The Orange Order, 1795-1995

By Boyd, Andrew | History Today, September 1995 | Go to article overview

The Orange Order, 1795-1995


Boyd, Andrew, History Today


Andrew Boyd offers a bicentennial analysis of the outlook and influence, past and present, of a key element in the culture of Protestant Ulster.

Strangers coming to Northern Ireland during the summer must often be puzzled by what seems to be an incessant programme of ceremonial marching in almost every town, townland (Irish rural locality) and village, and especially in the city of Belfast. From Easter until the end of August members of the exclusively-Protestant Loyal Orange Institution (the Orange Order) and of similar associations, such as the junior Orangemen, the oddly-named Royal Black Institution and the Apprentice Boys of Derry, engage in an astonishing total of more than 2,000 local and separate marches. The principal demonstration throughout the whole of Northern Ireland is on July 12th, when Orangemen annually celebrate the Battle of the Boyne at which, in 1690, William of Orange defeated the refugee English king, James II, a Roman Catholic.

Orangemen interpret the Boyne as the conclusive victory of the Protestant Reformation in the British Isles. Their incessant marching is to demonstrate that all Protestants, but particularly those who live in Northern Ireland, must maintain a constant vigil against Rome. They regard the Republic of Ireland, constituting as it does the larger and predominantly Catholic part of Ireland, as the most immediate threat to the `civil and religious liberty' which they are convinced was secured by the Orange victory at the Boyne.

Yet, as was once admitted by Sir George Clarke, an eminent Ulster Orangeman, that civil and religious liberty has its limits. It is civil and religious liberty for Protestants only. Furthermore - though this is what no modern Orangemen would admit - the only Protestants in Ireland who for a long time enjoyed civil and religious liberty were those in communion with the Church of Ireland, the church state established by the dominant English. Irish Presbyterians and members of other non-conforming Protestant churches were for more than a hundred years denied many of the civil rights alleged to have been secured in 1690. And that is altogether apart from the Roman Catholics who, though constituting the overwhelming majority of the Irish population, were deprived of virtually all civil rights during the entire course of the eighteenth century.

The refusal on the part of the Orangemen to acknowledge the realities of history, not only in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Ireland but also in Europe at the time of William of Orange, Louis XIV and the League of Augsburg, is why that eminent Irish historian, the late T. W. Moody, once described Orangeism as `a mixture of fact and fantasy, of history and mythology'. Moody further observed that `the discrepancies between Orangeism as viewed by a historian and as presented by Orange spokesmen are both obvious and profound'. Orangemen, however, listen to their own leaders, not to the historians. They disregard the discrepancies and continue to parade, each generation following faithfully in the footsteps of its forbears.

Orange parades are deceptively festive. The bands, the bandsmen, the regalia, 'and the often quaint and archaic attire of the marching men - black bowler hats, blue serge suits, polished shoes and rolled umbrellas - have not changed much since Queen Victoria's day. Each Orange lodge is preceded by a banner which on one side portrays William of Orange, either in profile or in action, and the other some event which illustrates the Orange interpretations of history - Victoria presenting the Bible to a kneeling Indian prince; Ulster Protestants being massacred by Roman Catholic rebels in 1641; the Battle of the Somme at which, in July 1916, more than 5,000 Ulstermen of the Ulster Division were killed in the first two days - or some personage held in high esteem by Orangemen. But behind the pageantry, the bands, banners and the formal dress there remains a firm political resolve. …

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