The Orange Contribution to the 1798 Commemorations

Who Fears to Speak of ’98

(Ulster History Foundation)

The Orange Contribution to the 1798 Commemorations


For anyone to attempt to ‘break new ground’ in and institutional organisation it is difficult enough.  In an Institution like the Orange Order, given its commitment to  “meddle not with them that are given to change:”  (Proverbs 24:21),  it is well  nigh impossible.

Attempting to be progressive and visionary, the Education Committee of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland in the early 1990’s indicated to the Grand Lodge that something imaginative ought to be done to commemorate the bicentenary of the United Irishman’s Rebellion of 1798.

The Committee proceeded, with the approval of the Grand Lodge, to published two booklets. “Murder Without Sin”, being edited extracts from the publication:-“ORANGEISM; ITS ORIGIN AND HISTORY” by Ogle Robert Gowan, first published in Toronto 1859.  This publication which covered the Rebellion in Wexford, demonstrated how the rising quickly turned from the ideals of the United Irishmen to the ugly sectarian conflict, which defaced and eventually destroyed their cause.  The title of this publication caused annoyance among some in the Republic. This was the representation of the letters “M.W.S.” on the rebel flag carried at the massacre of Protestants on Wexford Bridge.  We adhered to the historical interpretation of the letters as “Murder Without Sin” – indicating that it was no sin to murder a Protestant because they were heretics anyway.

The Committee also published another reprint, from the only major official history of the Order – “The Sunshine Patriots: The 1798 Rebellion in Antrim & Down”.  This was an excerpt from R.M. Sibbett’s “ORANGEISM IN IRELAND AND THROUGHOUT THE EMPIRE” [Thynne & Co., Ltd 1938].  County Antrim and County Down Grand Lodges both supported the Education Committee in this project and took responsibility for the sale of 3,000 and 5,000 copies respectively.  It was the large print run of this publication which facilitated the Committee to finance the Commemorative Dinner on 12th June 1998.  This enabled the Committee to invite and accommodate guests from the Republic of Ireland and England.  “The Sunshine Patriots”  was placed on the list of official publications recommended by the Department of Education for Northern Ireland, this we believe was a first for the Order.

At the beginning of 1997 I expressed concern, to some Dublin politicians, that the commemorations planned for the Republic of Ireland, should be inclusive and fully recognise the contribution of the Orangemen of 1798.

This resulted in an invitation from the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Avril Doyle T.D., to Leinster House, Dublin on Wednesday 5th March 1997.  It had become known that, the Orange Order, through its Education Committee was proposing to commemorate the 1798 Rebellion and reflect upon its significance for Irish Protestants.  Naturally this was of great interest to the Southern constituency.  With the Minister, to discuss the commemoration of the 1798 Rebellion, over lunch, were Professor Tom Bartlett, the Irish Government’s Advisor on 1798, and Senator Dr. Mary Henry.

The Committee had decided on 28th February that, David Richardson and myself should be present to represent the Committee.  This visit caused some media interest and heightened the profile of the Institution.  Although it was made clear to reporters outside Leinster House that our interest was purely academic and historical, the manner in which this was reported by the B.B.C. added to the misunderstanding.  Clearly a greater maturity was required on both sides of the border, but it was the ‘flat-earthers’ among the Orange constituency who gave most cause for concern.  They confused the geographical transition to Dublin with a political conversion to republican politics.

Our interest in the Commemoration of the 1798 Rebellion led to invitations to write articles for various publications, including the Irish Times and the Irish Catholic. We took part in a Gaelic Television programme on the Rebellion and were commended by the perceptive Irish journalist Eoghan Harris in his Sunday Times article of 6th September 1998 – “Some contributors were convincing – Brian Kennaway, Louis Cullen and Breandan O Buachalla. . . .”.  All this helped to improve the public perception of the Institution and present the more reasonable, if not academic, image.

Of course not everyone in the Orange Order was pleased with our efforts.  Some who would have thought nothing of going to Landsdown Road Dublin, and standing for the ‘Soldier’s Song’, severely criticised the Education Committee for making the Orange viewpoint known to members of the Dublin establishment.  But then, hypocritical cant is often used in place of rational argument.

The major event in the Orange contribution to the commemorations of 1798 as far as the Education Committee was concerned, was the Commemorative Dinner, held on 12th June 1998 in Parliament Buildings Stormont.  The Grand Lodge had two years previously given permission to the Education Committee to organise a Dinner.  The significance of Friday 12th June 1998 is that this was the Friday between the Battle of Antrim on 6th June, and the Battle of Ballynahinch on 13th June.

Only one person objected, Joel Patton.  The leader of the “Spirit of Drumcree” faction, in his usual aggressive fashion objected to the Mayor of Dublin attending the Dinner.  The Mayor in fact wore the Chain of Office presented to the Corporation of the City of Dublin, by William III, of ‘glorious pious and immortal memory’.

In spite of the lack of understanding and the stumbling blocks presented in our way the Commemoration Dinner went ahead with ninety-one people attending.  There were thirty invited guests, thirteen of them from the Irish Republic.  Academia, taking in all the major Irish Universities, and journalism were well represented.  Professor Brian Walker gave an excellent After Dinner Lecture on ‘The Lessons of ’98’.  He concluded his Lecture in words reminiscent of R.M. Sibbett,  by reminding his hearers that they should also recall the brave Catholic soldiers of the Monaghan militia who fought and died to save Ireland for the Crown and those gallant Presbyterian United Irishmen who fought and died for a new Ireland.

Sponsorship for the project had been received from, Co-Operation North, The Community Relations Council: Cultural Diversity Programme, The Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Edenderry Print.  If the success of the evening is to be measured by the number of positive and encouraging letters which followed, then, it was a resounding success.

The great fault of all this was that the Education Committee were being both positive and progressive.  That to some was a ‘double fault’.  But there is a price to be paid for vision and courage, and that will no doubt be revealed in the coming months.

Rev. Brian Kennaway.


Education Committee,

Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland.

This article was published in the Ulster Historical Foundation May 2000.