Orangeism and the 1798 Rebellion

Orangeism and the 1798 Rebellion

There may be some misunderstanding as to why the Loyal Orange Institution in Ireland should be commemorating the United Irishmen’s Rebellion of 1798?  This is perhaps because the principles of the Orange Institution have often been deliberately misrepresented to be anti-Catholic.  We are exclusively Protestant but not anti-Catholic as the Basis of the Institution state :- 

“It is exclusively an Association of those who are attached to the religion of the Reformation, and will not admit into its brotherhood persons whom an intolerant spirit leads to persecute, injure, or upbraid any man on account of his religious opinions.”

The Rev. F. Rupert Gibson, a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (1971) and Superintendent of “The Irish Mission” of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland said :-

“Probably there is no human institution claiming to be based on the Bible and professing to maintain the principles of the Reformed Faith, which has been more bitterly maligned by its avowed foes and more falsely represented by those who profess to be its friends, than the Orange Order”

[Orangeism: Its Religious Origin Its Scriptural Basis Its Protestant Principles]

Most of the history books on Ireland have been written from a sympathetic point of view towards Irish nationalism, therefore the Orange Institution’s part in suppressing the Rebellion has either been neglected, or else mentioned only in passing.  Those who have some understanding of history know that this period of the history of Ireland is very complicated and like the issues of today, they are not simply ‘black and white’ issues – or should I say ‘Orange and Green”?

Why should we, as the Orange Institution, concern ourselves with the events of ’98?  There are a number of reasons why we should!

BECAUSE IT IS A COMMON HISTORY: We cannot ignore the great events of our past any more than the Christian world can forget the great events of redemptive history, the birth, death and resurrection of Christ.

Not only is it a common history because the Island of Ireland was one – united – with her own parliament, but because the Orange Institution was crucially involved in the events of ’98.  The membership of the Institution in 1798 supported the forces of the Crown and in many instances whole Lodges joined the Yeomanry. This was only to be expected given the circumstances of the day, remembering that many of their loyal Catholic fellow countrymen also served the forces of the Crown in the Militia.

This common history can also be seen in that both the United Irishmen and the Orange Order can trace their history to the Volunteer movement.

But the Orange Institution can trace her history to ‘both sides’ because it was the subsequent generations of the men who were ‘out’ in ’98 who became the leaders of the Institution.  After the turbulent events of 1798 when some 20,000/30,000 died, and the realisation of the excesses of the French Revolution, the largely Presbyterian support for revolution and rebellion ebbed away.  Support quickly changed to support for the UNION and this has remained the preferred option of Orangeism. 1798 is a common history and a notable event and deserves to be commemorated by all our people as we seek an accommodation which is tolerant of those with whom we may disagree.

BECAUSE IT INVOLVES ISSUES OF SOCIAL JUSTICE: There is ample evidence to demonstrate that the freedoms and liberties of the Constitutional Settlement, of which the victory of the Boyne played no mean part, were celebrated by Irish Protestants every year since 1690.

The academic thinkers of 1798 were men who were primarily concerned with social justice, in a day when ‘democracy’ was not an acceptable word for a gentleman.  The core values of the men of ’98 were in the tradition of the French Revolution LIBERTY, EQUALITY AND FRATERNITY.  The core values of Orangeism are “Civil and Religious Liberty”. It stands for equality with no racial or ethnic privileges.  It promoted the ideals of Liberty and the values of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which began the creation of constitutional government and the securing of Civil and Religious Liberty of everyone.

BECAUSE IT INVOLVED A PEOPLE WHO WERE ‘DISAFFECTED’: The rebels or insurgents of ’98 were also referred to as “the disaffected”.  They had every right to be disaffected.  The Civil and Religious Liberty which many of the Dissenters embraced had passed them by.  The working-class Protestant population at the end of the eighteenth century, were little better off than their Roman Catholic neighbours.

The Orange constituency of today can readily understand what it was to be ‘disaffected’ in 1798.  By and large the Unionist/Protestant population of Northern Ireland are DISAFFECTED.  Disaffected with the lack of local democracy.  Our people are disaffected by the “Anglo-Irish Agreement”, the “Downing Street Declaration” and the “Framework Documents”, to which they appear to have no redress!  We can, looking back, well understand how our forefathers were frustrated by their isolation from the political process  and became ‘disaffected’!

It is all too easy to judge the actions of our forefathers, whatever side they were on, by the standards of today.  As we commemorate the events of ’98 we should be mindful of the atrocities committed on both sides as well as the men of honour on both sides who fought for their love of Ireland.

Brian Kennaway (Rev.)


Education Committee

Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland


This article appeared in The Irish Catholic – March 1998