Orangemen’s Day: The Orange and the Green
As the 12th of July approaches, we at Donegal Square reflect on Irish history and what “The Twelfth” means to us. “The Twelfth” is known as “Orangemen’s Day”. But…what is Orangemen’s Day? Some of you reading this may know that the answer to that is a little complicated. In order to better understand this holiday, traditionally observed by Ulster Protestants (Northern Irish loyalists to Great Britain), I sat down with Donegal Square’s owner, Neville Gardner.
Neville comes from a small village in Northern Ireland called Lambeg, County Antrim, a strongly Protestant area. He opened Donegal Square with the dream of uniting all celtic cultures. He envisions celebrating the traditions and beliefs they share, rather than promoting one religion or culture over another. This means honoring St. Patrick’s Day (celebrated in the Republic of Ireland) and Orangemen’s Day (celebrated in British Northern Ireland) as equally valuable cultural holidays. So, before I go any further, let me tell you what I learned about Orangemen’s Day from an objective wee lad from County Antrim- all grown up.
The Williamite Wars and the Battle of the Boyne
The Williamite Wars were fought between James II (a Catholic) and William of Orange (a Protestant). William was from the “Orange state” in the Netherlands. Both James II and William had rights to the British throne, but a series of battles took place over who ruled Ireland and the rest of the UK. The last battle was the legendary “Battle of the Boyne”, fought in the year 1690. William of Orange won, and by doing so, solidified Protestant rule over all of Ireland for the next few hundred years. There has not been a Catholic king in the British Isles since.
Northern Ireland had been planted with settlers from Britain, who were mostly Protestant, so a largely Protestant population grew in the north of Ireland. And so, an “Orange Order” was founded to celebrate William of Orange’s victory in the Battle of the Boyne. Every year on the 12th of July, marches, parades, and festivities are held all throughout Protestant Ireland.
The Orange Order was originally a celebratory group, not sectarian. It’s kind of like the Fourth of July. The Fourth of July is not against Great Britain, it is just a holiday on which we celebrate our independence. However, as time went on and religious/political tensions heated to a boil, the Orange Order became an increasingly polarizing organization. Orangemen advocated for remaining a part of the British Isles. Irish Catholics advocated for a united and independent Ireland. This disagreement grew violent, and ultimately split the island in two.
Healing the Divide
When Ireland gained independence from Great Britain in 1921, a flag was designed to symbolize the two different religions present on the island. Green for the Catholics, Orange for the Protestants, and a white center to represent unity and neutralism. Tragically, the civil war that followed and raged for over half a century only darkened the lines dividing these colors. After peace was made in the 1990s, citizens of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland alike are slowly healing the wounds of their history.
Neville describes his biggest dilemma with his nationality as “being both Irish and Northern Irish at the same time”. He was selected to play field hockey internationally for Ireland while being a boy from Ulster, Northern Ireland. (pictured top row, second in from the left)
Although the Orange Order is a part of his history, Neville wishes that the sectarianism associated with Orange parades would cease in the future. Regarding his country’s divisive past, Neville tells his tour groups about Northern Ireland, “If you’re not confused, then you don’t understand.”
Neville’s Memories of Orangemen’s Day
Neville’s grandfather, Thomas Edwin McCarthy, was the grand master of LOL (Loyal Orange Lodge) III. This was a chapter, so to speak, of the Orange Order. There are chapters (aka “lodges”) all over Northern Ireland. Neville described it, “It’s kind of like a book club where everyone is pro Britain”. Grandfather McCarthy is seen here leading a march on Orangemen’s Day in the 1960’s (see photo below.)
When I asked Neville about his most vivid memories of Orangemen’s Day, he paused, squinted into the distance and said, “Holding the sashes of the banner in the parade”. He recalled that every year there would be a designated Orange Field upon which bands would play and large picnics were had. He reminisced about flute bands from Scotland and massive bonfires. With big eyes, Neville described the bonfires as about 12 to 15 feet high. He said neighbors would gather where two roads crossed and throw couches, chairs, and more into the pile. His hometown’s claim to fame- the Lambeg drum- would be played so loudly and with such force that the men’s hands would be bleeding at the end of the night!
Impact and Legacy
The festivities of Orangemen’s Day explicitly celebrate Protestantism and loyalty to Britain. As he left a war torn Ireland behind him and created a new life for himself in America, Neville Gardner never forgot about this annual celebration. After founding Donegal Square, Neville began to envision a festival that would celebrate all Celtic cultures, one that would not focus on religion. When he co-founded Celtic Classic, Bethlehem’s annual festival celebrating Celtic culture, he made a point of including Irish step dancers, Scottish bagpipes, and of course- the Lambeg drum.
In the words of Mr. Gardner, the goal at Donegal Square and the Red Stag Pub is not just to provide tangible items from the Celtic nations, but to educate and advocate for a united future. So on this Orangemen’s Day, I know more than I ever have about both sides of the Irish story. I hope you’ve learned something, too. Sláinte, everyone.
***Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are united as one in only two sports- field hockey and rugby.