ORANGEISM: a historical profile

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Featured-Book-Review, Issue 2 (March/April 2020), Reviews, Volume 28

ISBN 9781838592004

Reviewed by Geoffrey Bell

Geoffrey Bell’s The Protestants of Ulster was first published in 1976.

Once, in the early 1960s when I was about thirteen, I was asked to take my English granny to watch a Twelfth of July march. We went to the Finaghy crossroads, on the edge of Belfast, about half a mile from the marchers’ destination. After ten minutes of seeing the bands and the men in bowler hats and sashes, and some even carrying swords, my granny asked, ‘Geoff, what is this all about?’, or words to that effect. I told her that I hadn’t the faintest idea—this despite being born into a Protestant home and living my earliest years in Finaghy itself, just a stone’s throw from the ‘field’ where the Orange parade then ended up.

I relate this to illustrate that not all Protestant families of my generation were raised in the traditions that have come to characterise the Protestant community in Northern Ireland, but also to rue that I did not have Kevin Haddick-Flynn’s book on my bedside table. If I had, I could have initiated my granny into the whys, ways and means of the ‘Twelfth’ until her curiosity was satisfied. And then some, because this is indeed an exhaustive—and, it must be said, at times an exhausting—read: everything you wanted to know about Orangeism but were cautious about asking in 618 pages.

The book is a revised and extended edition of a work first published in 1999. Looking back on reviews then, the Irish Times said that it was ‘unfair to Protestants’ while History Ireland said that it was ‘sympathetic’ to its subject-matter. That rather suggests that Haddick-Flynn got something right.

He does so again in his revised edition. He neither cheer-leads nor condemns. Rather, he seeks to explain Orangeism through its personalities, most glorious victories and more questionable activities. He covers not just the Orange Order but also manifestations of its philosophy, from King William III himself—at some length—to the UDA. For most of the time he is non-judgemental: when he ponders in his conclusion whether the Orange Order is ‘a part of the problem or the solution’ he does not attempt to answer the question. There is enough evidence throughout the book, however, to suggest the former. The violence, the intolerance and the supremacism associated with Orangeism by most observers outside the Six Counties are all abundantly evidenced. In the end, the only positive thing that Haddick-Flynn can say about the Orange Order itself is that it provides ‘conviviality … companionship … a sense of belonging to its members’. You could say that about any political or religious sect.

At times there is too much detail. In the last section there is saturation coverage of the various branches of organisational Orangeism and its rituals. Do we really need, for instance, page after page of direct quotations from the initiation rituals of the Orange Order? What we do need, and do not get, is at least some detail of the 1920 Belfast ‘pogrom’ which ensured that the new emerging state of Northern Ireland would have a bloody, sectarian anti-Catholic birth that would profoundly affect the years to follow. Indeed, as the book progresses into the twentieth century it becomes too selective in its narrative; while accepting that Haddick-Flynn does not set out to have an academic discussion (and there are pluses in this approach), that he does not mention or include in his bibliography more recent important literature, such as the work of Jon Tongue, Susan McKee’s Northern Protestants or Dean Godson’s extensive biography of David Trimble, is a major omission. He can also be criticised when he occasionally lets his rhetoric get the better of him, most notably, perhaps, when he calls the Revd Ian Paisley the ‘Mad Mullah’. On the other hand, that he records the support prominent Orange Order members have given to the Irish language and also details examples of others’ adherence to the notion that Northern Ireland Protestants are the lost tribe of Israel are exactly the sorts of detail which fascinate. More generally, the author is at his best when he charts the ups and downs of the relationship between the Irish Ascendancy, the British nobility and the Protestant lower classes: how Orangeism was used by the former two when it suited their purpose but also how on other occasions it was generated and led from below. And if you want to know how to get the best out of a Lambeg drum, there are even tips on that.

I will end with a source not quoted by Haddick-Flynn, being of very recent origin, but one that sums up what for many in Britain today would be a common reaction to the culture he describes. This comes from David Cameron’s recent biography, when he writes of seeing his first Orange Order march: ‘Their traditions and fervour seemed alien to me and the UK I knew’.

Alien? What would the average Orange marcher make of that, as he proclaims his Britishness with every step he takes? Well, he might console himself with the knowledge that King Billy himself was, after all, a foreigner.


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