The Orange Order and its splash of harmless colour

People tell us, directly and indirectly, that the Orange Order is not a divisive organisation, that Catholics/nationalists/republicans should re-learn to love its colour and music and mid-summer baton-twirling drum-thumping delight. I heard its Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Ireland, Mervyn Gibson, on Talkback a few days ago . That was the grand message he had for those with a negative attitude to the Orange Order: come to know more about us and you’ll get to love us.

Today is, of course, the pinnacle of the Orange marching season (except there’s no marching this years) – the Twelfth of July. I have given hundreds, maybe thousands of people a full-frontal belly-laugh when I tell them that the Twelfth is also my birthday.

And I remember Twelfth marches back in the good old days, when Catholics happily lined the route and listened and clapped the marching bands. Or at least we’re told that. The reality was a bit different

I grew up on a farm outside Omagh. As the bands went marching into Omagh on the Twelfth, my sisters and I would hide behind tree-stumps and peep out at these lines of flute-shrieking, drum-thumping men, and the rows of sashes and bowler hats that marched up the Derry Road to take over Omagh.

That’d be in the morning. In the afternoon, my mother would give us special ice-cream and jelly for dessert, because it was my birthday. And as we pushed the last spoonful into us, through the air would come a sound: stones crashing against the back and top of our hay-shed.

Let me explain. Just across the fence from our farm was an estate of prefab houses –  a 100% Protestant estate. Relations were cordial. Several of the girls would cross over the wire and play house with my sisters or climb up high on the stacked hay in the hay-shed. A gentle blond boy called Gawain used cross over too and he’d follow me and marvel at our flock of turkeys, and the sheep, and the occasional glimpsed rabbit. We’d walk the fields and at the bottom of our front field, we’d lean into the river and catch minnows and bring them home to die. The cows, I remember, Gawain gave a wide berth: “They could stampede!” he’d tell me,  and I’d laugh and tell him that was only in the pictures.

But then July would come and the frequent visits by our playmates from Watson Park would begin to dwindle and taper off, until by the 10 July, contact would have ended.  But then, as I say, on the afternoon of the Twelfth, it would resume. Stones – some big, some small, would rattle a tattoo on our hay-shed.

My sisters and I would rush out – how dare they throw stones at our good hay-shed! When they saw us they’d stop throwing stones at the hayshed and start throwing stones at us. Along with information about the papish priests and what they did to the nuns, and about the Pope himself whose auntie, they said was Christ. We didn’t know exactly what they meant but we got the drift. So we picked up some of the stones and hurled them back, telling them what we thought of The Queen and how their ould bands sounded like a sick cow dying. This would prompt even more stones and more curses of the Pope. And so it went. I’d see my friend Gawain among them, shouting and throwing as well. But I could tell his heart wasn’t in it – his shouts were barely audible and he threw stones like a girl, little lobs that hardly crossed the fence.

This would go on for maybe an hour, until our arms were sore and our voices hoarse, then we’d all go home, on both sides, for our tea.

In the week that  followed, one by one, our Protestant playmates would filter back over the fence again. Gawain would find it hard to catch my eye at first but that was OK – in no time he was back to warning me about the prospect of a mad cow charge.

Why was there this poisonous dividing-point between us during the summer? That’s how it was. The Orange Order marched and neighbours who’d got on fine all year would glower at each other and move away as if the very ground around us was toxic.  Then in a week or two after, things would settle down again.

My point, Virginia? That the Orange Order was then and still is a force for division within our community. People who’ve got on fine are stoked up to hate the other lot, because they were The People and we were a bunch of statue-worshippers.  The damage wasn’t irreparable – within a few days you could hardly see the scar. But year after year it came back, and the drums and shrieking flutes yelled a salute to what had happened several centuries earlier, and stones and curses replaced toy tea-sets and minnows in a jam-jar.

That’s how the good old days really were. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it: the Orange Order at its core encourages division, enmity and even violence. That’s how it was in the good old days and that’s how it continues today.

But my God, isn’t it nice for once not to have the air polluted by hundreds of swaggering, ear-piercing bands?

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