What exactly is the Orange Order celebrating?

Why is a protestant militia, founded in 1795 to combat the influence of the Enlightenment and maintin colonial rule, still marching in Irish streets?

The following article is reproduced from the Irish News, with thanks.

Today (1 July) marks the start of the marching month of July. It is sometimes called the mad month which, just like clockwork, sees bonfires in built-up areas, parades (and feeder parades), speeches and resolutions, banners and all the rest.

(The marching month is not to be confused with the marching season, which is one of only two seasons here. The other one is winter.)

So, what is the point of it all? While not challenging the Orange Order’s right to exist, it appears reasonable to query what exactly it is celebrating and why.

In its own words, it commemorates two events. The first is William III replacing James II on the English throne. The order calls this the Glorious Revolution, claiming it “enshrined civil and religious liberty for all”.

The second is the Protestant Reformation, which began 173 years before the Battle of the Boyne.

The order’s first claim is plainly wrong. On the second point, it appears to cherry-pick.

The ‘Glorious Revolution’ denied rather than enshrined civil and religious liberty for all. It introduced the Penal Laws. They discriminated against presbyterians and were designed to eradicate Catholicism. (The 1704 Popery Act aimed to “prevent the further growth of Popery in Ireland”.)

Other laws included the banning of Irish in court proceedings, which was only rescinded last year.

You could argue that the Protestant ascendancy took these measures to protect their power in the way things were done in those days.

Good point, but why celebrate such injustice today and then claim it granted civil and religious liberty to all? After all, the 1701 Act of Settlement still bans catholics from the British throne.

Do Orange Order members not know about the Penal Laws (the presbyterians among them should) or do they just pretend not to?

It would be similar to catholics celebrating the Spanish Inquisition, which persecuted mainly muslims and jews from 1478 onwards for three centuries (hardly the sort of celebrations the BBC would broadcast).

The Orange Order’s adherence to the Protestant Reformation is perhaps more reasonable, if rather unbalanced.

The Reformation did not really reach Ireland. In Europe, it was fuelled through radical ideas in universities, circulated by the first printing presses. Ireland had neither a university nor a printing press.

Protestantism gained only limited support among the Anglo-Irish and even less among the native Irish. Supporters of the Reformation arrived here much later in the 16th and 17th centuries, during the Munster and Ulster plantations.

More significantly, the Reformation led to what is known as the Enlightenment (which began about 1685, five years before the Boyne) by challenging imposed authority and arguing that people should be able to influence their governments.

Here, the Enlightenment led to the formation of the United Irishmen. One of its founders, Belfast presbyterian William Drennan, was inspired by “the restless power of reason”.

However, the Orange Order today cherry-picks the religious fundamentalism of the Reformation, while largely ignoring its enlightening impact on wider society. While the United Irishmen were preaching reason, tolerance and inclusion in the 1790s, the Orange Order was founded against that trend in 1795 (more than 100 years after the Boyne).

It was formed following sectarian clashes in north Armagh. The ensuing sectarian pogrom drove an estimated 7,000 catholics from the area. More than 100 years after 1690, the order was established as a protestant militia to defend this expulsion. It has little connection with the Battle of the Boyne.

So if the Orange Order dropped its claim that it is celebrating civil and religious liberty for all, it could organise a Reformation Day instead. We could all join in because, whatever our religious views, the Reformation marked what was effectively the birth of modern rational and scientific thought.

We are not very good at rational or reasoned thought in this part of the world, so it would be nice to find a common starting ground – but we may have to wait until July is over.