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‘I wanted to challenge the negative narrative surrounding musicians and decided the best way to do that was to share my story’

‘I wanted to challenge the negative narrative surrounding musicians and decided the best way to do that was to share my story’

The loyalist band community has been working hard to shake off its negative image, with one man in particular, Glenn Millar from east Belfast, leading the charge

One of more than 20,000 loyal musicians in Northern Ireland, the 51-year-old has been a proud member of east Belfast-based Pride Of The Raven Flute Band since he was just nine years old.

He grew up during the Troubles, close to one of Belfast’s most notorious intersections, where clashes with the neighbouring Catholic community of Short Strand were a frequent occurrence.

Glenn Millar with his book Made To Parade

But far from driving him into sectarian violence, Glenn says being part of the Pride Of The Raven Flute Band gave him a sense of purpose and equipped him with the skills to pursue a career in youth work.

Today, he writes training programs for Alternatives, the government agency dedicated to restorative justice.

And for the past four years he has been actively working in his spare time to improve the community’s perception of loyal bands, initially through a book chronicling his own experience, called Made To Parade.

His book opened the door to debate with the Catholic community and spawned a weekly podcast of the same name that now has an audience of thousands.

Glenn says: “People don’t see us as musicians and I think that’s unfair, from a human perspective.

Podcaster Glenn Millar interviews singer Lisa Williamson

“For a long time, there’s been this negative narrative that the men and women in the band are cultish, punch-dragging drunks. That hasn’t been my experience.

“I’m not saying these things didn’t happen, that would be stupid, but what makes the band community work, first and foremost, are the musicians.

“It is a travesty that some of the most talented musicians in our community are in marching bands and receive no recognition. James Galway started out in a band on Shore Road; it was there that he learned to play the flute.

“Hearing the very negative narrative over and over again makes you angry. Then I realized I had a voice and I could use it to redirect people.

Members of the Portadown Defenders Flute Band

“Coming from a place of understanding is best. You can’t make a judgment if you don’t understand.

“I wanted to challenge the negative narrative and decided the best way to do that was to share my story, what happened to me and why I joined a band, what it was like to be in my first parade and my first July 12th, in the hopes that I could change the perspective a little bit.”

Glenn finished the book during lockdown and self-published it four years ago. He was delighted with the positive reception it received.

Initially, it was popular among the band community, but Glenn wanted to go beyond that world and inform other people.

Members of Portadown Defenders taking part in ‘Fit to March’ training sessions

He made copies available to Ardoyne residents and set up Zoom calls with them to allow questions.

He explains: “It opened up new connections with groups that might not necessarily want to have anything to do with the bands.

“This then led to the podcast, where we initially interviewed other band members to give them the chance to share their stories and talk about the positive aspects the band has brought to their lives.

“That was eye-opening, even for me. One of the main things that came out of it was that people are coming together, first and foremost, for music, and the podcast has helped open up a whole new world where people can see beyond the negative stereotypes.”

Around 620 bands are active in the province and membership exceeds 20,000, making it the largest voluntary arts sector in Northern Ireland.

Much of what has been written about loyalist marching bands has been written from an academic or investigative journalism perspective, but Glenn’s book shares the inside story for the first time.

Glenn Millar

He recalls being mesmerised as a young boy watching the Raven Pride march down Templemore Avenue: “I remember being blown away by the colours and pageantry.

“I remember Pride Of The Raven, which was different from everything else because it was mostly harmonies.

“I walked alongside them and thought if I was going to be in a band, this would be it.

“When we were kids, we used to walk around bands with cardboard boxes around our necks, pretending they were drums.

“One night I was going to soccer practice and my friend said he couldn’t go because he had joined a band and was going to practice.

“When I asked him which band, he said Pride Of The Raven and I immediately said, ‘I’ll go with you.’

“I remember walking in and sitting next to a guy named Terry who taught flute.

“After talking to the other band members, he handed me a flute and started teaching me how to play it.

“I was embarrassed when I first tried to play the flute. It was more like blowing my nose than creating music.

“It wasn’t until a while later that I realized I was getting free music lessons, a free instrument, and the chance to learn and play with like-minded people.”

Members of Portadown Defenders taking part in ‘Fit to March’ training sessions

It was in the early 1980s that tensions rose over the rerouting of the bands’ parades, and although Glenn admits there was anger in the ranks, he insists that for most band members it was the music that took precedence.

As he grew up, he credits the band with helping to not only shape his career choice, but also his personality.

He says: “I was living in an interface area, and I was not completely unaware of the sectarian riots in the street, but I never heard any sectarian language in that band hall. We were there to play music.

“When I joined, they gave me a list of songs, there were about 90, that I had to memorize and be able to play in front of the band without making mistakes.

“That became my life. After school and homework, I would pick up my flute and practice. All hell could be breaking loose around me and I wouldn’t notice.

“The rerouting of the parades caused anger in the community as people saw it as a way to stifle their culture.

“For me, though, the main benefits of being part of the band were the social and personal development I was enjoying.

“It really developed me as a person and taught me how to interact with other people of all ages. It was a real motivator for me to choose a career in youth work.

“It also gave me respect for my elders and a sense of belonging and connection.

“The members really care for each other; these people sometimes become even closer than family.”

Glenn Millar playing the flute

Glenn has also been at the forefront of a number of mental health initiatives to support the band members.

The loyalist band community was given a platform at the recent Northern Ireland Mental Health Arts Festival to showcase their commitment to improving mental health in the arts.

Measures to support members include the formation of wellbeing committees as well as peer support and mentoring programmes.

Many bands also hold ‘Fit to March’ training, bringing members together for walks and runs in preparation for marching season.

A new 12-week programme created by Glenn to expand on this, including mental fitness, is set to be rolled out to bands across Northern Ireland.

A Facebook group, The Light of Foot, has also been created to help members who may be struggling with mental health.

Glenn explains: “Marching bands in Northern Ireland tend to be a male event, so the whole movement involves a considerable number of men across the country.

“I know of no other voluntary interest group that would give you access to some 20,000 Protestant men.

“Northern Ireland has catastrophic levels of mental health problems and more people have died by suicide in the last 17 years than during 30 years of conflict.

“During the conflict in Northern Ireland, it is estimated that around 3,600 people were killed.

Pride of Raven Flute Band

“Suicides in the years since have already surpassed that number, with more than 4,400 deaths recorded due to suicide from early 1998 to late 2016.

“I salute the members who are actively providing mental health support, as their efforts show that community is more than being a member of a band. It is a way of life and is helping to preserve life.”

The charitable side is another one that Glenn believes the community doesn’t get enough credit for. His band alone has raised over £200,000 for worthy causes over the years.

And even after 42 years, the joy of the parade is something he says has never diminished: “For me, July is exciting and July 1st is my favorite parade because it is to commemorate the Battle of the Somme, and that is the most important thing for me.

“We walk past the memorials, lay wreaths, pay our respects and have that deep sense of connection to history. In east Belfast, so many people lost their lives on the Somme.

“It’s about people connecting with others in their community and celebrating their culture.

“Behind every uniform is a human being and I hope people finally see that musicians and singers are musicians out on the streets showing off their skills.”