder (A band as the category suggest wished to produce music loudness across all instruments it would play) It can be said that the ‘Kick the Pope’ bands progressed to be the Blood & Thunder Bands and Melody Flute Bands came from existing old traditional marching bands and Blood & Thunder Bands.

Cups and Trophies would be presented to the best bands and competing individuals on parade. All of a sudden this changed the mindset of the young men parading within the bands. They had to march correctly, they had to play their instruments in synchronization, they had to look smart and tidy, and one mistake by any individual regarding these issues could cost your band some points which could be the difference in winning a trophy. They became team players.

The ethos between the bands changed, they had to give each other plenty of space between themselves to correctly allow each band to be judged on parade. They had to support each others competitions, friendships were established between rival bands, towns and districts, and probably the greatest thing of all a Loyalist Bands Social Network was created.         

Band Competition - Markethill
Band Competition – Markethill

                                                                                                                                                                            It is unfair to identify the Loyalist Bands with anyone particular political ideology. As with Loyalism it is so diverse, you will have members of bands who support every shade of Loyalist and Unionist political opinion.

You will have bands which carry old British Army Irish Military Standards with Regimental and Battalion Numbers which will identify the region of Northern Ireland where them particular regiments came from in similarity as where the band carrying them is from.

Today the Loyalist Bands hold major competitions that can generate up to thousands of both participates and the general public being in attendance at such events. Staging such events requires transport, buses, catering facilities, loyalist souvenir stalls, policing and the same form of organization that would go into staging a major sporting event.

The Tailoring Industry and Musical Instruments Industry have benefited from this cultural activity. Let’s take an average band size of 40 members and give it a value :

40 Uniforms åt £400 = £16,000

10 Drums at £500 =     £ 5,000

30 Flutes at £100 =       £ 3,000

                 Total :     £24,000

The bands go to great lengths now to get the latest instruments that might give them an edge over their competitors, Higher Pitched Flutes, Side Drums with tighter output in sound, they have established their unique and individual way in drumming and playing, they have become individually identifiable with the uniforms and colours they wear, one would say they have become professional.

On the basis of this professionalism they even now judge and categorize themselves into major and small B&T awards just as football teams would play in different league divisions, you can also see the comradeship of the bands by doing this to help smaller and up and coming bands get established and enjoy attending the competitions. They have created a huge band scene across both Northern Ireland and Scotland and they wish to keep growing and parade in different and new places, this is why they will always rally round and give their full support and help to new bands starting up.

What has emerged over the years is a vibrant band scene which has no hang ups about its culture and identity, it has a purpose, it has a direction and it knows where it is going to. I was once asked how and why the Loyalist Bands succeeded and why they never went into decline and the simple answer is they had and always will have the magic formulae of sustainability Youth

Finally in the ever changing political arena and the defensive and negative appearance which Unionism is presented by the media and its political opponents it may just be that the Beacon of Light at the End of its Torch is the Loyalist Bands.


 TE Lawrence



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