The Orange Society

From Modern Ireland: Its Vital Questions, Secret Societies, and Government, 1868

By 'An Ulsterman'

The pacific attitude which the Orange Society assumed in 1867 is not less worthy of note than the actions by which it signalized itself in other seasons. This abstinence from acts of violence was due neither to a marked diminution of vitality in the brotherhood, nor to any peculiar absence of stimulating causes. If it were owing to either, its significance would be lost. Instead of having largely decreased in numbers, the Orange Society has held its ground strongly enough, when we take into consideration the great decrease of the population, even in that province in which alone the Society has any strength—the province of Ulster. And so far from allowing its spirit to be mitigated, the leaders and patrons of the association appear to have lost no occasion of which they could avail themselves to keep it in a state of irritation and sullen discontent. Those, therefore, who would desire to know why we had peace in the North of Ireland in 1867 must seek the reason in other causes.

It will be found in the simple recommendation given by the chiefs and patrons of the Society. This simple recommendation bade the members refrain from processions and open illegal acts, but advised them nevertheless to assemble in their lodges and there celebrate their anniversary by festivals and the display of faction flags. Accordingly this is what was very generally done. The members of the Society assembled in their lodges and held high festival under the shadow of their banners; and if they went forth in procession, they took some care to disguise the nature of it. They kept their flags in reserve, and their fifes and drums silent, in places where they would be too publicly observed. In certain of their strongholds indeed they felt themselves safe and secure enough to dispense with such precautions, and at liberty to erect Orange triumphal arches and display all Orange peculiarities as of old.

This obedience of the Society to its superiors is noteworthy, because of one very pregnant conclusion that must be deduced from it. If these noblemen and gentlemen, its leaders, can restrain it so easily after having fostered its irritation to such an extent, they must be regarded as in a grave degree responsible for the acts of the brotherhood when it does act. They cannot be permitted to shift the burthen of the evil deeds of the Society from themselves and place it on the backs of their humble followers when these are found to yield them such implicit obedience. It is but fair to assume that this is no accident, and that it would have been carefully yielded in other seasons, had the counsel to preserve the peace been as strongly enjoined.

On examining the causes which may have suggested such a course in the year 1867, we shall not only find the reason for the fact itself, but in that reason we shall discover a clue to the persistent vitality of such an anachronism as this confederation. The advice to keep quiet has been given because the Tories were in power and thought it then their best policy to profess a certain amount of liberality, and any disturbance on the part of the Orangemen would be calculated to give embarrassment to their influential friends. Were parties otherwise placed in Parliament, there is every reason to doubt whether the counsel, even if formally given to save appearances, would have been really and earnestly pressed upon the attention of the subject mass. Did Tory policy deem it best to promote illiberality or to raise the cry of "the Church in danger," the Orangemen could be as easily let loose as they were then curbed.

The Orange Society is now, as a matter of fact, a political body, to be reined up and kept harmless when its friends are in office and desire peace; but when they are out or wish to make liberality odious its leash is slipped, and it is left free to do what guerilla service it may. To do it justice it has always shown itself ready for such emergencies, and rarely allowed an opportunity to escape of embarrassing the hands of the Irish Government when Whigs or Liberals happened to hold the reins of office. From this point of view it may be regarded as a precursor in the Tory interest of Reform Leagues, but far exceeding any of them in vehemence, and in its choice of weapons preferring those of late adopted by the Trades' Unionists of Sheffield.

It might be asked where is the use of a society with such aims in Ulster; if the Protestants are so numerous there as to make its success possible, they are numerous enough to be able to dispense with it, and return whatever members they please without it? There are, however, three reasons which appear to account for its existence. In the first place, it can always be called into action to create an "agitation," whereby the Legislature may be influenced; for as it is the only organization which gives tongue in the North, its accents can be represented in London as the voice of industrious Ulster. Next it is considered as of service to overawe the Catholic population, and inspire them with a proper sense of their subject position. And by the very act of doing this, the third object is almost achieved. In other words, by raking up the old embers of sectarian dislike, the Presbyterians and members of the Established Church are kept together and prevented from lapsing into Liberalism. The Orangeman who should marry a Catholic wife is cut off from the Society, and the Orangeman who should vote for a Liberal member undergoes exactly the same fate.

It cannot be denied that in its aims the Society has been wonderfully successful. It has kept the province singularly free from Liberal contamination in its representative men, and this against considerable odds. For, although loose writers occasionally refer to "Protestant Ulster," the fact is that in this province, as in the others, the Catholics are in a majority. However, they are only emerging, strenuously but slowly, from their position as a vanquished and subject race born to be trampled on.

In the struggle for existence and freedom they have had everything against them. The loamy plains and rich valleys were taken from them and given to alien settlers; but they toiled and saved till they fertilized the mountain glens into which they were driven, and even succeeded in buying back some of their old possessions in the more favoured lowlands. They were first kept out of the towns, and even in recent days none would receive their children as apprentices; but they gradually established themselves in the outskirts and suburbs, and steadily worked their way up to wealth and influence. Permission to worship God and to educate themselves was refused them. Nevertheless they offered their illegal devotions in groves and glens, with some peasant sentries posted on the neighbouring heights to give warning of the approach of the officers of the law; and similar sentinels kept watch and ward over the schools, which they held behind a hedge, under the direction of outlawed masters, till now they have their cathedrals and their colleges.

In time they became farmers and manufacturers, and sometimes owners of estates—some of them men of education and members of the learned professions. But in all their struggle they had the compact ranks of an Orange magistracy to confront; and although there has been some change for the better, the landed magistracy remains essentially as it was, but now leavened by a few stipendiary justices. Whilst the Catholics, therefore, are still to a great extent in the hands of landlords and magistrates of hostile principles, they cannot be expected to risk their ruin in voting for a Liberal member. Besides, their Tory landlords may act in reality as honestly by them as any legal adventurer desirous of place and promotion might promise to do, if returned in the liberal interest; and unfortunately the Irish Liberal constituencies have too frequently learned that Ministries consider it more easy to honour their members than to do justice to their cause. Thus the Catholics have no exceeding reason to vote for Liberals, who have left them at the mercy of ascendancy landlords, except what is given them by the existence of the Orange Society and its actions and influence.

Considering, on the other hand, that Presbyterian Scotland is politically Liberal, it would be natural to expect that in Ulster the Presbyterians would show themselves thoroughly disposed to make a fight, if only they had the power. That however would be to misjudge them. They number in Ulster over half a million and surpass the numbers of the Established Church by more than a hundred thousand; yet a Presbyterian paper complains that they have not returned a single member of their creed except one who votes against any concessions being made to it. The fact is curious, but is not unaccountable. The Church Establishment is regarded by the Dissenters who grow wealthy as the more respectable and fashionable, and accordingly they frequently desert their own community for it. This tends to make them Conservatives, however Liberal they may have been before; for the adherents of the Established Church in Ireland are obliged to remain, generally speaking, of that political party so long as the Irish Establishment endures as it is. The Orange Society gathers up a democratic remnant, and whenever there is danger of Presbyterians and Catholics leaguing together to return a Whiggish Presbyterian, they raise the Orange Banner, and bringing out fife and drum, stir up the ancient animosities, even to the shedding of blood, so that the new candidate finds himself quickly deserted by a crowd of his own fellow-believers.

This is the present purpose and use of the Orange Society, which was formed about the year 1795 out of a fusion of certain colonial societies called by the significant names of "Wreckers" and "Slashers." It displayed its ideas of vigour in 1798 to the intense disgust of Lord Cornwallis, who found it formidable to everybody but the enemy, and "ferocious and cowardly in the extreme." Parliament directed it to be dissolved, after the enquiry of 1835, when it was discovered to have been engaged in a plot to set upon the throne its Grand Master the Duke of Cumberland, to the wrong and displacement of the Princess Victoria. It was, however, revived and remodelled in 1845; and, three years after, the Irish Executive became its accomplice by surreptitiously furnishing it with arms for use against the insurgents—a factious act which was calculated to drive many into the insurgent ranks on account of old memories, and to alienate the Catholic soldiery and constabulary. Evidently the Irish executive forgot that the Irish Catholics were in a very different position from what they had been in 1798. Had these Orange allies been given an opportunity for displaying their peculiar ideas of warfare, there would certainly have been no Catholic constabulary to be complimented for their services against insurgents at any time since.

The Orange Society is the product and the prop of a factious ascendancy. In the natural order of things the vitality of each seems to be co-extensive with that of the other. We must then wait for the extinction of the Orange Society until the Irish Establishment has been abolished, and the existence of such an organization should be counted a strong reason for pressing on this great reform. All the year round, until July comes, the different sects and races live on good terms together in Ulster; and there cannot be a doubt that they would have been fused to a great extent long since, if it were not considered necessary to keep them apart for political purposes by promoting these annual exacerbations.