Monday 21 January 2019

The future's bright for Donegal's Orangemen

Sashes and bowler hats will be on show tomorrow as 15,000 people gather in the village of Rossnowlagh to watch the annual parade by marching bands. Marese McDonagh reports.

Brian Britton remembers as a small boy being thrilled by the spectacle. Brought up in the small coastal village of Rossnowlagh, which in winter time has a population of just 60 people, he and his friends looked forward to the marching bands and the drums and the chaos.

Catholic and Protestant schoolchildren - the village is evenly divided between the two communities - grew up with this annual performance of the Orange anthem, The Sash, by dozens of bands, crammed into the narrow country roads, who joyfully belted out their hymns as they marched towards the sea.

Tomorrow the marching bands will be back and Mr Britton will be there with possibly the best view of proceedings from the roof of his four-star Sand House Hotel, which overlooks Rossnowlagh's spectacular beach.

An estimated 15,000 people from Orange lodges in counties Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan and Leitrim will gather in the village. Many will come from the North and there will also be Orange Order members from the East coast and from Liverpool and Scotland.

The Rossnowlagh parade has long been held up as a symbol of what can be achieved by peoples of differing cultures not afraid of each other's traditions.

The Donegal County Grand Master, David Mahon, is proud of his traditions. In the hallway of his holiday home a few miles from Rossnowlagh, the walls are lined with formal group photographs of Orange Order members with their sashes and bowler hats.

In pride of place over the fireplace in the sitting room is a happy photograph of the Ballymagroarty band featuring four of his seven children. Next Saturday morning the Mahon family will gather at this house, a short walk from Ballymagroarty Orange Hall, where they will meet other lodge members before heading to a church service in Ballintra and then onto Rossnowlagh for the main event.

The Orange hall is a simple stone structure, built at the turn of the century, and is surrounded by rolling meadows in a landscape dotted by substantial modern dwellings.

The price of sites is a topic of conversation as Mr Mahon, a genial man in his 40s, poses self-consciously in front of the rural hall. Clutching his orange 'colarette', which he obediently dons only when the photographer is ready to press the button, he apologetically frets about how silly he must look, even though the narrow country road is deserted.

Mr Mahon admits that he didn't bring his bowler hat as requested for the photo session. He is not comfortable wearing it but he is careful to explain the discomfort is purely practical in that he never wears hats.

The County Grand Master has been a guest of President McAleese in the Aras - but never for her July 12 garden party because that would mean missing a parade.

Next weekend the property dealer, farmer and businessman will attend three parades. Rossnowlagh is traditionally held on the Saturday before the Twelfth. There will be parades on Sunday and then on Monday he will head for Co Fermanagh to enjoy the highlight of the marching season in a parade that will dwarf Rossnowlagh.

With his wide navy pinstripes, his burgundy Range Rover and his successful tourism business across the border in Kesh, Mr Mahon is the epitome of the prosperous farmer/businessman.

He joined the Ballymagroarty lodge at the age of 17 - his parents were not members but that wasn't remarkable - having been brought up in the immediate neighbourhood a few miles from Rossnowlagh. He is proud of his Donegal roots but baulks when asked if he considers himself Irish. "I don't think in those terms," he replies, adding quickly that he has an Irish passport.

Mervyn Wylie, another prominent Orange Order member in Donegal, has no reservations about his Irishness, saying he believes people belong to whatever country they were born into and reared. "I plan to be here for the rest of my life," he adds.

The Wylie family will also march across the border on Monday but there is a special place in their hearts for Rossnowlagh and tomorrow morning, after the 60 cows are milked, they will set out on the 65-mile journey to the west coast of Donegal.

"It's a great day out for all the family, a bit like an agricultural show," says Mr Wylie. "The same people go every year and it's the only place you meet many of them."

Mr Wylie, the No 3 District Master in Donegal, insists that the Orange Order is not a political organisation. "It was brought into politics in the North but it was never intended to be political," he insisted. "It is a religious organisation."

A Protestant who went to a Catholic school, he is typical of the Orange Order member in the Republic who has common ground with those he meets at the annual parades but also with those he works with in the Inishowen peninsula. As chairman of the Muff branch of the IFA, he has as much to say about the problems of farmers as he has about the need to refurbish the 17 Orange halls in Co Donegal.

His sons are typical of many youngsters in the area who love soccer and are passionate supporters of the Donegal GAA team.

The Orange hall in Muff is used more than many in the county, with IFA meetings held there regularly as well as 'cross-community' ladies' keep-fit classes.

"We had a meeting about a week ago with some TDs in Dublin about getting funds to do up Orange halls," says Mr Wylie. "Many were built in rural areas at a time when people cycled everywhere and there are no car parks or proper toilet facilities."

He believes that a little more involvement in domestic politics might be of benefit in this regard. "I suppose you have to be in there to get your view across."

Mr Mahon noted that Protestants in Co Donegal had a tradition of voting for Fine Gael but this had changed in the past 20 years. "You get as many voting for Fianna Fail now," he says.

While he sees July 12 as "a massive festival, which takes place across 19 different venues", he has never been to the Drumcree parade. "I did go to Drumcree Church once just to have a look."

Despite the calm last weekend, he doesn't seem optimistic about resolving all the tensions associated with some parades in the North. "It's what happens in heavily populated areas where people don't know each other and don't work together," he says.

The stories of the harmony associated with Rossnowlagh are retold every year. The Ancient Order of Hibernians in the Rossnowlagh area are reputed to have excellent relations with local lodge members, with accordions and drums regularly being lent between the two for their respective parades.

The Franciscan Friary in Rossnowlagh, which opened in 1947, was initially expected to be vulnerable during the Orange parade and local legend has it that armed gardai were, in the early years, assigned to the grounds to guard the priests and monks. Wiser counsel soon prevailed and the gardai emphasise every year that traffic control is the only headache they have in Rossnowlagh.

Mr Britton, a Catholic, owns the field where the Orange Order assembles at the end of the route, another sign of the close cooperation between the communities in Rossnowlagh. "Why change a tradition which was there before my family owned that field," he says.

The last census, which for the first time recorded an increase in the number of Protestants in the Republic, also showed that the most Catholic town in Ireland is in Co Donegal. More than 94pc of the population of Buncrana are Catholics.

Mr Mahon estimates there are anything from 500 to 600 Orange Order members in the county now, a figure that has remained relatively stable over the years, with many new members joining as others die off. His local district is proud of the fact that Tony Blair's maternal grandfather, George Corscaddon, was a member of a lodge near Rossnowlagh.

The Orange Order in Belfast couldn't say how many of the 50,000-strong membership are based in the Republic. A spokeswoman said there are 46 lodges here, almost all of them in the border counties, and that membership can range from 15 to 100. There are also junior and women's lodges but the Orange Order stressed that the women's is a totally separate organisation with its own hierarchy.

Mr Wylie remarks sadly that Drumcree had "blackened" the name of the Orange Order. "People think the Orange Order in Donegal is the same as the Orange Order in Drumcree," he says.

But as the trouble-makers and almost everybody else stayed away from Drumcree last weekend, it seems that the festival atmosphere of Rossnowlagh could well be where the future lies for Orangeism.

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