We’ll fight to the last in |
the honest old cause
And guard our religion, our
freedom and laws.
We’ll fight for our country, our
king and his crown,
And make all the traitors and
croppies lie down.
Irish historians have not followed English and French trends. The proceedings of two major conferences, held in 1989 and 1991, to mark the bicentenaries of the impact of the French revolution on Ireland and the foundation of the Society of United Irishmen, have now been published, and undoubtedly the two hundredth anniversary of the 1798 rebellion will occasion further gatherings and volumes. The foundation of the Orange Order in September 1795 has not attracted the same level of scholarly attention. This may be explained by the sheer scale of the radical movement. The United Irishmen mounted a more formidable challenge to the government than either its English or Scottish counterparts, while inversely Irish popular loyalism, mobilised by the Orange Societies, never achieved the nation-wide support enjoyed by the British ‘church and king’ associations. Yet the Orange Order survives to this day, it played a prominent and controversial role in the Irish counter-revolution and it offers a fascinating example of the dynamics of popular politicisation in the late 18th Century. Orangeism conformed to international patterns. As well as stimulating radical revivals across Europe and the British Isles, the French revolution polarised politics everywhere. In each country the revivified radical movements confronted conservative and royalist anti-‘Jacobin’ crusades. Sir Richard Musgrave, the loyalist historian of the rebellion, and himself an Orangeman, made the point: ‘In the year 1792 when the dissemination of treason and the formation of seditious clubs in London threatened the immediate destruction of the constitution . . . loyal societies checked the progress and baneful effects of their doctrines. The institution of the Orangemen did not differ from them in the smallest degree’. It is true that in its devotion to the Protestant constitution, church and crown, as in its opposition to French principles, domestic ‘Jacobinism’, Thomas Paine and all his works, Orangeism paralleled British loyalist movements; but its roots lay deep in the Ulster countryside.
Because of their numbers Catholics appeared more threatening to their Protestant neighbours, than in counties such as Antrim or Down where they were a clear minority. The Presbyterian farmers of Antrim and Down who later embraced the union of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter in the United Irishmen felt safe to do so; in Armagh it was different. When the Masonic lodges of Antrim, Down, Derry and Tyrone endorsed parliamentary reform in the winter of 1792-3, the Armagh masons condemned them. Reform – or innovation as they denounced it – touched the simultaneous campaign for Catholic relief too closely for comfort.
Whereas Catholic competition in the land market allegedly drove up the price of leases, Catholic weavers competing in the labour market aroused Protestant hostility by allegedly depressing wage rates. Certainly, substantial Catholic participation in the linen boom is not in doubt. Prominent Catholic radicals, such as Luke Teeling in Lisburn and Bernard Coile in Lurgan, were wealthy linen merchants. The brother of the Armagh priest, Defender and United Irishman, James Coigly, Bernard Coile employed up to a hundred ‘hands’ in the county. From the viewpoint of Protestant Ascendancy the Catholic menace included a threat to the livelihoods of Protestant weavers. During the 1780s, Peep O’ Day Boys raiding Catholic homes (which were also their workplaces) in search of illegally-held arms, smashed domestic looms whenever they came across them. Again, the wholesale ‘wrecking’ of Catholic cottages by Orangemen in the winter of 1795-6 included the destruction of looms, webs and yarn. The breakdown of traditional social control lurched into sectarian economic warfare.
Arms raids were political. The disarming of Catholics in County Armagh amounted to a spontaneous and unilateral attempt by lower-class Protestants to reaffirm Protestant ascendancy by re-enforcing the penal laws. The Defenders, as the name indicates, began as Catholic bands formed to defend themselves from attack. But, as the movement became proactive and politicised and spread into south Ulster and the midlands, its standard tactic of raiding gentry houses for firearms echoed the original Peep O’ Day Boy campaign, and in the context of the penal laws that tactic was likewise charged with political symbolism. In part arms raid represented an assertion by lower-class Catholics to equal status under the law.
As a form of participation in public life the volunteering experience raised levels of political awareness, but it did not predetermine the content of politicisation. In a way the mere act of associating was in itself just as important as the politics of a particular company. It is no accident that Freemasonry underwent one of its most rapid surges of expansion during the heyday of volunteering, or that it occurred above all in the Volunteer heartland’s of Ulster and Dublin. Indeed in several cases Masonic lodges and Volunteer companies merged. Lodges and companies, with their regalia and uniforms, answered largely the same social and recreational demands, and the number testifies to the density and richness of popular culture in Ulster. By 1804 there were 43 recognised or ‘warranted’ Masonic lodges in Armagh, 92 in neighbouring Tyrone and 56 in County Down. Masonic secrecy applied only to the internal ritual and business of the craft, not to membership. For example, in October 1784 a Masonic funeral held at Loughgall – the site of the original Defender-Peep O’ Day Boy feud – included 1,000 Volunteers and ‘300 Masons in regular procession’. Unsurprisingly such a common style of association provided others, sometimes Masons themselves, with a ready-made model.
The fledgling Orange Order (and the Defenders) borrowed wholesale from Masonic practice and terminology. Orange ‘lodges’, ‘masters’, ‘grand masters’, ‘oaths’, ‘signs’ ‘degrees’, ‘warrants’ and ‘brethren’ all have a clear Masonic lineage. The ubiquity of masonry impressed contemporaries. Sketching in the background to the Battle of the Diamond Musgrave alleged that ‘in the year 1795, the Romanists, who assumed the name of masons, used frequently to assemble in the neighbourhood of Loughgall, Charlemont, Richill, Portadown, Lurgan . . . and robbed the Protestants of their arms’. On 18 September, three days before the battle, a local gentleman informed the Dublin government that ‘the Protestants who call themselves Freemasons go in lodges and armed’, while 40 years later a witness before a parliamentary inquiry recalled that the first Orangemen had employed secrecy ‘to afford protection, if they could, to those who refused to join the United Irishmen; for every act of intimidation was used, and the fondness of the people for associating together, their attachment to Freemasonry, and all those private associations, gave a particular zest to this mode of keeping them to their allegiance.’ James Wilson and James Sloan, who along with ‘Diamond’ Dan Winter, issued the first Orange lodge warrants from Sloan’s Loughgall inn, were masons.
The ‘fondness of the people for associating together’, for joining, oath-taking and ‘secret’ collecting, also helps to explain the apparently baffling phenomenon of Orange and Masonic lodges defecting to the United Irishmen and vice versa. These crossovers, which can be accounted for at one level by local political pressures, intimidation and bandwaggoning, were at the very minimum facilitated by the popular ‘fondness’ for joining, belonging and secrecy.
The county elites and the government moved quickly to co-opt a movement, denounced by Lord Gosford as a ‘lawless banditti’, because it proliferated at such an astonishing rate. Some 2,000 Orangemen marched at the first 12 July commemoration at Lurgan-Portadown in 1796; estimates for the 1797 nation-wide membership may have risen to 80,000, many of whom enrolled in the government sponsored Yeomanry. According to the Authorised Version: ‘the speed with which Orangeism spread proves its adaptability to the wants of loyal men in the period’. In Musgrave’s view lower-class Protestants of the established church were ‘actuated by an invincible attachment to their king and country’. Certainly, the totemic popular appeal of ‘loyalty’ and of the blessings of the ‘Protestant constitution’ – the ‘great palladium of our liberties’ – must not be underestimated. But Orangeism’s greatest appeal was defensive and reactionary, the maintenance of ‘Protestant Ascendancy’ against the Catholic and Republican challenge: Croppies lie down!
Ireland’s unstable sectarian landscape accounts for both the vitality and the weakness of early Orangeism. Like Orangeism, popular loyalism in Britain proudly proclaimed its Protestant character; unlike Orangeism the British associations’ Protestantism reflected the religious affiliation of the majority of their countrymen. In Ireland inter-denominational strife and the size of the Catholic ‘threat’ drove thousands of lower-class Protestants into the Orange ranks. However, the same sectarian arithmetic permanently limited the movement’s popular base. Still, the numbers were too impressive for a government confronted by a serious revolutionary challenge to ignore. Many an Orange Yeoman saw action in 1798.
Exclusively Protestant, the Orange Order was not, in its view, sectarian. It brand of Protestantism and anti-Catholicism (or, strictly speaking, anti-popery) was ostensibly political. Protestantism stood for liberty. All Protestants, whatever their doctrinal opinions, were welcome to join the order, although in practice Episcopalians outnumbered Presbyterians. ‘Popery’ stood for tyranny and a ‘disloyal’ allegiance to a foreign prince; Catholics per se were entitled to their religious beliefs. Not that that theory prevented the United Irishmen from inventing an ‘Orange extermination oath’, or Catholics from believing it. Nor did refugees from the Armagh ‘wreckings’ harbour any doubts about the violent sectarianism of the Orangemen.
The gentry take-over of the Order in 1796-7 and Orangeism’s counter-revolutionary ideology seem to fit perfectly the Marxist interpretation of it as an instrument of class rule. That interpretation treats Orangeism, and sectarianism generally, as a variety of ‘false consciousness’, which divides the lower classes and side-tracks them from the pursuit of their ‘objective’ interests. General Knox, it is true, deliberately encouraged the Orangemen in their feud with the United Irishmen in Tyrone but on balance the manipulation/false consciousness thesis (which not all Marxists would subscribe to anyway) is patronising and too pat. Crucially, it fails to appreciate the self-generating capacity of popular loyalism. In Musgrave’s words, rallying ‘round the altar and throne, which were in imminent danger [the first Orangemen] united and stood forward . . . unsupported by the great and powerful.’ The threat which Musgrave identified came from ‘croppies’, democrats and levellers. But to the government the original lower class Orangemen also represented a potential threat. The men of property hijacked the movement in order to contain it.
Jim Smyth is a fellow at Robinson College, Cambridge.
The formation of the Orange Order 1795-1798: the edited papers of Colonel William Blacker and Colonel Robert H Wallace (Belfast 1994)
DW Miller (ed) Peep O’ Day Boys and Defenders: selected documents on the County Armagh disturbances 1784-1796 (Belfast 1990)
DW Miller, ‘The Armagh troubles 1785-1795’ in S Clark and JS Donnelly (eds), Irish peasants, violence and political unrest, 1780-1914 (Wisonsin 1983)
H Senior, Orangeism in Ireland and Britain 1795-1836 (London 1966).