‘For God and Ulster’
‘For God and Ulster’

The Loyal Orders stress the cultural and religious aspects of their organisations. The reality of their involvement over the past 200 years tells a different story. The following is the first part in a multi-part series examining the history and current context of the Protestant marching orders.

In February 1800 three Orange lodges in Dublin, defying Grand Lodge instructions, issued a statement condemning the Union of Britain and Ireland on the grounds that “We consider the extinction of our separate legislatures as the extinction of the Irish nation.” At issue was the possible loss of the “Protestant Irish Parliament” and a “weakening of the Protestant ascendancy” (Orange Order, 1990, p.8).

It was by no means the first political intervention of the Orange Order. It was certainly not to be the last.

Three years earlier Brigadier-General C.E. Knox had written to General Lake, Commander of the British Army in Ulster, “I hope to increase the animosity between Orangemen and United Irishmen. Upon that animosity depends the safety of the centre counties of the North” (Campbell, 1991, p.84). Historians such as A.T.Q. Stewart have argued against the ‘divide and rule’ or ‘counter revolutionary explanation of why the Orange Order came into being. They argue that the roots of its formation are to be found deep in the localised agrarian disputes of Co. Armagh. This is probably true but the fact is that the Order quickly came to be seen as an indispensable political tool and as the backbone of the yeomenry who provided for ‘safety’ in Ulster.

A generation later, the threat came, not from United Irishmen or the Union but from the demand for Catholic Emancipation. The Order was anxious to “counter the persistent demand for Roman Catholic Emancipation” and found an ally in Robert Peel, later to become Chief Secretary for Ireland (Orange Order, 1990, p.8). Though Emancipation was granted this was not to prove enough as the Marquis of Londonderry angrily told a rally organised by Dr Henry Cooke , the fiery preacher. “Had they (Catholics) been tranquil and content; had they ceased from agitation? No!” he told the mass demonstration, the main purpose of which was to rally behind landlords fearful of legislative changes which could affect their privileges (Gray, 1972, pp.116-117). For the aristocracy the Order provided an invaluable sense of ‘Protestant unity’ at a time of social upheaval. Hepburn refers to ‘Protestant unity’ based on the Orange Order as an increasingly effective politico-religious organisation linking Anglicans, Presbyterians and other Protestant denominations in one movement” (Hepburn, 1996, p.143).

A Parliamentary Select Committee report in 1835 showed that the estimated 220,000 members of the Order in Britain and Ireland included the Dukes of York and Cumberland, senior churchmen and magistrates (Curtis, 1994, p.36). Allegations surfaced that the Duke of Cumberland, brother of King William IV and Imperial Grand Master, intended using the Order in a coup d’etat to prevent the succession to the throne of his niece, Princess Victoria. The same report found that “the Orangemen controlled the Irish Yeomanry, had lodges in the army, enjoyed a certain immunity from justice in Ulster and were frequently engaged in civil disturbances.” It went on, “the effect of the Orange Institution is to keep up an exclusive association in civil and military society, exciting one portion of the people against the other” and cited an example from Scotland where miners in a lodge had expelled Catholics from their working party “ with whom they had previously lived and worked in perfect harmony” (Gray, 1972, pp.122-129). In England Orangeism was growing in influence and Orangemen were to play a role in cities like Manchester as allies of the authorities in their attempts to combat trade unionism in the lead-up to the Peterloo Massacre (Gray, 1972, p.93).

In Derry the local Tory MP, Lord Claud Hamilton, gained control of the Apprentice Boys following the 1865 election and swung them firmly behind the policies of the Tory party and the defence of the Church of Ireland as the Established Church to the dismay of liberal Presbyterians (Lacy, 1990, p.200). Within the Apprentice Boys “the new leaders quickly placed the anniversary parades on a new footing by turning them into a mass triumphal demonstration for traditional Tory policies on Ireland” (Murphy, 1981, p.116). The entire issue of parades had become complicated due to the introduction of an apparently harmless innovation, the railway. Attendance at previously localised parades increased dramatically as special trains allowed for thousands to attend from throughout the North. One historian noted:

“It was one thing for local Apprentice Boys to hold their strange rites under the mocking but tolerant eyes of Catholic neighbours ... but it was a different matter for them to be supported by large numbers of strangers, no doubt with vastly increased potential for provocation, implied or direct, making the message clear that Catholics were to be kept in their place, which was emphatically outside the walls” (Stewart, 1997 a, p.73.)

The League and the Order

The emergence of the Land League, campaigning against a land system regarded by John Stuart Mill as “the worst in Europe”, was to strain the relationship between those in the Order who tilled the land and those who owned it. In January 1881 the Land League held a public meeting in the Orange heartland of Loughgall, Co. Armagh. On the platform was Michael Davitt, one of the main ‘agitators’ in the League. The meeting was chaired by the local Worshipful Master of the Orange Lodge who heard Davitt tell the crowd that the “landlords of Ireland are all of one religion-their God is mammon and rack-rents, and evictions their only morality, while the toilers of the fields, whether Orangemen, Catholics, Presbyterians or Methodists are the victims” (Curtis, 1994, p.100). Elsewhere in Ulster some local Lodges passed resolutions against “over-high rents” and condemned tactics by landlords’ “calculated to produce and embitter sectarian feelings”(Campbell, 1991, p.305). The Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland responded swiftly to this dangerous outbreak of class consciousness with a manifesto claiming that the Land League was a conspiracy against property rights, Protestantism, civil and religious liberty and the British constitution (Curtis, 1994, p.101). One Orange chaplain, the ‘shooting rector’ the Rev. Kane, advocated shooting priests in reprisal for attacks on landlords. In Mayo the campaign of social ostracism of a landlord, Captain Boycott, which was to add a new verb to the English language, prompted the intervention of the Order when 50 Orangemen from Cavan and Monaghan traveled to the ‘boycotted’ estate to harvest the crops, effectively as scab workers.

With the extension of the adult male franchise the Twelfth speeches became more overtly political (Walker,1996, p.95). Votes were there to be won. Not that the Orange Order was overly enthusiastic about the extension of civil liberties implicit in the Ballot Act. “Votes were given to a minority to be exercised for the benefit of the majority.” responded one leading Orangeman (Bell, 1976 p.56). The 1880s was a period of revival for the Order. Among those who jumped aboard the accelerating train was Colonel Saunderson, a Cavan landlord who would go on to become deputy Grand Master within two years, Tory MP for N. Armagh and later leader of Unionist MPs. Saunderson played a major role in advocating armed resistance to Home Rule and extending a fateful invitation to one Randolf Churchill, the notorious father of Winston Churchill, to visit Belfast.

Orange Card

In February 1886 Churchill spoke at a mass rally in the Ulster Hall organised by local conservatives and the Orange Order. The message, insurrection should Home Rule be implemented, was a clear call to arms from an influential member of the British Establishment. In an open letter Churchill forecast that “Ulster will fight, Ulster will be right”. While the Order mobilised, Colonel Saunderson warned a Belfast meeting that, “rather than submit to such a Romish and Rebel despotism [Home Rule], the minority would take to the field and defend their rights at the point of the sword” (Curtis, 1994, p.139). The Orange Order provided the structure “not only for political organisation, but if need be for a private army” (Stewart, 1997 a, p.167). A committee set up to campaign against Home Rule, later to become the Ulster Loyalist Anti-Repeal Union, included the Rev ‘shooting rector’ Kane, Grand Master of Belfast Orangemen and the Rev Hugh ‘Roaring’ Hanna, who had been indicted for his role in provoking riots. The Anti-Repeal Union organised an Ulster Unionist Convention in 1892 where the assembled masses heard rousing speeches from the Duke of Abercorn, a prominent Orangeman. Churchill’s interest in Ireland, despite the rhetoric, had more to do with damaging Liberals at home than any love of (loyal) Ulster. Shortly before the Belfast visit he wrote to a friend, “If the G.O.M. (Prime Minister Gladstone) went for Home Rule, the Orange card would be the one to play”. Calling up the ghosts of the “vessel of the Union” with “her Loyalist crew” may have seemed politically clever in London. In Belfast other ghosts, of pogroms, riots, expulsions, and deaths returned to haunt the city within months of Churchill’s inflammatory speeches. The Home Rule Bill was defeated and the Orange Order had entered a new phase of “increasingly pervasive influence” (Hepburn, 1996, p.3).

In the period leading up to the First World War the Orange Order was transformed, in the words of Unionist MP Ronald Mc Neill (later Lord Cushendun), into a “highly respectable and exceedingly powerful political organisation” (Campbell, 1991, p.326). The organisation had grown from 35 lodges in Belfast alone with some 1,335 members in 1851 to more than 100 lodges with over 4,000 men in Belfast by 1878 (Curtis, 1994, p.132). Access to skilled employment depended frequently on Orange foremen. In the 1885 general election twelve of the elected sixteen Unionist MPs were Orangemen. Saunderson, leader of the Unionist MPs, was to be elected Grand Master of the Orange Lodge and was invested as a member of the privy council by Queen Victoria. The impetus towards Unionist unity came clearly from the Order. The Ulster Unionist Council originally consisted of 200 members, 100 from Unionist associations, fifty MPs, peers and ex officio members, and the remaining 50 nominated by the Orange Order.

Two attempts to legislate for Home Rule had been defeated as the new century dawned. The Order had played a major role in that defeat. The years leading up to the eventual partition of Ireland saw the Orange Order again to the fore in promoting the Unionist cause. In 1911 the Ulster Unionist Council was enlarged to include the “militant Apprentice Boys of Derry” with the remit of organising “ consistent and continuous political action” in the interests of Ulster Unionism (Lyons, 1973, p.295). That same year Edward Carson, the Dublin born Unionist leader, announced to a 100,000 strong crowd drawn from Unionist clubs and Orange lodges that an alternative government for the ‘Protestant province of Ulster’ would be put in place should a third Home Rule Bill prove successful. Support from English Conservatives was quickly forthcoming and the Conservative leader, Bonar Law, spoke on the same platform as Carson some months later. The Orange card was dealt a second time though Bonar Law confessed a more personal involvement than that of the syphilis-ridden Churchill when he admitted that “dislike of Roman Catholicism” was at “bottom one of the strongest feelings in England and Scotland” (Campbell,1991, p.412). Within months Carson was organising a private army, the Ulster Volunteers. A lawyer, Colonel Wallace, who was also secretary of the Grand Lodge of Ulster, discovered legal loopholes which would allow the creation of what was essentially an illegal private army. The Ulster Volunteer Force, as it was to become, was recruited and drilled in Orange Halls and it’s members were drawn from the existing structure of lodges throughout Ulster. Estimates of membership exceeded 100,000. In a recent publication the Order records that “six of Ulster’s nine counties remain British today” (1995) because of the “willingness and determination of ordinary Orangemen to stand shoulder to shoulder ... in the ranks of the Ulster Volunteer Force some 80 years ago” (Kennedy,1995, p.99). Resistance was not restricted to Ireland or Britain. In Canada, where the Order wielded considerable influence, mass meetings were held and in 1913 the Orange Association of Manitoba volunteered a regiment to fight in aid of the Unionist cause (Stewart, 1997 b, p.138). Support was also offered from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

In 1912 nearly half a million Protestants had pledged to resist Home Rule ‘by any means’. Crowds waited their turn to sign the Solemn Oath and Covenant, some with their own blood, while Orange Order stewards kept order. Two further events conspired to convince Downing St that ‘loyalty’ meant something very different to Ulster Unionists and even to senior officers in His Majesties Armed Forces. In a master stroke the UVF illegally imported thousands of German weapons. A month earlier, at the Curragh Army Camp in Kildare, British Army officers had made clear that they would resign rather than move against the UVF. In their opinion if Ulster should fight then Ulster would be right.. When an amended Home Rule Bill did eventually become law it was put ‘on hold’. A larger drama was unfolding on the battlefields of Europe in which the UVF was to play its part as a regiment of the British Army. On 1 July 1916, months after Irish Republicans had rebelled against British rule, the men of the 36th Ulster Division (UVF) were “marching through a hail of machine-gun fire as calmly and jauntily as if they were ‘walking’ the streets of Belfast on a typical July 12 Orange procession” (Gray, 1972, p.170). Over 2500 men died that day. That year the Twelfth parades were canceled and a five minute silence was observed in Belfast and throughout the North. Having paid the ultimate ‘blood sacrifice’ it was inevitable that the Home Rule which was eventually to emerge in the north of a partitioned Ireland was in the form of a ‘Protestant State for a Protestant people’, the Orange State.

....to be continued.

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