Orangeism and Culture

Mardi Gras culture no answer for Orangeism

Rite and Reason:

There is a danger for Orangeism of developing a monolithic

culture, writes Rev Brian Kennaway

Recent months have shown something of a shift in the customary head-in-the-sand approach of the Orange Order leadership.

We have had visits to Áras an Uachtaráin, and there have been talks with the Department of Foreign Affairs, the SDLP and even with the Catholic primate, Archbishop Seán Brady.

In a recent interview with The Irish Times (June 17th), Drew Nelson, the order’s grand secretary and possible future grand master, revealed his thinking to take the institution into the 21st century.

Orange parades, he suggested, should be “celebrated the way Brazilians celebrate Mardi Gras”.

Was he not aware that Mardi Gras is a Roman Catholic celebration held just before the beginning of Lent?

Besides, how would the highly decorative spectacle of half-naked women fit in with what Drew Nelson earlier this year described as the first core value of the Orange institution: “the preservation and propagation of the Protestant religion”? (Belfast Telegraph, April 28th).

Also in recent months, we have heard a new word suggesting an emerging culture: Orangefest. The grand lodge website reveals that “Drew Nelson, Grand Secretary of the Orange Order, said that over the last two years senior Orangemen had visited both London’s Notting Hill Carnival and the Alarde Parade in Hondarribia in the Basque region of Spain”.

Is Orangefest the answer? No, because there is a foundation within Protestant culture beyond which we cannot go; otherwise we lose our raison d’être, ie the authority of scripture.

If the Orange Order is, as it describes itself, “a Christian organisation”; “Christ-centred, Bible-based, church grounded”, then this is the dynamic that must be to the fore in its cultural expression.

I also detect a searching for a renewed, if not new, cultural identity within Orangeism. This is seen in the relationship of the order to the Ulster-Scots tradition and to the commemoration of the sacrifice at the Somme during the first World War.

The theological make-up of the Orange institution at its foundation was largely Church of Ireland (Anglican). Even given the Ulster dominance within the institution in the 21st century, it should be remembered that the plantation stock of Ulster was made up both of Ulster-Scots Presbyterians and English Episcopalians. The Anglican influence appears to have been forgotten by some.

So what about our Anglo-Irish heritage? An answer is to be found in the March 1999 edition of the Orange Standard. There, in an article by RG McDowell, we discover it is “extinct”:

“The United Irishmen got their name as they were supposed to be an alliance between the Irish, the Scots-Irish and some radical element of the now extinct Anglo-Irish.”

While there is an acute danger in equating Orangeism to Ulster-Scots, an even more radical element of the Ulster-Scots tradition finds itself sitting comfortably with the British Israelite movement.

Not only is this reducing the revered to the absurd, it is also grossly offensive to the thousands of individuals who treasure their Ulster-Scots heritage, and cringe when it is made a laughing stock in the eyes of the world.

Coinciding with the welcome interest in the Republic of Ireland in the sacrifice at the Somme has been a renewed if not exaggerated interest by the Orange Order in the events of July 1st, 1916.

There is a real danger of so elevating the Somme in exclusively Orange terms that it passes into folklore on a par with the Boyne. The implication would be to make it exclusive rather than inclusive.

Cultures are worth protecting and preserving so long as they are authentic, ie they have an authentic, historic past, even though evolving while taking into account the dynamic of a changing society within which they function.

Culture that evolves without losing its core values is worth protecting and preserving, but not a culture that is artificially created. There is a danger of creating an exclusive Orange culture which would exclude Edward Carson because he was a Dubliner and an Anglican.

There is a danger for Orangeism of developing a monolithic culture that would resemble that of de Valera more than that of Carson.

In terms of the faith-based Orange culture to which I belong, the problem lies not so much in the culture itself, but with some of the expressions of that culture.

At times these give the greatest cause for concern.


Brian Kennaway is a Presbyterian minister at Crumlin in Belfast and a former

education convenor with the Orange Order. This article is an edited version

of a talk he gave at the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in

Wicklow on Saturday


This article appeared in the IRISH TIMES on 28th August 2006