More than 80,000 members of the Orange Order, Northern Ireland's once-dominant Protestant fraternal group, paraded through Belfast and 17 other towns to commemorate the triumph of the Protestant King William of Orange versus a Catholic foe on July 12, 1690.
The annual Twelfth demonstrations always bring rivalries between British Protestants and Irish Catholics to the boil. But with several parades blocked this year from going through or near Catholic areas by British security forces, Protestant anger turned against fellow Protestants over who to blame for the past 10 days of widespread rioting.
"We meet here today under extremely difficult circumstances. Our city and our country are being ravaged by terrorism and lawlessness," Jim Rodgers, a Belfast councilman, told fellow Orangemen in a city park.
Several militants in the audience heckled Rodgers as soon as he appealed for the riots to end immediately because they were self-destructive.
"Those that are suffering are people in our own areas. We are destroying our properties, we are hitting our churches, we're taking people's cars and burning them," Rodgers said.
He had to shout above the insults flying from a few who accused his Ulster Unionist Party of caving in to Irish Republican Army supporters to make peace.
IRA supporters are prominent in all the anti-Orange protest groups, and the Ulster Unionists and IRA-linked Sinn Fein party are uncomfortable partners in Northern Ireland's power-sharing government.
Many Orangemen oppose negotiations with the protesters on the same grounds that they reject sharing power with Sinn Fein: the belief that their enemy will never be satisfied no matter how many compromises are made, so no compromises should be made.
Orangemen insisted their demonstrations should be treated as inoffensive, colorful pageants. The lodges march with hand-painted banners portraying important events in Protestant history and mythology: King William on his white horse; the Harland and Wolff shipyard and its most famous product, the Titanic; Protestants dying on World War I battlefields.
But across the Lagan River from the Orange demonstration, the Catholics of the Lower Ormeau neighborhood were savoring a respite from this pageantry, thanks to a British army blockade that prevented a small Orange parade from passing their area that morning.
They said the sound of the Orangemen's rowdy bands of fife and drum sent shivers down their spine.
"Thankfully we can't see them. But just listening to these god-awful bands in the distance reminds people here of the pure hate involved. We just don't want any part of it," said John Gormley, who has helped organize anti-parade protests since 1995.
Several Orange speakers noted bitterly Wednesday that the British government and Royal Ulster Constabulary--the province's predominantly Protestant police--had decided this year to confront Orangemen rather than Catholic protesters. In 1996 and 1997, the protesters were violently forced off disputed streets to make way for Orangemen. Intense Catholic riots followed.
"The Orange Order will not be surrendering its culture, its history, and its tradition to the demands of Sinn Fein-IRA or any of its residents groups," said Denis Watson, the senior Orangeman in County Armagh, where the order was born in 1795 following a sectarian gun battle.
The order's anti-Catholicism was underscored at several rallies, which adopted motions calling for Anglican, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches to end all ecumenical cooperation with Catholics.
"There will be no peace in this land as long as republicanism calls the shots and gets away with what they want to do," he told the 200 Orangemen blocked from marching past the half-dozen side streets constituting the Lower Ormeau.
"They accept nothing unless it is done to their agenda," he said through a bullhorn in front of a 20-foot-high steel wall erected across a bridge. "So we say to the government: Take them on and put them down once and for all."
On Tuesday night, one man linked to a Protestant loyalist paramilitary group was shot dead at a bonfire celebration in Larne, some 20 miles north of Belfast.
Another man was stabbed to death in Coleraine, 80 kilometres northwest of Belfast, while a third stabbing in east Belfast left a man seriously injured.
But police said neither of the stabbings were believed to be sectarian or directly related to the violence that has plagued Northern Ireland this month.
Trouble erupted again overnight in the flashpoint town of Portadown, where 21 police officers and a police photographer were hurt in clashes with Protestant rioters still furious at moves to block marchers from passing through a Catholic district on Sunday.
Elsewhere, police said there had been other reports of shots fired around Belfast after midnight, with masked gunmen staging a show of force and firing volley of shots into the air.
Wednesday's marches, and the overnight bonfires which preceded them, mark the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over the Catholic King James in the 1690 Battle of the Boyne. It is the main date in the Orange calendar and parades are held in many towns and villages.
The marching season, which runs from Easter right through the summer, poses an annual test of Northern Ireland's perennially fragile peace process, stoking passions on both sides of the sectarian cleft that has divided the province for 30 years.
Protestant insist on their right to commemorate important historic military victories over the Catholics, but the latter argue that the marches are an unacceptable expression of bigotry and have no place in the current climate of conciliation.
A power-sharing government was re-established in Belfast in May, bringing together pro-British Protestant Unionists and Catholic nationalists and republicans, who want a united Ireland.
Fearful that the marches could threaten the newfound political balance, the independent parades commission decided to prevent Protestants from marching through Catholic districts in Portadown and Belfast.
But that touched off the nightly violence that brought the army onto the streets of Belfast for the first time in two years and threatened to tip Northern Ireland back into the armed conflict of the past.