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Most people today have become aware of the Orange Order through their activities in Drumcree, a small village near Portadown in County Armagh in Ireland. Less is known, however, about their origins or history. The Orange Order is an exclusively Protestant organization, which desires to maintain the political union with Britain and keep Northern Ireland British. Since 1996, Orange lodges in Portadown have staged a sit-in in Drumcree, ostensibly over their right to march each July along the nearby Garvaghy Road (a road lived in by Catholics). Orangemen commemorate July 12th each year because it is the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, when the Protestant king, William of Orange, defeated the Catholic King James II and thus secured his position as king of Britain and Ireland. For members of the Orange Order, therefore, and for unionists in general, July 12th marks a historic victory of Protestantism over Catholicism.
The Catholic residents of Garvaghy Road are clearly opposed to the annual march down their road. They believe that in choosing this route, the Orange Order is being deliberately offensive and provocative and is infringing on the civil rights of the local nationalist community. To defend their rights, therefore, a Garvaghy Road Residents Committee was formed although the local MP, David Trimble, consistently refused to meet the local residents (he finally did so in April 1999). Peaceful attempts to prevent the Orange Order marching also resulted in violent confrontations, not only between
To safeguard what the Orange Order believes is their civil right to march down the Garvaghy Road, a radical loyalist group known as "The Spirit of Drumcree" was created. Its founder, Joel Patton, explained that the symbolic significance for Protestants in Northern Ireland of Drumcree was 'not about 800 Orangemen marching down a road. It's about the survival of a culture, of an identity, of a way of life. It's about our ability to still hold on to parts of the country ... They (Northern Protestants) believe intensely that if it's taken away from them there, then there isn't anywhere in Ulster that will be safe. If they're beaten in Portadown, then they believe that they can be beaten anywhere, and that's why I don't think they're about to give in."
Clearly, the stand-off at Drumcree has become a symptom of more deep rooted tensions between the nationalist and unionist communities within Northern Ireland and of the struggle for unionists maintain political supremacy.
The Orange Order was founded in County Armagh in 1795 after a sectarian confrontation known as "The Battle of the Diamond," during which more than 30 Catholics were killed. In the years preceding the battle, many of the anti-Catholic penal laws had been removed and some civil rights restored to Catholics. But the Protestant minority viewed these concessions as a threat to their political and economic dominance. These fears were increased after 1791 when a new radical nationalist group was formed known as the United Irishmen. The leader, Wolfe Tone, a Protestant, argued that nationality and not religion should define Irish identity. The United Irishmen wanted an independent Ireland and were willing to use violence in order to break the political connection with Britain. Wolfe Tone, who died in 1798, is regarded as the father of republican nationalism in Ireland.
The Orange Order was able to take advantage of the political insecurity of the Irish Protestants in the 1790s by offering a conservative, separatist alternative to the non- sectarian politics of the United Irishmen. In 1798, during the United Irishmen uprising, members of the Order were used by the British government as a counter-revolutionary force, the government providing them with weapons and ammunition. Even at this stage, the British government viewed the Orange Order as a valuable mechanism for defending their interests in Ireland, especially against the republican challenge. The Orange Order, in turn, viewed themselves not merely as the defenders of Protestantism, but also as a native garrison which was crucial to the survival of Britain's political interest in Ireland. Only three years after their establishment, therefore, the Orange Order viewed itself as the saviour of both Ireland and Britain.
After the failure of the 1798 uprising, the British government forced an Act of Union upon Ireland, which created the United Kingdom. As a consequence, Ireland lost its own parliament in Dublin and instead was represented by the Westminster parliament, in London. However, only Protestants could be members of the British parliament—Catholics not being permitted, until 1829, to stand for election.
From the outset, July 12th marches were used by the Orange Order as a visible way of demonstrating their political ascendancy within Ireland. Consequently, they appealed to Protestants who feared the growth in Catholic civil rights. In 1796, marches were held throughout Ulster and in Dublin, and by 1800 Orange lodges had been established throughout Ireland. By 1806, Orangeism had spread to Britain, the first Orange lodge being established in Manchester. It also spread to other parts of the British Empire, including India and Canada. From the outset, July 12th marches were occasions of anti-Catholic violence—the march in 1796 was followed by the "Armagh Outrages," in which 7,000 Catholics in Armagh were forcibly removed from their homes. By the 1820s, many of the marches had become annual occasions of violent sectarian clashes, which worried even the British government. This resulted in an official attempt to ban them in 1824. The ban was ignored and so even more stringent legislation was passed in 1832. However, the Orange Order continued to grow, and a government enquiry in 1835 reported that the Order had successfully infiltrated the army and police force in Ireland and Britain. A number of high ranking officials were also Orangemen, including the Duke of Cumberland, brother of the British king
After 1842, a new radical nationalist group emerged in Ireland, known as the Young Ireland movement. Like the United Irishmen in 1798, the Young Irelanders stressed the need to end sectarian divisions. Many of the leading Young Irelanders, such as John Mitchel and William Smith O'Brien, were Protestant, and they made winning support in the north of Ireland a priority. Also, unlike Daniel O'Connell, they were scathing about the British government's handling of the famine in Ireland. In 1848, the Young Ireland movement led a small, unsuccessful uprising in County Tipperary.
Many Ulster Protestants viewed the uprising as a further example of the treachery of Irish Catholics. The Orange Order again offered to act as a counter-revolutionary force and asked the British government to supply them with arms for this purpose. But the uprising was over so quickly that their assistance was not required. After the defeat of Young Ireland, the Orange Order again cast itself in the role of defender of British interests in Ireland. They also used the insurrection as an opportunity to reaffirm their loyalty to the British crown by suggesting that the security of the Union depended on their support. WGT
Editor's Note: Historian Christine Kinealy is currently a visiting professor at Drew University. Her publications include "This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine, 1845-52, "The Forgotten Famine: Hunger, Poverty and Sectarianism in Belfast c. 1840-1850" (Pluto Press, 2000), and "The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology and Rebellion (British History in Perspective)". You can buy other books by HERE.
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