Coronation day in Portadown: ‘It’s two different cultures … but we’re quite happy for them to celebrate’

In Tamnificarbett Orange Hall, celebrations are subdued, and there’s a sense of both communities being keen to respect each other’s identities

In the shadow of Drumcree church in Portadown, the Tír na nÓg under-six Gaelic football team lines up for its player-of-the-week award at the same time King Charles III is being crowned.

Clapping their knees in a fake drumroll, the “mini-Ógs” and their parents cheer loudly as Clara McAleenan and Luan McVeigh receive their trophies.

Club secretary Elaine McKeown is applauding them and tells The Irish Times she watched some of the coronation ceremony at home before travelling to the Saturday morning training session at Fr Rafferty Park, close to the nationalist Garvaghy Road.

“I won’t be marking the coronation myself but I watched a bit of it on TV in the same way you’d watch any international event, whether it’s a new president in America or a new king in England,” she says.


“I don’t think anyone here cares either way, to be honest with you. That’s their culture, fair play, let them at it. They’re entitled to it and I respect their values. It doesn’t impinge on us. It doesn’t take away from that it’s a great day for them to celebrate.”

It is a town that became synonymous with a controversial Orange Order dispute and violent sectarian clashes that made international headlines in the 1990s. At the height of the dispute (the last Orange Order parade along the Garvaghy Road was in 1997 but a weekly petition is still handed into Drumcree church) more than 2,000 army troops and police were deployed in the nationalist area, which had a population of about 4,500.

A 10-minute drive from the Tír na nÓg home grounds, another group of children are gathering with their families at Tamnificarbett Orange Hall; a large screen has been erected to view the coronation in Westminster Abbey.

Carla Stevenson is among the adults and has been up since “early doors” helping to set up a street party in the nearby Ballynacor Meadows.

Every house in the street is decorated with red, white and blue bunting and commemorative royal flags are dotted along the lamp-posts.

Cows are grazing at the entrance to the modern housing development, where, post-ceremony, two girls dressed in Union Jack-patterned pinafores are playing mini-croquet and sliding down inflatable slides.

Stevenson helped secured some of the grant funding for the event and is shepherding people to a seated area as her neighbour, Marcin Radwanski – who moved to the Co Armagh town from Poland 20 years ago – prepares 250 burgers and 90 sausages from his food van.

“It’s a close-knit community here and everybody’s mucked in together for the king’s coronation – it’s very much a family event,” she says.

“This housing development is close to a nationalist area. I grew up on an interface and work within the community, I’m grassroots. We don’t want to cause offence to anybody but we want to be true to ourselves. Everyone has their heritage on both sides – don’t get me wrong: there’s good and bad on both sides. We want to ensure that everything is done in a positive way.

“Today is so important for us to come together. There’s many people here who have lived through the Troubles, they’ve seen the heartache it’s caused.”

Members of the Portadown Defenders Flute Band are taking their red brocade uniform jackets off as the sun comes out and getting ready for their rendition of the British national anthem; in the meantime military-style brass band music is blasting out from two enormous speakers lent by the Tamnificarbett Orange Hall.

Children are making paper crowns at a craft table and a Subbuteo tabletop soccer game is surrounded by boys.

Beside them, 92-year-old Gladys Williamson arrives with her daughter. Wheelchair-bound, Gladys recalls her days as a student nurse in London when she saw the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth.

“It was marvellous. We lay out all night just outside Buckingham Palace, near the gates. I watched today’s coronation on the television, it was very good.”

Sitting in a deckchair beside his wife Elsie, Ivan Stevenson agrees:

“I’m in my 90th year and I’ve always followed the royal family. I’ve seen two other coronations. More than 24 members of my family have served for the British forces, from the Royal Navy to the RUC. It’s great to see it, it’s great to see the people in England following them and supporting the family. I think they hold England together… look at the crowds out today.”

Back at Fr Rafferty Park, the Tír na nÓg social club is opening up after members erect a scoreboard for a match tomorrow. The club’s upstairs room was the former base for European broadcast journalists during the Drumcree stand-off.

The two televisions inside the club have horse racing on.

Paul Carvill, manager of the under-six team, is heading home with his daughter and reflects on how much the town has changed over the past 25 years when he was a teenager attending St Patrick’s Grammar School in Armagh.

“My generation came in at the tail end of the Troubles and I’m very open-minded about the whole thing [the coronation] as we have spent more and more time in the presence of the other side of the community,” he says.

“When I was at St Pat’s you’d run the gauntlet of getting attacked in Portadown as the Ulsterbus would have dropped us off in the middle of the town. One of the boys got a hiding one day and it got to the stage our parents came to collect us in Armagh. You feared for your life. But now it’s very much a case of, we socialise together, we work together and the kids are going to school together. We are involved in a huge amount of cross-community work with the local rugby club.”

Cavill says the presence of Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill and party colleague Alex Maskey at the coronation is a positive step, “We need to move on,” he adds.

As club chairman Dessie Henderson directs the members to straighten the scoreboard, he says the crowning of a British king “wouldn’t even enter most people’s mindset” in the nationalist community.

“The only thing that registers with people here is that they get a bank holiday for it.

“It’s just two completely different identities, two different cultures… but we’re quite happy for them to celebrate.”