Friday 28 November 2014

The Orangeman as decent skin

Published 11/07/1999 | 00:11

Faithful Tribe: an Intimate Portrait of the Loyal InstitutionsIt's entertaining, informative and mischievous, with a touch of girlish glee, and now they'll call Ruth `Orange Lil', writes John A. Murphy

By Ruth Dudley Edwards

HarperCollins: £17.99

THE AUTHOR is a writer and historian of great distinction, whose works include studies of Pearse and Connolly, an award-winning biography of Victor Gollancz and an authorised history of The Economist. She also writes humorous crime novels, and her friends appreciate her sharp sense of the mischievous, a quality very much in evidence in parts of her new book.

She is perhaps better known to readers of this newspaper as a trenchant columnist on Northern affairs. Her searing analysis of Provo propaganda and Sinn Féinspeak has provoked fellow travellers to hurl abuse at her in the unlovely terms coined by D.P. Moran a century ago `West Brit,' `shoneen' as well, of course, as the dreaded tag `revisionist.' Some years ago , she was lampooned, together with the Cruiser and my unworthy self, in the late Breandán Ó hEithir's mordant ballad `The gentle Black and Tan.' All in all, a most creditable curriculum vitae, now to be further enhanced by derogatory epithets like `Orange Lil'.

This is a large (448 pp.) book divided, like Caesar's Gaul, into three parts. There is a personal, lively and colourful account of the proceedings of the Orange Order and similar institutions (by far the best chapters in the work); a middle section dealing with the Order's historical development; and an analysis of the successive Drumcrees since 1995 and of the author's involvement therein. This latter section takes up nearly one-third of the book.

In a recent newspaper article, Ruth reflected that The Faithful Tribe ``ended up as a mixture of anthropology, eyewitness reportage, politics and history''. Since the story of Orangeism has received plenty of attention from historians, as is evident from her select bibliography, this book's distinctive contribution lies in the author's absorbing personal immersion in Orange culture, and in the way she conveys her critically sympathetic experience to the reader, particularly perhaps the reader south of the Border. The atmosphere of rural Protestant Ulster is particularly well caught.

The four years' research she put into the book was not so much conventional scholarly investigation in libraries and archives as (literally) field work attending numerous parades, listening to endless speeches, cultivating the confidence and friendship of the brethren, and reading pamphlets, rule-books and hymnsheets. Somebody commented last week that it was intriguing to have a sympathetic book on Orange Ulster written by a Dublin Catholic. In fact, Ruth has long been a London atheist which probably made her task easier and more enjoyable. Only an atheist could regard singing dreary hymns as ``rather fun''. She has obviously approached the whole business with characteristic girlish glee, though there is an unwitting touch of anthropological condescension her and there towards the Ulster version of the noble savage.

She argues that, on the whole, the Orangemen is a decent oul skin, despite being demonised as a triumphalist bigot by Southerners. By his oath, he sees Roman Catholicism as idolatry incarnate, though he can be a very Christian neighbour to individual Catholics. In the main, he is depicted as a simple fellow, fearing the Lord, fond of the day out, the ``drop of tea and a bit of fellowship''.

The first quotation in the book, with which the author obviously agrees, is to the effect that the whole Orange community is being ``demonized for no greater crime than being out of fashion''. This is extremely disingenuous, given their repeated defiance at Drumcree, their dismissal of the disapproval of the churches, and the pathetic attempts to dodge their responsibility for the murder and mayhem instigated by their thuggish camp followers. (However, the Order has received brownie points for its 1999 restraint.)

``The lady doth protest too much, methinks.'' Her counter-argument against critics of Orangeism involves accusations of victimisation and virtual ethnic cleansing of Protestants in the Irish Free State after independence. I'm no defender of this State's former Catholic ethos but the case she makes is exaggerated and the decline of the Protestant population in the South can be attributed to less melodramatic causes, not least the genteel disinclination of the Southern Protestant to perpetuate his species with sufficient prolific gusto. Nor did all Protestants see the Gaelic ethos as interchangeable with the Catholic ethos, despite a simplistic metropolitan assumption to the contrary.

To come back to the Orangeman, his concern for ``civil and religious liberties'' (at no real risk whatever in a secular democracy, by the way) needs critical consideration. Historically in Ireland, Protestant `liberties' tended to mean Protestant `privilege,' and many Protestants (even including some United Irishmen) doubted whether Roman Catholics were constitutionally capax libertatis capable of appreciating or enjoying liberty at all, because of Roman tyranny and priestcraft. In short, the Orange Protestant is still benightedly living in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: the Southern Catholic, whatever his past intolerances, has moved on. The ``faithful tribe'' description is also questionable. In terms of allegiance, the Orange Protestants are only conditionally loyal to the Crown and the British state, and in the past they have often merited the title of ``Queen's rebels''.

All arguments aside, The Faithful Tribe is enormously readable, entertaining and informative. The author has the good sense to let the Orangemen speak for themselves and they do so profusely in personal statements and reminiscences, in ballads and hymns and anecdotes. No Southern papist, lapsed or otherwise, should miss out on this book.

As long, of course, as all of them up there, Garvaghy as well as Drumcree, stay well away from us...

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