MARCHING season is upon us and Ballymena and its surrounding villages are getting suited and booted to go on parade.
The conservation village of Loughgal, the birthplace of Orangeism, will be one of 17 venues across Northern Ireland holding processions to mark the 328th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne.
Preparations are at an advanced stage for the biggest day in the parading calendar, with upwards of an estimated half-a-million people expected to participate or spectate in what is widely regarded as one of the largest annual festivals in Europe.
Thousands of Orangemen, women and juniors – accompanied by over 600 marching bands – will step out at the various locations with much pageantry, colour and heritage on display.
Belfast and Ballymena are the only venues where Twelfth demonstrations occur annually..
Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, Edward Stevenson, hailed the enhanced cultural experience offered by the yearly celebrations.
“The Twelfth of July offers a unique opportunity for the Orange Institution and the bands community to showcase our culture and heritage, and we are confident of welcoming increasing numbers of visitors, tourists and families to all of our parades,” he said.
“There are very few events on these islands that can bring such vast numbers of people onto the streets, either by taking part or simply to watch the music and pageantry.”
The senior Orangeman added: “The Twelfth is truly a day like no other as we celebrate much that is important to the Reformed faith, our civil and religious liberties and our British heritage. Our proud cultural traditions will once again be on display at 17 venues throughout Northern Ireland.”
Upwards of 30 lodges and accompanying bands will take part in the annual Twelfth in Ballymena.
The town is the only one in Northern Ireland which has a Twelfth demonstration every year.
This year the honour of hosting the parade belongs to the members of 36th Ulster Division Memorial LOL 143.
Orangemen and 15 bands, accompanied by a number of Lambeg drums, will assemble at the car park behind the town fire station at 12.30pm – proceeding to the demonstration field at Wakehurst Playing fields – via Waveney Road, Galgorm Road, Pentagon, Lower Mill Street, Wellington Street, Ballymoney Street, William Street, Broughshane Street, Broadway, Church Street, Bridge Street, Harryville Bridge, Salisbury Square, Queens Street, Wakehurst Road and Brooke Park.
Among the lodges taking part in the parade – for the first time in over 40 years - will be Braidwater Purple Star LOL 512. The lodge, which has over 30 members, was recently resurrected having been dormant. Members will carry the original lodge banner which was preserved. The banner is unique in Orange circles in that it features King William III on both sides (typically only one side).
The guest speaker at the field will be the past Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Australia, Herbert Mailey.
Other senior Orangemen in attendance will include County Antrim Grand Master, Robin Matthews, and past Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, Robert Saulters.
Over 40 lodges representing five districts – Rasharkin, Bushmills, Ballycastle, Ballymoney and Cloughmills – will take part in the North Antrim demonstration which is being held in Rasharkin this year.
There will be a rich variety of music on parade, with 26 bands encompassing the accordion, flute and pipe genres accompanied by a number of Lambeg drums.
The parade – involving up to 2,000 participants - will assemble on the Finvoy Road and set off at 1pm through the village via Main Street and Church Road to the demonstration field at the Turnpike.
There, a religious service will be held when the guest speaker will be Rev Alistair Smyth, a Grand Chaplain of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland. Roy Dawe, a former Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Canada will also be in attendance.
The local cultural group are holding a number of events prior to the main day with talks, exhibitions, trips, and the production of a book to highlight the history of Orange lodges in the area. They are also hosting a fun day for children in the demonstration field which will include bouncy castles, face painting and many other family activities.
The Twelfth is held in Rasharkin every five years and a large crowd is expected in the village as the parade makes its way along the three-mile route.
The 11 lodges of Braid district will gather for the Twelfth in Broughshane, for the second year in a row.
It is one of the smallest parades of the day with over 300 Orangemen taking part but the Braid Twelfth is always a big attraction for visitors and tourists.
Orange lilies will be more prevalent than ever in the north Antrim village, which is renowned for its appearance and success in floral competitions, making it a beautiful location for such a parade.
Orange brethren will be accompanied by nine bands and a number of Lambeg drums.
Host lodge, Pollee LOL 841, have the honour of leading the procession this year. Visiting members from both Scotland and Australia are expected to take part.
The main parade is scheduled to start at 12 noon and those participating will parade from the assembly point on the Tullymore Road, proceeding through the village, before congregating at a field on the Buckna Road for the religious service.
The guest speaker will be Jim Allister MLA.
This is the only Twelfth demonstration in Northern Ireland which crosses a county border during the parade.
15 lodges will take part in the Triangle parade in Portglenone this year and they will walk in both Co Antrim and Co Londonderry.
In other years, Ahoghill and Cullybackey are the venues for the demonstration.
As is tradition, the distinctive sound of the Lambeg drum will be very apparent, with a significant number on display.
The parade starts at 12.45pm from Chesney Crescent in Co Londonderry and proceeds through the village, over the Bann Bridge into Co Antrim, to the field on the Clady Road.
Ian Wilson, a former Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland, will give the main address during the religious service