Watching actor David Tennant (the current face of Dr Who, a BBC/CBC co-production) retrace his ancestors, brings back memories of an earlier Christmas Eve. It's 10.30am and I've risen five hours later than my now accustomed reveille. Nel's at the local store trying to find some mint for our Christmas Dinner. We're dining at Dr Chang's tomorrow, in the company of his Indian research assistant. Dinner promises to be fun, a Chinese banquet. Our contribution is the traditional English dish of pineapple and cucumber salad with mint and chilli, hence Nel's last minute expotition.
In preparation for my contribution(hunting down some beer), I'm watching "Who do you think you are" which is a geneaology programme. In line with current British TV guidelines, the lives of celebrities are inherently more interesting than other people's and due to the fact that there are millions of celebrities ranging from footballers wives through to chefs and fitness instructors, gardeners, taxi-drivers, demolition experts, wallpaperers and criminals, the programme should run and run.
It appears that Tennant (who derived his stage name from the Pet Shop Boys) has discovered that his maternal grandparents were rabid Orangemen. Orangemen are Northern Ireland Protestants, loyal to the English crown who have historically taken the position that Northern Ireland (or the Occupied Six Counties as Republicans call them) belong to England. The name Orangemen derives from William of Orange, a Dutch Protestant Prince who defeated Catholics in a Battle over four hundred years ago. Tennant is dismayed by this discovery, as to people of a liberal bent, having an Orangeman in the family is akin to being related to the Great Wizzard of the Ku Klux KLan. It is generally accepted, when describing most Orangemen, that the words "rabid", "partisan", "uncompromising", "discriminatory", "mad" and "violent" would not be underemployed.
The programme reminds me of my first interaction with an Orangeman, which was co-incidentally, one of my first encounters with a Protestant of any description. I had taken a job as a Christmas casual at our local Post Office, and was assigned to a massive wall of wooden boxes or pigeonholes. Each pigeonhole represented a street, or section of road, in our Post Office's catchment area, and the whole wall was sectioned into ten "walks", each walk being the route of a particular postman. The streets were arranged within each section to correspond to the order of route that each postman walked. The task of the twelve or so eager teenagers facing the wall, was to dip into the huge bins of mail lined up opposite the wall, and fill a specific "walk" as quickly as possible. Interestingly, we were not required to undertake any tests for the job. In those days, literacy was assumed.
After a few days, I became chummy with the kid next to me who'd been assigned "Bonsall Drive to Fairfield Crescent". We chatted as teenagers do: "Allright?", "Allright". "Cant wait to hometime". "Yeah. I'm starvin". Later on, as our intimacy developed, we began to put whole sentences together, and Billy learnt that I played bass in my brother's group. "I play meself" said Billy. "Pipes in a band". "What sort of band?", I asked. ""You know, marchin band" Billy said "With the Lodge". I laughed, "The Lodge? The Orangemen? You know what's funny? My mum used to throw stones at you guys when you marched, and here we are, mates!". Billy looked up "You're a redneck?" he said. "Yeah", I laughed ""Hope no one in Canny Farm finds out!". Canny Farm was the area me and Billy had been assigned to, and was traditionally a wall to wall Protestant area. Billy glared at me, and the above conversation represents the longest, and final conversation we had. Thereafter, Billy would'nt acknowledge me at all.
Irony is a much overused concept, but years later I was researching my own geneaology. The directly Irish branch of my family tree is hard to establish, except that the McEvoys were one of the Seven Septs of Leish. My patrinomy is easier to trace, with the result that relatively early in my search I discovered that my father's Godfather was one Reverend Nicholson, a mentor of Dr Ian Paisley. Dr Ian Paisley is described in many ways, "firebrand", "man of God", "lunatic", "bigot", "hero", but all descriptions of him agree on one thing. Paisley is a Unionist, probably the most pre-eminent Loyalist in recent times, and a hero to Orangemen everywhere. If only Billy had known - perhaps we would have been friends.