I see my old university chum Ruth Dudley Edwards is explaining to anyone who’ll read her how nice the Orange Order is and what good fun Orangemen are. Which makes sense, since she wrote a book about them called The Faithful Tribe. Ruthie is more than generous in her praise of the Order, because this year it allowed her to speak at the Orange rally in Irvinestown. This despite the fact that she’s “an atheist from a Roman Catholic background”. The key idea in Ruthie’s panegyric is that the Orange Order are misunderstood. Thankfully, she says, more and more critics are coming to see the error of their ways, leaving only cynics and sneerers to be critical of the Order. Ruthie now has hopes that the invitation she got in Fermanagh will be extended next year by Belfast.
Ruthie is a historian – we were classmates in UCD a long time ago – and of course knows the importance of including all the facts when arriving at a judgement. So it was probably a memory-slip that led to her leaving out such facts as the expulsion of 7,000 Catholics from Armagh by Orange Order pogroms.
Or a Portadown Orange march in the nineteenth century that resulted in the death of Hugh Donnelly, a Catholic from Drumcree. At the time, the Armagh magistrate William Hancock noted:
“For some time past the peaceable inhabitants of the parish of Drumcree have been insulted and outraged by large bodies of Orangemen parading the highways, playing party tunes, firing sits, and using the most opprobrious epithets they could invent…a body of Orangemen marched through the town and proceeded to Drumcree church, passing by the Catholic chapel though it was a considerable distance out of their way”
Sound familiar? That’s probably why the British government banned the faithful tribe for several years in the nineteenth century. And I expect if Ruthie had thumbed through Andy Boyd’s book Holy War in Belfast, she’d have been reminded how Orange marches and violence, sometimes lethal, moved hand in hand over the centuries. As a historian she’d of course know that the Order was established and maintained as an effective method to prevent Protestant and Catholic working class people seeing how much they have in common.
And there almost certainly was something more important on her mind when she forgot to include the rules of the Orange Order, which forbid not only a Catholic from joining (the notion that it’s a purely religious organisation is somewhat given away by the further refusal of membership to anyone who was a United Irelander). Then there’s the stuff about being loyal to the Sovereign – providing s/he is a Protestant.
Like Ruthie, I’m aware that thousands of Orangemen merely use the Twelfth as an occasion for meeting friends, eating ice-cream, drinking a bottle of stout, chatting to (Protestant) neighbours. Many, maybe most Orangemen give little heed to the origins, ordinances or history of the Order to which they belong. But if it’s true that Orangemen wish for better relations with their Catholic (or atheist) neighbours, it’d help if they (and Ruthie) looked at and sought to change radically the antiquated, inward-looking, ultra-conservative, sectarian nature of the organisation to which they belong. And who knows? If the Orange Order were made the social/cultural medium which the likes of Ruthie would have us believe it is at present, we might all be happy to accept an invitation to join in on the Twelfth in Belfast.