You should never jump to conclusions, I thought to myself, as I stood in a field full of Orangemen in County Donegal. I’d spent the morning in a village with a family – three or maybe four generations – of Orangemen, walkers and musicians, before they set off for the field. This particular field was at the sleepy beach resort of Rossnowlagh on the Donegal coast.
(For those who haven’t been there, it’s a small resort on the north west coast of Ireland, within Ulster, but and also within the Republic of Ireland. There’s a great long lovely beach, and the water is the Atlantic. So you can actually swim in it without freezing to death. Unlike the Irish Sea on the east coast, where I was made to swim as a child with shivering regularity. No wonder half of Belfast decamps to Donegal each summer.)
The day was an eye-opener for me. Up till then I’d found Orangemen to be suspicious, resentful, aggressive, noisy and, above all, very cross. These guys were gentle and quiet and calm. They were also determined and comfortable within their own skin. Nobody’s fools. Self-contained. I could imagine some of them playing the Clint Eastwood character in a spaghetti western. The man with no name. Willing to welcome allies, but if not, so be it, prepared to carry on alone.
When I found myself surrounded by Orangemen later in the day, I was pleased to have these Donegal men beside me. Because it was a decidedly odd experience.
OK. Some context. The Orange Order is a Protestant organisation which marches a lot. It marches mainly in Northern Ireland to commemorate historic victories by an English monarch perceived as anti-Catholic over an English monarch perceived as pro-Catholic. (The history does not bear this out, but that’s not relevant really. For instance, few marchers today care, or in fact know, that the Pope of the day supported the supposedly Protestant side. )
So since I’ve been alive, and long before, you’ve had Orangemen marching, marching, marching. They march where they’re welcome. And they march where they’re not welcome. And there’s no denying it’s a spectacle – flutes, accordions, drums, Lambeg drums, batons, swords, pikes, uniforms, flags, music – whether you like it or not. And lots of people do not. (Especially the accordions. C’mon. Anybody?)
But – to cut a seductively long story short – they march to remind themselves and everybody else that they still rule the roost in Northern Ireland. (A moot point in a society in transition.) Or, as they might put it themselves, they march to commemorate the triumph of liberalism over religious despotism (that’s Catholicism and the Pope by the way).
Oh dear. I’m getting confused myself. My head is hurting. The point is – they march to remind themselves how lucky they are to have avoided the horrible fate of being sucked into a priest-ridden Pope-dominated Republic of Ireland.
So imagine my surprise in Donegal (that’ s part of the Republic of Ireland remember) to be chatting to soft-spoken Orangemen who declared themselves proud to be citizens of the Irish Republic, completely at ease in their religious freedom, and as Irish as anyone else with a green passport. (Yes, I know, they’re not green any more. But you get my meaning.)
My head was spinning. These were Republicans the like of which I had not previously encountered. I almost felt protective towards them as Blood & Thunder bands in dark glasses from north of the border, die-hard loyalist blow-ins from Scotland and the usual stern-faced doom-sayers stomped past.
Now, as some kind of a Republican myself, I think of those guys in Donegal.
They’re also on my mind as I write my book, Blackwatertown. It includes Orangemen, marching and a big Lambeg drum. (Sneak preview – the Lambeg drum comes to a bad end.) And my Orangemen, the ones in my story, are often not portrayed sympathetically. They do themselves no favours when it comes to public perception.
But I cannot forget the plain decency of the guys with whom I spent that day in Donegal. Those Orangemen. So that experience feeds in too.
And here’s the link. Prepare for a handbrake turn. Something completely different. I meant to point to this satirical piece on the IRA ceasefire, but I got distracted by Donegal Orangemen. This is from the Pensive Quill.
Here he is looking pensive…