MacDonald offers a neat parallel for people outside the Loyalist community seeking to understand the motivations of those who join Protestant flute and drum bands: he suggests that GAA clubs fulfil a similar role in the Nationalist community.
It doesn’t tick all the boxes — outraged hurling and Gaelic football lovers can point with some justification to a century and a quarter’s history behind the GAA, while the blood-and-thunder bands emerged from the start of the Troubles, about 40 years ago.
But it’s a telling description for those whose only encounters with the bands is the occasional TV news report in the middle of the summer. It encapsulates the extent to which an activity which one community sees as a harmless celebration of its culture can be viewed by the other as a provocation.
MacDonald’s book tracks one such band, the Castlederg Young Loyalists Flute Band from Tyrone, through a year’s activity, but he also addresses the cultural and historical context for the phenomenon as a whole, identifying the bands as an outlet for disaffected Loyalist youths in the early ‘70s.
Interestingly, he teases out the extent to which the blood-and-thunder bands relate to the Orange Order — while in the South one’s reflex action is to lump all such bands together, MacDonald points out that the blood-and-thunder bands are a discrete entity and not part of the Orange Order itself — indeed, they’re viewed as a livelier alternative to the more staid institution of the Order.
Sometimes the liveliness isn’t just a matter of hammering the drums, either. In a classic Irish twist, a ghostly presence in the book is the band which arose out of the (entirely unsurprising) split between the Castlederg Young Loyalists band and its alter ego, the Pride of the Derg band — a relationship neatly symbolised by the photograph in the book of CYL band members looking through at their (unseen) counterparts.
MacDonald is to be commended on the access he got to the band members, and in his exhaustive tracking of the minutiae of keeping a communal enterprise on the road he doesn’t lose his eye for the telling detail (there’s an acute mini-portrait of a band official’s disappointment with one musician’s resignation from the band when they’d laid out £65 for a new uniform pants for her; the sense of letdown seems greater because she resigned by text).
Sometimes the richness of the research overshadows the relative banality of the day-to-day.
In 1988 one of the founder members of the Castlederg band, Michael Darcy, who was also a lance corporal in the Ulster Defence Regiment, was shot and killed, presumably by the IRA, yet it emerges in the book that Darcy was raised in London as a Catholic himself until the age of six, when his father died.
His mother brought him to live in Castlederg, where he grew up a Protestant; ten years after he died she voted against the Good Friday Agreement because of his death.
These are the kinds of stories that MacDonald unearths to flesh out the history of the Castlederg band. He also answers one basic question: why flutes?
Because they’re cheap, he’s told. “If pipes had been £10 a set,” says Quincey Dougan of the Ulster Bands Forum, “It would have been very different and we’d have pipe bands all over the place now.”