Anthony  D  Buckley

‘Late night drumming’


Ulster Folk and Transport Museum Year Book 1980-81, Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra. 1982



IT was five minutes to twelve, but there was still a warm glow in the summer sky. We sat a little way from the Orange hall where, a moment or two earlier, the midnight quiet of the village Sunday had been ruffled by the lights and whispers of men assembling. Before we saw the crowd, we heard the sound. Dampened at first by a bend in the road, the noise began to crackle out of the night. Behind the sound came the people. At first we saw the shadow of a dozen men, but then we saw some fifty men ranged behind the two big drums.

Startled, we let the crowd pass. Then we joined the stragglers in the rear, while vainly I fiddled with the knobs and dials on my recorder to protect it from the noise. The sound scarcely seemed to come from the drums. The flickering canes, the painful steps of the drummers beneath their burden, even the silences as tired men handed the canes and drums to others, all of these seemed incidental. Two things only were important, the crowd of men and the flood of sound. The sound seemed to be a part of the crowd, yet it burned into the countryside. And round about, the hills and buildings echoed in counterpoint like phantom drummers.

There were some teenage girls and a young child among our number, but this event was properly for men. This procession was a great way off in spirit from the Twelfth cavalcade to be held the following day. On the Twelfth, the seriousness, tenacity and determination would all be disguised beneath banners and bunting and sunlight and smiles. This night's work was more single minded. But still there was humour. One man, an old acquaintance from the village pub, who tomorrow would be marching in parade, now grasped a much-used tumbler, full, I supposed, with his favourite vodka and coke. Many others were drunk, or behaved as though they were. But their drunken humour was not quite cheerfulness. The light from the moon and stars, the night wind, the starkness of the sound, these did not make men cheerful. This humour was of a stoical sort. Their smiles made me think of the soldiers of the Somme and of Templars defending their Holy Place.

We turned north towards our immediate goal. Soon the respectable quiet of the neighbouring village would be awoken. At the corner, we passed beneath an unofficial festive Arch. It bore the cut-out shapes of a coffin, a cross, a three-stepped ladder and an automatic rifle. A cheer rose briefly above the flashing sound.

For a time, we were in open country. On either side of the straight road, silhouetted cattle were dancing. Among them, a bull tried to stand his ground, anger in his eyes. A long moment of terror extinguished his bravery. He was banished into the darkness.

As we reached the second village, the mood became more playful. A van and its owner were seized in fun by a group of men who sought to turn it over. From behind, a man placed his hand on my shoulder and sternly ordered me to switch off my recorder. This I did, but he too was joking.

The drumming continued into the morning. At two-thirty, the sky was already growing light, and I left the procession. When, before breakfast, I looked around the district, a small undefeated band still tramped triumphant behind a single drum.

I have tried to gain explanations of this eerie rite. These are easy enough to find among its many opponents, but those who follow the drum are less forthcoming. One woman told me that, as a child, she found the drums comforting. 'They kept the bogey-man away', she had thought. Perhaps indeed its purpose is to keep away a bogey-man. In this the height of the summer, it lights up the brief night and drives out the evil. It makes the darkness visible. But as I slipped into my bed in the early dawn, my head still full of echoes, my shivers were not entirely of cold.