THE 18th of DECEMBER
This is a blog about the Apprentice Boys of Derry 18th of December Commemoration Parade and although other writers and historians have wrote about this parade this article is slightly unusual as it comes from a Belfast perspective and participation in the event.
The Apprentice Boys of Derry are a historical society which celebrates the Siege of Londonderry of 1688-1689. This siege occurred during this period because King James and his Jacobite Army arrived at the walled city to enter through its gates and take control of the city. 13 young apprentices from within the city ran and closed the gates on the 18th December 1688 which commenced the longest siege in British history. The siege was finally ended when two armed merchant ships the Mountjoy and Phoenix supported by the frigate HMS Dartmouth broke through a wooden boom that the Jacobites had laid across the Foyle on 12th August 1689. A crimson banner was hosted up high from the city in recognition of this feat and the relief of the city, the crimson colour symbolizes the bloody struggle of the defenders of Derry.
This is the reason why the Apprentice Boys of Derry wear crimson coloured sashes/collarettes and parade in the city to commerate these two dates and events each year.
The organization consists of eight parent clubs : Apprentice Boys of Derry, Walker, Mitchelburne, No Surrennder, Browning, Baker, Campsie and Murray with various branches of the clubs all over the United Kingdom and membership worldwide. As a member of a No Surrender branch club, I would always have to listen to my father joke that I was not a real apprentice boy but he was because he was a member of a Campsie branch club. From the eight Apprentice Boys Parent Clubs the only one named after an actual apprentice who helped shut the gates of Derry is Campsie.
It also has another unique ritual in that you cannot be a member of the Apprentice Boys unless you “are made” within the inside of the walls of the city. Basically this means that you must attend an initiation ceremony in the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall in Society Street which is located within the old city wall boundary.
For Belfast guys the 18th of December was also unique as we would start of our journey earlier in the dark and cold winter mornings and finish our day in the dark cold winter evenings. It also meant having to take a day off work and losing a day’s pay out of your Christmas pay packet because the Apprentice Boys then marched on the actual day of the 18th December. Today they parade on the first Saturday of December for this commemoration parade.
It meant meeting at the President of the Apprentice Boys Club (A president is similar to a lodge master who holds this office and position for usually a period of one year) house at 7.00am in the morning. Members would then pay any outstanding dues they owed and their train fare ticket to the club treasurer. Sandwiches, biscuits and drinks would be handed around to both members of the club and the accompanying band members. The two policemen who would walk and accompany the club and band on parade to meet the other Belfast ABOD Clubs would gladly accept the offer to get some hot tea and something to eat inside the house.
We would parade through the city centre of Belfast to Central Railway Station to get the 9.00am train to Londonderry. I always felt sorrow for the Ballymena and Coleraine guys getting on the same train as all the seats would be taken and they had to stand until we arrived at Londonderry Waterside Station at about 11.00am.
Once at this location we would be met by the Parent Clubs of the organization and we would parade across the Craigavon Bridge to the City Side and to the APOD Memorial Hall Headquarters. Here any new members would be “Made” as mentioned previously.
The main parade would commence from the Memorial Hall and parade around the centre of the city and then around the Diamond where the Parent Club Officers would lay a wreath at the war memorial. It would finish at St Columbs Cathedral for a Church Thanksgiving Service.
Seamus the owner of the Anchor Bar in Ferryquay Street would contact our secretary by phone about a week before the 18th December and ask how many of us was coming up from Belfast ? ”Including the band allow for about 40 of us”. “OK, I’ll bring the wife and two daughters in and we’ll cook enough stew for all yees”
We were always glad to get to the Anchor especially if it was snowing and get the hot stew into our bellies. Before we left these premises a money collection was made around the bar by us and given to the staff and a tin of sweets and a Christmas card was given to the owner’s wife.
Sadly this would be the last time we would visit the Anchor. The following year the Provos decided they did not wish to have others cultural expressions about the place and all bars in the city centre where instructed to close their doors on the 18th December and not reopen until 5.00pm later that day.
We would reassemble outside the Cathedral and parade back through the Diamond and up to Bishops Street where a huge effigy of Lundy would be burnt outside the Court House to the cheering crowds of spectators. Robert Lundy was the Governor of Derry and identified as a traitor who had wished to negotiate with King James during the siege and surrender the city.
Once Lundy was burnt we would gather ourselves with the other Belfast Clubs and parade pass the Parent Club Officers who we would give Walkers Salute to and march back to the railway station. Walkers salute is another unique display by the apprentice boys where you raise your left hand up and point.This action is in remembrance of Rev George Walker who conducted the same motion when he was addressing the citizens of the city during the siege towards the ships coming up the Foyle to relieve them.
It would be a very dark and cold night by the time the train pulled back into Belfast but one of the highlights of the day was of a thinly built man with silver hair called Ricky D from the Mitchelburne Club – Renfrew, who always attended the ABOD parades with us and carried a big Crimson Flag. As we are coming up Royal Avenue towards the front of the City Hall the band would strike up the song “The 18th of December” “Let it Go Ricky” would be the shout from both band and club and he would zig-zag and dance between the band and club to cheers from all of us in front of the Belfast Christmas Tree. We were home, back in our city !
We would finish at the Presidents house where we had started off from so early in the morning and again food and drinks would be distributed around to all.
The wise would call it a day and head home to get up for work the next day, the unwise would head to the local bar to strike up a few chorus of “King James and all his rebel band came up to Bishops Gate”
It had been a very long time since I last participated in an 18th December Day parade but lucky enough I was able to attend last year’s parade. It is very much more sophisticated now with much bigger participation because it is now held on the first Saturday of December and very well marshalled. We travel to the Maiden City (name given to Londonderry as it was never taken) by coach now, long gone are the days of being herded like cattle onto freezing cold trains As we sat in the Masonic Club in Bishop Street to have lunch we talked about the old days and a lot of the memories that I have just written about. Like I said at the start of this article it is a unique parade in the loyalist parading calendar but just possibly some like myself might debate is the best.