Both of my parents were born in Belfast, Northern Ireland and the majority of my family lives in the United Kingdom. I am first-generation American and proud of my Orange-Irish heritage and can’t wait to one day sail “home” into Belfast Harbor.
Many who know me well have been schooled on St. Patrick’s Day on the difference between being Orange and Green Irish. I DO NOT wear green on St. Patrick’s Day as I am absolutely sure my father would look down with disapproval. The Orange Irish celebrate Orangemen’s Day with bonfires kicking off the festivities on July 11th and parades on July 12th. Homes and buildings are adorned with bunting and people crowd the streets waving the British flag. Read on for a wee bit of history about the holiday.
Ireland has a tumultuous past, to say the least. The picture above shows the flags of Scotland and Great Britain, represented by the Union flag, the Red Hand of Ulster, representing Northern Ireland, and the flag of the Republic of Ireland (Southern Ireland), the Irish tricolour. Much blood has been shed in religious wars for territory and power between these countries over the centuries.
King James, a staunch Catholic who commissioned the English translation of the Christian Bible for the Church of England (which is still widely used today), was crowned monarch of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1685, angering the Protestant majority in Britain. Prince William of Orange, nephew to King James and married to James’ daughter, garnered the support of influential political and Protestant leaders and led an invasion of England in 1688, taking the crown from his father-in-law. (This must have created interesting pillow talk!)
Ireland refused to accept the new King and backed deposed King James in an attempt to take back the crown. In a bloody battle in 1690, famously known as the “Battle of the Boyne,” King William handily defeated James and Ireland was added to his territory of reign. This marked the beginning of the monarchial change from personal rule of the Stuarts towards a Parliament rule in Britain that exists to this day.
(An interesting side note: William named his wife Mary, a born and raised Catholic who did not convert to Protestantism, as co-sovereign in an attempt to ease political tension. They reigned together and she was regarded as an important voice until her death in 1694.)
So what does all this fighting over religion and land have to do with being “Orange?”
The meaning behind the orange comes from the Orange Order, a fraternal organization established in 1795 to protect the Protestant ascendancy in the monarchy. King William was Prince of Orange before being crowned King, hence orange became the defining color.
A hundred years plus pass, amidst much more political and religious strife.
Finally, in 1921, Ireland officially split into two republics: Southern Ireland (known as just Ireland) with it’s own government, and Northern Ireland which is governed by the United Kingdom. This split, unfortunately, didn’t heal the tension that it had hoped to achieve and still exists to this day.
The Irish flag, designed in 1848 and adopted as the national flag of Ireland in 1921 with the republic split, consists of three stripes: orange for the Protestants, green for the Catholics, and a white strip in between signifying the hope for Peace. The British flag combines the red cross of St. George of the Kingdom of England, the white saltire of St. Andrew for Scotland, and the red saltire of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.
The Ulster Banner was formerly the flag of Northern Ireland. It was adopted in July 1953 to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It created more tension between Northern and Southern Ireland, as the red hand is a nod to 13th century Gaelic clan wars and sits inside a six pointed star representing the six counties that make up Northern Ireland. The banner was abolished in 1972 and no longer represents the country, although extreme Ulster loyalists (also known as Unionists) still fly it purposely to instigate the Southerners.
As often happens in politics and religion though, much of the fighting is between “leaders” who posture for positions of power. Sadly, there are still car-bombings and fighting by the extremists who chose to hate others based on religion and territory. All of my maternal and paternal family (with the exception of my sister and me and our children and my Grands), live in Northern Ireland and England. My aunt and uncle and cousins all have friends and neighbors who are Catholic and get along just fine, celebrating both St. Patrick’s Day and Orangemen’s Day together in harmony.
In America, Orangemen’s Day isn’t acknowledged by those of Northern Irish or British descent although St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated with much fanfare by anyone with a drop of Irish blood (and those with entirely no United Kingdom connection). It’s basically a reason to get drunk with very little awareness of the history and connection to St. Patrick.
Today I’ll raise a toast to my ancestors, sport a bit of Orange, and say a prayer for peace in my homeland of Northern Ireland.
(Personal note: my son, Harley was born on July 11th, to the utmost delight of my wee Nana. He was given the middle name of “Benson” in honor of my father and his Orange heritage. My daughter was named Meghan from the Celtic/Irish spelling of the name derived from the ancient clan Meeghan and means “brave warrior.” Her middle name, Elizabeth, is after the Queens of England.)