The Orange Arch: Creating Tradition in Ulster

By Jarman, Neil | Folklore, April 2001 | Go to article overview

The Orange Arch: Creating Tradition in Ulster


Jarman, Neil, Folklore


Abstract

Maintaining tradition is an important aspect of Protestant popular culture in Northern Ireland. However, in recent years, emphasis has been placed on the apparently unchanging nature of such practices rather than on the dynamic and contingent nature of their form and content. This article focuses on one of the lesser-known cultural traditions, that of erecting arches as part of the celebrations of the marching season. It traces the history of arch style and design from the early nineteenth century to the present, and situates the changes and developments within the broader political and cultural sphere.

Introduction

When members of the Protestant community in Belfast's Sandy Row erected their Orange arch across the main thoroughfare in July 1998, they were maintaining a local tradition which had first been documented over one hundred and fifty years earlier. The arch was a newly designed structure that was being erected for the first time and was sited in a different location from previous times. Nevertheless, this was still regarded as an example of the long-standing continuity of cultural practices that has become so important for many within the Ulster Protestant community. The arch is one facet of the wider cultural arena of commemoration and celebration of the Williamite wars of 1688-91, which are upheld both as traditional practices and as a vital expression of loyalist culture. Each year since 1796, commemorations of the key events are organised in Ireland by a range of Protestant loyal orders. [1] The largest of these is the Orange Order, who organise annual parades to commemorate the battle of the Boyne in 1690, when the armies of King William III [2] defeated those of his predecessor, James II, to assure the Protestant ascendancy in Britain and Ireland. Each year, tens of thousands of Orangemen take part in one of eighteen main parades, which are held in towns and villages across Northern Ireland on 12 July, the anniversary of the battle (known locally simply as "the Twelfth"). However, the Twelfth is only one of a number of dates when members of the loyal orders take to the streets with their banners and other regalia. The period from Easter to the end of August, when the vast majority of the three thousand parades held each year take place, is known locally as the "marching season." The visual displays linked to the marching season are varied. Flags and bunting hang from buildings and across the streets; kerbstones, lamp-posts and other street furniture are painted in the national colours; elaborate, and often skilful, mural paintings are prominent in many working-class urban areas. Arches are rarely erected in Belfast, but in the small towns and rural areas of Ulster, they are still the dominant visual display; a wide variety of styles and designs can be seen each year in market squares and on main streets across the north. In times past, their presence has provoked rioting and other forms of violent conflict, but today, in spite of the heightened sensitivities to cultural displays, they attract little attention. They appear as little more than a quaint folk remnant of another time, which has little relevance for contemporary life in Northern Ireland.

The culture of parading has become a particularly potent arena of both symbolic and actual conflict in recent years as disputes over parades have emerged as a counterpoint to attempts to establish the structures that might form the basis of a new society in the north. Orangemen have vigorously defended customs and practices--such as the right to march along customary routes and to mount visual displays--which have been established, extended and consolidated alongside the Protestant community's rise to political dominance in Northern Ireland. Their insistence that these practices are "traditional" rights is an assertion of the importance which many Protestants place upon them. Although Orangemen emphasise the longevity of many of these practices, they have paid little attention to the details of history that go to make up their "tradition. …

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