Orange déja vu?

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 4 (Winter 1996), News, Volume 4

Sir Patrick Mayhew’s setting up of an independent review of parades and marches in northern Ireland, under the chairmanship of Dr Peter North, follows a pattern set in the last century. Orange marches through mainly Catholic areas invariably led to resentment and riot, sometimes to death and destruction, often followed by a government inquiry of some sort, a commission or parliamentary committee, to ensure that the regrettable events of one year would not be repeated in the next. Dr North has apparently a very limited brief and we are told that, as well as conducting a survey of attitudes, he may take either written or oral submissions, or both. He could do worse, to begin with, than to examine the formidable amount of material compiled by his predecessors, even at the risk of being overwhelmed by a feeling of déja vu. As an Oxford don and a lawyer, he will no doubt familiarise himself with the reports of the various commissions set up in the past to deal with Orange parades and their consequences, as well as looking up the numerous parliamentary debates on the subject and the recommendations for reform of the law or of the law-enforcement agencies, or of the Orange institution itself.
In The Narrow Ground (1977), A.T.Q. Stewart gives a fair enough summary of the Belfast riots of the last century and of the enquiries that followed:

The Belfast riots of 1857, 1864 and 1886, and the Londonderry riots of 1869 and 1883, were the subject of commissions of enquiry. The evidence which they collected, and the reports which they finally presented, provide the historian with a vast amount of information on the peculiarities of this kind of urban warfare. After each riot the commissioners did their best to isolate what they believed to be the immediate and long-term causes, so that their labours might help to avert such events in future. The subsequent explosions clearly proved that they had not succeeded and it may be assumed that the same is true of those commissions which have sat in recent years. With depressing frequency the nineteenth-century commissions laid the blame squarely on two main factors—the partiality and inefficiency of the police and the provocative nature of Orange

As well as criticising the performance of the police, the commission of 1857 found that the celebration of the Orange festival on 12 July was ‘plainly and unmistakably the originating cause of these riots’ and that their purpose was ‘to remind one party of the triumph of their ancestors over those of the other and to inculcate the feelings of Protestant superiority over their Roman Catholic neighbours’. That would seem to be a reasonable enough explanation of the Orange (and Black and Purple) imperative to march and mark out their territory. Otherwise it is difficult to explain why a soi-disant religious institution, portrayed by unionist leaders as a group of church-going, hymn-singing men, accompanied by girls in blue uniforms playing flutes, should wish to parade through predominantly Catholic areas where they are not welcome, with Lambeg drums and ‘Kick-the-Pope’ bands which make hymn-singing, if any, irrelevant. Dr Stewart does not address this aspect of Orangeism but seems instead to put the blame for provocation on the Catholic side (which may sometimes be the case):

Orangemen, when engaged in their rituals, do not in fact physically attack anyone, unless they are provoked beyond discipline [my italics]. The provocation alleged by Catholics may arise simply from the fact that Orangeism is a symbol of something intensely hated.

Dr Stewart was, of course, writing well before events of Drumcree and Garvaghy Road and before what appear to have been very well-disciplined roadblocks and sealings-off of towns and villages throughout Northern Ireland during the stand-off. His contemporary, Edward Norman of Cambridge University, the well-known Protestant theologian and author of Anti-Catholicism in Victorian England (1969), saw the bigotry of the Orange Order and its concomitant violence as an extension or survival of the anti-Catholic prejudices which gave the book its title. Going back to the Gordon Riots of 1780, he traces the history of ‘the endemic violence of British life in the nineteenth century’ which, he says, gave the anti-Catholic disturbances ‘frightful significance’.
The sectarian nature of the Orange Order and its poisonous mixture of religion and politics, with elements of racism thrown in, will no doubt be considered by Dr North and his inquiry. Many of the questions raised in the inquiries of the nineteenth century will probably be asked once more: the part played by the intimidatory thunder of Orange drums (‘that most menacing of sounds, even to Protestant ears’, according to Dr Stewart), by the playing of party tunes, by sectarian ballads and songs in stirring up ill-feeling and confrontation; police membership of Orange lodges and their collusion in the conduct of Orange marches; the involvement of the various Protestant churches in so-called ‘church parades’ which end in riot (an involvement which is being increasingly questioned by more enlightened Church of Ireland and Presbyterian church leaders and clergy). All of these issues were brought up in the 1835 Report from the Select Committee appointed to inquire into the nature, character, extent and tendency of Orange lodges, Associations or Societies in Ireland, with the Minutes of Evidence and Appendix. This huge volume consists, apart from tables and documents, of over 400 pages of evidence given for the most part by members of the Orange Order themselves. For that reason it is a highly informative document about the mindset of Orangemen, their anti-Catholic prejudices and the manifest hypocrisy of the Order which, while proclaiming the loftiest sentiments of tolerance and brotherhood, by its acts does everything to negate them. The first witness was Lt. Col. William Verner, ‘deputy Grand Master of the institution and deputy Grand Master of the county of Armagh’, who as magistrate and commander of the local Yeomanry had in 1830 orchestrated in his own estate and his own constituency the wrecking of twenty-eight houses belonging to Catholics in the village of Maghery near Lough Neagh. Verner was censured in the following terms in the subsequent Sergeant Perrin Report to parliament:

Colonel Verner appears not to have performed his duty as a magistrate at Verner’s Bridge, in order to disperse (as he was bound and required by law) the persons there tumultuously and unlawfully assembled;…he did not take the measures and precautions proper for that purpose, which he was empowered and required by law to take, and which the result evinces for the preservation of the peace and the threatened breach thereof; and that he is liable to be prosecuted at the suit of the Crown…for such (as it seems to me) criminal neglect of his duty.

The second witness in the 1835 inquiry was Revd. Mortimer O’Sullivan, ‘Deputy Grand Chaplain to the Orange Institution’, a zealous convert from Roman Catholicism and euphemistically described as ‘an eloquent and popular preacher’. O’Sullivan was at his most moderate before the Select Committee. He repeated the Orange mantra about ‘civil and religious liberty’, about the Orangeman being ‘the friend of all pious and peaceable men, avoiding strife and seeking benevolence’, but at the same time being utterly opposed to the Roman Catholics of Ireland whose purpose it was ‘to extirpate Protestants’.
The historical facts about Orange sectarianism and its accompanying violence are well documented and perhaps nowhere better than in the Orange ballads composed after ‘famous victories’—just as valid an expression of the Orange culture and heritage than all the marching and confrontation. As a person who attended the Finaghy Field regularly in the good old days before the M1 cut its way through it and before the elegant fife and drum band was swamped by Lambegs, Killymans, rattles and massed accordions; as a person who has collected and recorded many Orange songs and taken delight in their tuneful airs and their rodomontade and biblical resonances, I have often wondered if the offence allegedly taken by Catholics at their playing is not more imagined than real. Many Catholics might not indeed like to be reminded of the Orange claim to have ‘kicked ten thousand papishes right over Dolly’s Brae’, but in an age less theologically involved than a century and a half ago, insults to ‘the wafer god’ and the priests who distributed it ‘among the Philistines’, derogatory references to the Virgin Mary, the pope of Rome, holy water, ‘papist dogs’, etc., are nowadays, if adverted to at all, more likely to be dismissed as just what you might expect from that quarter—a matter for pity or indifference rather than recrimination. Even in the most biased of the ballads there is often a historical residue, and one of the best of them, The Aghalee Heroes ‘who marched through the sweet Portadown’, contains confirmation of nearly all the elements of Orangeism mentioned in the nineteenth-century reports:

(a) The propensity for triumphalist marching and the playing of party tunes:

It being the twelfth day of July,
Our music so sweetly did play,
And The Protestant Boys and Boyne Water
Were the tunes we played going away.

(b) The involvement of the church and its decoration in the party colours:

Like the sons of King William we marched
Till at length Lurgan town came in view
And the church it was there decorated
With the orange and purple and blue.

(c) Collusion with the forces of law-and-order when the local Yeoman commander or magistrate (most likely Col. Blacker in this case) observed the letter of the law (the Party Processions Act) by asking a few questions and then, turning a blind eye, led the Orangemen himself and so became a William-like hero in the song:

Captain Black, like a bold Orange hero,
Came riding up on his white steed
And asked what number we carried
And where did we mean to proceed.

We told him the County of Antrim,
Our number was six-thirty-two;
We are the bold Aghalee heroes
That soon will the rebels subdue.

We took off our hats to salute him,
So boldly he bade us march on
And he rode like a hero before us
Till we came to the banks of the Bann.

Plus ça change…!

Proinsias Ó Conluain is a local historian and retired RTE broadcaster.


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