As the sounds of flutes and drums carry across towns and cities in Northern Ireland this month, Glenn Millar is hoping that people on both sides of the community will pause and appreciate the music.

One of around 20,000-plus loyalist bandsmen in Northern Ireland, the 51-year-old has been a proud member of east Belfast’s 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 interfaces, where rioting with the nearby Catholic community of Short Strand was a frequent occurrence.

Glenn Millar with his book Made To Parade

But far from leading him into sectarian violence, Glenn says being part of 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 programmes for Alternatives, the government agency dedicated to restorative justice.

And over the past four years he has actively worked in his spare time to improve the perception of the loyalist band community, initially through a book charting his own experience, called Made To Parade.

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

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

Podcaster Glenn Millar interviewing singer Lisa Williamson

“For a long time, there has been this negative narrative that bandsmen and women are knuckle-draggers and sectarian drunkards. That has not been my experience.

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

“It is a travesty that some of the most talented musicians in our community walk in marching bands and get no recognition. James Galway started in a band on the Shore Road; that’s where he learnt to play the flute.

“Hearing the very negative narrative over and over again does make you angry. Then I realised I had a voice and that I could use it to redirect people.

Members of Portadown Defenders Flute Band

“Coming from a place of understanding is better. You can’t make a judgement call if you don’t understand.

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

Glenn finished the book during lockdown and self-published it four years ago. He was delighted that it was well received.

Initially it was popular among the band community, but Glenn wanted to reach outside that world and inform others.

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

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

He explains: “That opened new connections with groupings who might not necessarily want to have anything to do with the bands.

“It then led to the podcast, where at first we interviewed other band members to give them a chance to share their stories and talk about the positive aspects the band had brought to their lives.

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

Some 620 bands are active across the province and membership numbers in excess of 20,000 make it the largest voluntary arts sector in Northern Ireland.

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

Glenn Millar

He recalls how he was mesmerised as a young boy watching the Pride Of The Raven march up Templemore Avenue: “I remember being taken by the colour and the pageantry.

“I remember Pride Of The Raven, who were different to anything else because they played mostly harmonies.

“I walked alongside them and thought if I was going to join a band, that would be the one.

“As kids we used to walk alongside the bands with cardboard boxes strung round our necks, pretending they were drums.

“One night I was going to football practice and my mate said he couldn’t come because he had joined a band and was going to practice.

“When I asked what band, he said Pride Of The Raven and I immediately said: ‘I’m going with you.’

“I remember going in and sitting down beside this guy Terry, who taught the flute.

“After he had gone through stuff with the other band members, he handed me a flute and started to teach me to play it.

“I was embarrassed trying to play the flute for the first time. It was more like blowing my nose than creating music.

“It is only with hindsight that I realised that 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’ coaching sessions

It was the early 1980s when tensions were rising over the re-routing of band parades, and while Glenn accepts 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 just shape his choice of career but also his personality.

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

“When I joined, I was given a list of tunes, there were about 90 on it, which I had to learn by heart and be able to play in front of the band without making a mistake.

“That became my life. After school and homework, I took my flute out and practised. All hell could have been breaking out around me and I didn’t notice.

“The re-routing of parades did cause anger in the community, as people saw it as stifling their culture.

“For me, though, the key benefits of being part of the band was 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 participation and connection.

“Members really look out for each other; these people sometimes become even closer than family.”

Glenn Millar playing the flute

Glenn has also been at the fore of a number of mental health initiatives to support 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.

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

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

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

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

Glenn explains: “Marching bands in Northern Ireland tend to be a male affair, so the whole movement deals with a considerable number of males across the country.

“I know of no other voluntary interest grouping that would give you access to around 20,000 Protestant males.

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

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

Pride of Raven flute band

“Suicides in the years since have now surpassed that, with more than 4,400 deaths recorded due to suicide from the beginning of 1998 to the end of 2016.

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

The charitable side is another for which Glenn believes the community is not given enough credit. His band alone has raised more than £200,000 for worthy causes over the years.

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

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

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

“Behind every uniform is a human being and I would hope people ultimately see that bandsmen and women are musicians on the street displaying their skills.”