Plane tickets to Dublin were always cheapest on the Fourth of July. As American skies exploded with fireworks, my mom, sister, and I were always busy packing suitcases and prepping for our month-long pilgrimage back to Markethill, Northern Ireland. For me, summers were less red, white, and blue and more orange.
On July 12, I would wake at what felt like the crack of dawn in the attic bed of my grandparents’ house and rush to get dressed. On that date each year, rows of men wearing orange sashes march down the small, rural town’s main street. Families line the curbs, cheering as their brothers, fathers, sons parade past. The trill of flutes punctuates the air, but at the sonic helm of the column of marchers is the lambeg, a massive, booming forty-pound drum worn on a harness and beaten with curved Malacca or bamboo canes. When I say loud, I mean loud; climbing to sound-pressure levels of a thunderclap, the lambeg drum is one of the noisiest acoustic instruments in the world.
Until his passing in 2016, Richard Sterritt, one of the few lambeg drum makers left practicing the craft, lived and worked a few houses down from my grandparents. The boom of the drums as the family practiced reverberates throughout my summer memories.
The Twelfth of July, sometimes referred to as the “Glorious Twelfth” or “Orangemen’s Day,” is an Ulster Protestant loyalist celebration. It marks the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, which cinched Protestant Ascendency in Northern Ireland. As soon as marching season hits (the period around Easter Monday to the end of September), parades flood main streets across Northern Ireland. Union Jacks fly from flagpoles, British bunting is hung from house to house, and the lambegs thunder. The marchers are members of the Orange Order, a fraternal conservative society based in Northern Ireland that first formed in 1795. Markethill, my family’s town, boasts a population of only 1,647 but a whopping twelve separate Orange Order lodges (or groups).
For me, those childhood Twelfths felt like a homecoming. After a year separated by the Atlantic, the parades meant cheery family faces and something from the chippy (the fish and chips restaurant), which is really all I had been craving in those in-between months.
Each year that I returned, however, it all seemed a little more complicated than the time before. The trouble began when I learned to read—“Wait, what’s the Battle of the Boyne? Am I saying that right? B-O-Y-N-E?” Then it was, “I thought Mummy’s family was from Ireland. Isn’t that an English flag?” Later, “What’s the difference between a Protestant and a Catholic? Aren’t we all just Christians?”
In school, the Twelfth became even more complicated. I learned about the Troubles, the ethno-nationalist war that consumed Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. It separated Protestants and Catholics into ethnic groups, killing each other for control of the country. Protestants, who were mostly unionists or loyalists, envisioned a Northern Ireland firmly within the United Kingdom, while Catholics, who were mainly Irish republicans or nationalists, fought for one united Ireland, free from British control.
I also learned where the “orange” in Orange Order comes from: it’s a reference to Protestant King William III of England and Prince of Orange who famously defeated the Catholic Jacobites in the pivotal Battle of the Boyne. In college, I was drawn to classes on ethnic conflict and war and peace in Northern Ireland. I realized that the beat of lambeg drums, which I fondly associate with family summers, were for many the sound of violence and conflict. The more I learned, the more muddled my own perspective became. How could I have understood the Twelfth as a celebration of family if others knew it as supremacist and sectarian?
In March 2022, my grandmother passed away. I flew to Northern Ireland for the funeral, one of the few times I’ve ever visited Markethill outside of July. My uncle John offered to take me around the countryside on a tour of local historical sites.
In the days leading up to the funeral, every thought I had seemed to somehow make its way back to Granny. As Uncle John drove us along patchwork farms, I remembered her, ten years younger, telling me there were hundreds of shades of green all blended together in these fields. She had known every twist and turn in this land. She had lived it with an artist’s eye. There wasn’t one “emerald” or “chartreuse” a painter could use to capture Armagh—they would need a whole array of hues.
Before long, Uncle John stopped the car. We had drifted up to the location of the July 14, 1990, Armagh roadside bombing. That blast took the life of a Catholic nun and three Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) soldiers, including David Sterritt, Richard Sterritt’s cousin. A few hours before detonating a thousand-pound bomb in a culvert under Killylea Road, IRA members held a married couple and their children at gunpoint in a house within eyeshot of the road. As an RUC patrol car crossed the culvert, Catherine Dunne, the nun, and her passenger, Cathy McCann, passed by at the same time. The IRA members detonated the bomb, instantly killing Constable William James Hanson, Joshua Cyril Willis, and David Sterritt. Dunne later died of her injuries. McCann was the sole survivor.
When the lambeg maker Richard Sterritt passed away in 2016, he left behind his wife and six children. Jordan, his eldest, continued the legacy of drumming and drum making. When I asked about his father’s relationship with his cousin, Jordan said the two had got on well and that his cousin’s death affected him.
“My dad got David put on a drum and always said, ‘He will be out on the Twelfth of July,’” Jordan remembers. David was also a member of the Orange, involved in Orange bands, and went to drumming competitions.
Today, in the center of Markethill, David’s name is inscribed on a gray obelisk memorial in honor of Orange Order members killed during the Troubles. Next to it, in the middle of the roundabout at a central junction, stands a matching black World War I and II monument naming Markethill soldiers who died fighting. A Union Jack flutters in the air above.
In Northern Ireland, symbols like these dot the towns and landscapes. I spoke about them with Jack Santino, a folklorist and retired professor at Bowling Green State University who studied holidays and commemorations in Northern Ireland.
“Symbols very often contain their opposite, and they can suggest multiple things due to their physical characteristics and history,” Santino says. “People interpret them in multiple ways.” To some, July Twelfth parades are a celebration of heritage, and to others, they’re triumphalist, with Protestant groups claiming public space as their own. “Both of these interpretations are emotionally true to the people seeing them.”
Dev Gupta is a professor of political science at Carleton College who specializes in ethnic conflict, social movements, and Northern Irish politics. She adds to Santino’s perspective, explaining that for many people outside of Northern Ireland, lambegs stand out as noisy and beautifully decorated but not as connected to group identity.
Gupta also explains that on a macro level, “if you are to say ‘we’re not going to spend any time thinking about the people who have engaged in these acts [of violence]’, it means that you’re not willing to spend the time on understanding ethnic conflict. Full stop. Both sides are involved in these sorts of acts.
“When I teach my Northern Ireland class, people come in generally more sympathetic to the Catholic perspective in Northern Ireland,” Gupta says. “They’re a minority group and there’s a natural tendency to root for the underdog in conflict, right? But if you ask Protestants who is the underdog, I suspect you’ll receive a range of answers. There’s a sense [in Protestant communities] that they’re the ones who are actually besieged, with that sense being a product of the historical circumstance of the community. This is so baked into many of the narratives.
“For example, why does William of Orange hold such sway in Protestant narratives?” Gupta asks. “It’s not just because he’s a Protestant. There are plenty of other Protestant monarchs to pick from, if that were the case. With William of Orange, he’s seen as helping and protecting a besieged population. That sense of siege has certainly not gone away.”
Gupta then turns to the Security Dilemma, a foundational belief in conflict theory studies. Essentially, the theory stipulates that insecure states or groups will do what they can to increase their security (whether that be by amassing arms, developing new military techniques, etc.) when surrounded by perceived hostile neighbors. Then, the opposing group responds by increasing their security by whatever terms they deem necessary, which in turn threatens the original group. By attempting to protect themselves, the original group actually decreases their overall security.
“An outsider in the twentieth century might say there’s no reason for Protestants to feel insecure,” Gupta continues. “They are the wealthier community. They have control over government and the bureaucracy. They dominate the business sector, higher education, and the security forces, plus they have a powerful patron in the conservative party that is often in power in post-war UK. All of these things are true, and yet, for Protestants, historical memory is important. If Catholics were to get their way and force unification with the Republic, Protestants would become a decided minority.”
As Gupta explains, communities who experience ethnic conflict are often tightly closed—putting outsiders in jeopardy. In the late 1990s, my American dad, who at the time was long-distance dating my Northern Irish mom, traveled to meet her family for the first time. He remembers hopping into the Peugeot 106 with my mom and her sister, Suz, to drive to my Auntie Alison’s wedding reception.
“I remember the major roadways, basically the major arteries of Northern Ireland, were blocked off. Something about Drumcree I think?” My dad trails off and my mom jumps in.
“Yes, Drumcree,” she confirms. “There were a lot of protests. Protestants were saying they should be given the right to walk wherever they wanted in parades on the Twelfth. Catholics were saying, ‘Please respect us and don’t march through our neighborhoods.’ Protestants started blocking off roads, and a group of boys did the same outside Markethill, wearing balaclavas to hide their identities.”
“They were sitting there next to this overturned Pepsi truck,” Dad recalls. “They came up to us and ordered that we get out of the car. Suz just turned to them and told them no and said, ‘I’m not just going to get out of the car when I know you’re going to burn it.’ At this point, I was just sitting there thinking, ‘I’m going to die in a Peugeot 106.’”
“I knew the local boys who were on the barrier, but they’d been joined by masked gunmen I didn’t know,” Aunt Suz says. “My legs were shaking, but I was also cross! We had been promised I would be able to get out of town and back again. Alison’s wedding had been completely ruined. I approached the local boys and was cross with them for not letting us through and one of them spoke to the masked man, and he eventually let us through.”
Growing up on both sides of the Troubles, these kinds of brushes with violence were routine. From 1969 to 2003, 47,541 people were injured due to the security situation in Northern Ireland. Between 1969 and 1998, 3,593 were killed, with 1,064 Protestant deaths and 1,543 Catholic deaths. A scale of death and injury to this magnitude meant that violence was experienced by practically everyone in Northern Ireland. If there wasn’t someone in your family who had been killed or injured, there was someone down the street.
Most communities were heavily segregated. In a town like Markethill, where 77.9 percent of residents in 2011 identified as “Protestant or other Christian” and 17 percent identified as Catholic, contact with individuals from the opposing community was less common. According to data from 2017, 90 percent of housing estates, for example, are single identity, meaning Protestants live with Protestants and Catholics with Catholics.
Without daily interactions, it can be difficult for individuals immersed in an ethnic conflict to develop understanding and empathy for an opposing group. The Contact Hypothesis emerged as a key ingredient to healing in the 1950s. At its base, the theory argues that contact between people from majority and minority groups can promote tolerance and understanding so long as both groups are given equal status in the interaction and there is institutional support.
In Markethill, with its largely homogenous Protestant population, that kind of contact is hard to come by. Nancy Groce, senior folklife specialist at the Library of Congress, has done research in the region and curated the Northern Ireland program at the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. She remembers Markethill being called a Protestant “black hole” in a county (County Armagh) otherwise Catholic.
Given this context, it’s surprising that in my very Protestant family, my Auntie Pam married my Uncle Niall, a Catholic from Armagh, a town fifteen minutes down the road. The two met in college and dated in secret as their relationship was instantly taboo. Even today, dating between Protestants and Catholics is uncommon.
“In my community, at the start, everyone flew flags and things like that,” Uncle Niall says. “But over the years, our estate took down their flags. Some of the Protestant guys that I hung about with in school would have gotten a lot of abuse for hanging out with a Catholic. They would have been called some pretty bad names, like ‘Fenian-lover.’”
“Around marching season, a lot of Catholic families would get on a plane and go to Spain or somewhere. There would be these mass exoduses.” Uncle Niall explains. “You live in relative harmony for six, seven, eight months of the year. There’s a real palpable change in the atmosphere. It’s very sensory. You start to see the Union Jacks and then the orange. Then you hear the noises: the drums, the tin whistles, the flutes. Rhetoric changed. These were very contentious times. When I was a child, people were being shot every other week and bombs were going off.”
Uncle Niall never celebrated the Twelfth but remembers gatecrashing it on occasion or watching parades pass my grandparents’ house in Markethill with Auntie Pam’s family.
“Before I met Pam, I would have seen it as all about hate. When I was young, the Twelfth was big trouble. You just didn’t want to be seen out walking about. All it would have taken was a car of guys coming home drunk from a band parade to notice, ‘oh, there’s a wee Catholic fellow,’ and then you’re in danger.”
Traditionally, the night before, Protestants light the sky with hundred-foot-tall bonfires, topped with burning Irish flags and the standard effigy of a republican politician. The next morning, they celebrate the day with parades and copious drinking.
For many Catholics, the lambegs and flutes are warnings, rumblings of Protestantism.
“My da always said the drums are the heartbeat of Ulster,” says Jordan Sterritt, lambeg drum-maker, son of Richard Sterritt, and my grandparents’ neighbor. Ulster, synonymous with Northern Ireland for most unionists, refers to the northernmost traditional province in Ireland. One of only eight to ten lambeg drum makers left in Northern Ireland, Jordan is the youngest and the only one who completes the entire process from start to finish by himself.
“Between 1990 and 2016, my da made around 138 drums, probably more,” Jordan says. An accomplished lambeg musician and craftsman, Richard presented the art form at the 2007 Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., with his brother and nephew. Throughout his career, Richard maintained that lambegs could be enjoyed by Catholics and Protestants alike and that, historically, lambegs were shared by both communities: Protestants use them on July 12 and Catholics incorporate them into Feast of the Assumption celebrations on August 15.
“It’s about carrying on his legacy,” says Jordan, Richard’s eldest child, when asked why he plays today. In the immediate aftermath of his father’s death, Jordan remembered the drumming community questioning whether he and his siblings would continue the tradition.
“The first drumming match we went to without Da was on January First of 2017,” Jordan recalls. While lambegs are most commonly heard in marching season parades, artists like Jordan also perform at drumming matches competitively. “I said to Ethan [Jordan’s younger brother], ‘we need to make a bold statement.’ It was a start over, and it wasn’t going to be the same. I put up a drum and made sure she was the best drum I could take out. There were thirty odd drums competing, and we got second place that day.”
Two years after Richard’s death, Kelley, his wife, received a hand-delivered noise abatement notice from the borough council ordering that the family keep practice sessions to half-hour chunks in allotted time windows. The original complaint had come from Protestant neighbors who complained that the high decibel levels constituted noise pollution. Even among Protestants, the lambeg divides public opinion.
Kelley vowed that her children would keep playing regardless. Community support swelled in favor of the Sterritts. Other community members, like my grandparents, signed petitions in support of the drumming, and the story streaked across social media. It went to court and, eventually, the Sterritts were allowed to resume normal practices.
Years later, playing still brings Jordan right back to practicing with his father as a child.
“It just gives you a good feeling, so it does,” Jordan says, smiling. “The first time I won a cup was the first time Da put me in with seniors. It must have been 2014 or 2015. It was just me own drum with King William on it. She was lovely. She was out of this world. We won first, and all I can remember is the smile on me Da’s face. He was over the moon. He was chuffed.
“He always treated the Twelfth as a big competition. He always had the best drums there,” Jordan remembers.
Of his own experiences on the Twelfth, Jordan says, “I like the fact that you’re drumming down the street and everyone’s looking at you drumming. It just gives you a real buzz.”
To prepare for these celebrations, Jordan works for months building drums from scratch. Each step is a recitation of decades of family knowledge, passed from father to son to grandson.
“I do the tanning myself, which means I skin a goat, get the hair and fat out of the skin, and then put that skin on a board to dry in the sun or a cool place. Then, you dry scrape that skin with a wood scraper, which takes all that fat off it when it’s dry.
“Every drum maker or tanner has a different potion to put on the skin of the drum to make different sounds. There are not too many people who can say they’re a tanner. It takes too much time. It requires you to skin an animal and do all the dirty work. I’d be the only one in Northern Ireland actually doing that dirty work,” Jordan says.
As a child, Jordan learned basic biology from his father as the two prepared goats for the drums.
“I must have been six or seven, and we needed to cut the goat open to take its guts out and use the skin. Da went into the stomach, lifted the liver out, and turned round and said, “Right, Jordan, this is the liver.’ He’d put it in a bucket and then say, ‘Jordan, this is the heart, and these are the lungs. This is how you breathe.’ A lot of people find it quite squeamish, this type of work, but I don’t mind it. I actually enjoy it because I get to carry on this tradition.”
After hours and hours in the shed, months of careful work, Jordan finally completes a drum.
“I like a drum that’s got a sound as sharp as a knife, real sharp. When you stop drumming her, she keeps ringing on. In the olden days, they would have talked about a drum making the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Even the stones on the ground would vibrate. My goal is to make a drum that makes you shiver.”
As for me, this July Twelfth will feel different. Granny won’t straighten Grandda’s tie, humming “The Sash My Father Wore,” her shawl draped over her narrow shoulders. A few more familiar faces will be missing from the ranks of the Orange. The curb crowds won’t look exactly the same. So much of the Twelfth is wrapped up in my childhood and the spirit of homecoming. As the years pass, it will become more and more a family grieving ritual.
For many, the beat of drums is a reminder of conflict, killings, and intergenerational trauma. For others, the Twelfth is a day out, a celebration, a highlight of the year. Some are ambivalent. Some stay holed up inside. Some hate the traffic jams. The story of the Twelfth is complex.
I’ll always return to Granny’s thoughts on the colors of the Irish countryside and my own that arose on that drive with my uncle. If you only paint with one hue, you’ll never portray a real field.
Hannah Davis is a multimedia intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a rising senior at Carleton College, majoring in political science/international relations.