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ULSTER HALL PAGEANT - September 27th 2002Pageant admission ticket  celbrating 90th anniversary of the Ulster Volunteer Force

ULSTER DAY - September 28th - was the ninetieth anniversary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant. In Belfast, this anniversary was marked by a procession to the Ulster Hall where a commemorative pageant took place. A large colour party led the parade, carrying Ulster Volunteer Force and Young Citizen Volunteer standards from all parts of Ulster.

Then two companies dressed in period UVF and YCV uniforms marched by carrying dummy rifles. They were followed by a phalanx of ‘nurses’ and two floats depicting the SS Clyde Valley and soldiers of the 36th (Ulster) Division in a trench at the Battle of the Somme. The UVF Regimental Flute Band from East Belfast and the Sons of Ulster Flute Band from Glasg0w provided the marching music.

The Ulster Hall was packed to capacity for the pageant. Each ticket holder received a well-produced glossy booklet, which explained the history of the formation of the UVF and its subsequent role in the Great War, especially the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.

I was a little frustrated that the organisers of the pageant ignored the political significance of the signing of the Covenant. The Covenant showed that Ulster loyalists would vote against home rule for Ireland but that they would fight to resist Dublin rule over Ulster, or at least the parts of Ulster they could control. As we have argued elsewhere, Ulster Day was in effect our independence day, the day Ulster reasserted its distinct identity from the rest of this island.

It’s a shame that there was nothing in the pageant or in the booklet about it. The organisers, the Great Wars Historical and Cultural Society, simply interpreted the Covenant as signalling the birth of the UVF. This is true, of course, but only partly true. The Ulster Unionist Council officially brought the UVF into being in January 1913 when it recruited men who had signed the Covenant to resist Dublin rule by all means necessary.

On reading this, I feared that the pageant might have been an occasion for a paramilitary display from the modern day UVF. Apart from the introduction of standards by a large colour party, nothing of the kind happened. In fact the pageant celebrated the heroism and sacrifice of those UVF and YCV volunteers who enlisted in the British military, only to be butchered in their thousands in the mud of northern France and Flanders.

It used to be said that ‘Prods can’t sing, act or dance’ but this pageant proved at least that the first two assertions are false. The musical contributions from Noel Large, the Master of Ceremonies Tommy McKeown and the singer-songwriters, Jamesey Gould and Brian Ervine reflected this heroism and sacrifice splendidly. One powerful song, Armagh Brigade - emotively rendered by Brian Ervine - told the story of a young soldier, blinded and dying from a shrapnel wound, calling for help from his best mate, Billy Gray – if you’re not already dead. Most of these were new songs, apparently written for the occasion, but not Dad’s Uniform. This upbeat song seemed to be very well known as many of the capacity crowd in the Ulster Hall sang it with gusto!

The East Belfast-based Regimental Band of the UVF takes itself very seriously. This is no blood and thunder ‘kick the pope’ band. The bandsmen look good and they sound good. The drummers are among the best of any band I have ever seen. They gave a terrific rendition of all the old British army marching songs including the British Grenadiers and my own favourite, Killaloo. More music came from another smart melody flute band, the Sons of Ulster from Glasgow. They are a very smart and musically accomplished band too, but in my opinion the East Belfast men just managed to outclass them on the evening. Two little girls, who performed Ulster 1914 on concert flutes, provided flute music of a different kind. Despite their age - they couldn’t have been more that twelve - they held the audience spellbound. If they keep this up they could easily find places in the Ulster Orchestra when they grow up!

I was impressed by the dramatic sequences, which are apparently scenes from a play by Brian Ervine entitled Somme Day Morning. Look out for this play and go and see it if you find a performance. I know I will!  The ‘battle scene’ has three soldiers counting down the last few minutes before going ‘over the top’ on the morning of July 1st 1916. ‘News from the War’ has several Belfast women queuing up in front of a shop window display for news of the wounded, killed and missing from the front. One woman thanks God that her son is only wounded – others learn the distressing news that their only son is dead.

This was powerful and compelling drama, made all the more poignant when we think that other mothers may suffer similarly in a few months’ time if the likes of Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and the other chickenhawks and their cheerleaders in The Sun and the Wall Street Journal have the war that they’ve set their hearts on for so long. This time, I hope, Ulsterfolk will have enough sense to keep out of it! None of our young men – or in these days of equality of opportunity to get killed in a foreign battlefield, none of our young women either – should have to spill their blood for ‘regime change’ in Baghdad. Saddam Hussein, unpleasant dictator as he undoubtedly is, poses no threat to us.

It’s likely that similar pageants will take place over the next decade in the run-up to the centenary of the Ulster Covenant. Next time, I hope that the organisers will give a bit more information on the Covenant itself, and its cultural, political and historical significance. But let’s not be churlish. It was a great evening and I understand that a CD and video of the event are planned. If you weren’t there, get one. You won’t be disappointed.

David Kerr

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