In common Ulster parlance ‘The Twelfth’ refers not to the actual day, but to a loose period of days on either side of the actual 12th of July, the climax of the Protestant calendar when traditional parades of Loyal Orange Lodges and marching bands take place on a huge scale in towns and cities all over Northern Ireland. The majority of those involved view The Twelfth as an affirmation and celebration of their religious and cultural heritage.
In 1689, wider political events in Europe had led to ‘The Glorious Revolution’ which eventually saw the Dutch William Prince of Orange assume the throne of England. An attempt by King James II to regain the throne with the support of France led to the arrival of King William on Irish shores at Carrickfergus in 1690. The Williamite or Jacobite Wars in Ireland lasted from 1689 until 1691 and with William’s triumph at the River Boyne in 1690, and his decisive victory at Aughrim the following year, his claim to the monarchy of ‘The Three Kingdoms’ (England, Scotland and Ireland) was confirmed. In a wider political context, although perhaps less well known, William’s retention of the throne secured what would later became the future Bill of Rights, guaranteeing civil and religious liberty for all that is now taken as a birthright in Europe and which laid the foundation for modern democratic government. For Irish Protestants it resulted in the preservation of their faith and culture across the island of Ireland, and it is the survival and flourishing of that faith and culture which is at the root of The Twelfth celebrations.
There is recorded evidence of commemorative annual events and Orange or Williamite clubs and societies in Ireland since the events of 1691, all of which were forerunners of what eventually became the Orange Order. Over a hundred years later in 1795, after The ‘Battle of the Diamond’ in County Armagh between local Protestants and the Roman Catholic Defenders saw the formation of The Orange Society, Orange lodges gradually began to form across the country, quickly followed by their organisation into a more cohesive body with the founding of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland in 1798. In its more than 200 year history the Orange Institution has found itself formally banned, at once protesting the Act of Union with Great Britain, then fighting to keep it, facing slaughter on the fields of France in WW1, at the forefront of society and government, manipulated by cynical politicians and paramilitary groups, facing down security forces of the Crown to which its pledges unquestioning loyalty, outmaneuvered, mismanaged and misrepresented.
As if it has ever really been possible to separate the two in Ireland, debate continues among both critics and supporters as to whether the Orange Order is primarily a religious or political organization. With a current membership of around 35,000, the Orange Order is still the only organisation that unites the wide, if not complete, range of Protestant opinion, and continues to be an inextricable part of Northern Ireland’s cultural and political landscape. Whether its influence in society will continue to decline remains to be seen, and although in foundation and essence it will always be a religious organisation, changing demographics and increasing ethnic diversity in post-Troubles Northern Ireland, along with tourist board support and funding of the newly branded ‘Orangefest’ suggest a possible gradual evolution into a predominantly cultural and civic organization.
Reactions to the Orange Order and The Twelfth parade season range from outright hostility and violence, casual indifference to undying support, but love it or hate it, for the larger part of the majority community in Northern Ireland it retains a variety of appeals, be it a sentimental attachment, a vital relevance, a family association, an historic pride, a community network, an expression of loyalty, a unifying force, or a combination of one or more of these.
This is in many ways a personal work. It is not the place for a political or socio-cultural thesis (nor am I sufficiently qualified to deliver one) on the Orange Institution or Protestant parading culture. It is rather an attempt to present a fuller, rounder photographic document of The Twelfth that goes beyond the tired and disproportionately used images of a small number of men standing in a blocked road or facing police barricades. I have approached my subject openly and honestly, with the benefit of a perspective on ones own community that only living far away from it for many years can give. Due to a combination of factors, beyond Northern Irish shores, The Twelfth often receives almost exclusively negative media attention. Nor is it a picture of The Twelfth through Orange-tinted spectacles, to which I hope the pictures within will testify. I have made no attempt to ‘airbrush’ out any elements of The Twelfth that an honest appraisal must necessarily contain. All mass organizations are ripe for criticism, rife with contradictions, contain differing goals in leadership and shades of opinion within their ranks, and The Orange Order is no exception. What I have tried to do is document what I saw having attended the four major events of The Twelfth parading season, and through so doing came increasingly to realize that the image conjured by The Twelfth for many outside Northern Ireland (and within it for that matter), though understandable, is regrettable, and would be genuinely baffling to the vast majority of people involved in it. Perhaps this document may go some way to readdressing that balance a little.