Why Do Orangemen Commemorate the 1798 Rebellion?

Why Do Orangemen Commemorate 1798?

There may be some misunderstanding as to why the Loyal Orange Institution in Ireland should be commemorating the United Irishmen’s Rebellion of 1798?  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”?

The Orange Institution traces its history to the turbulent years at the close of the eighteenth century.  The Institution was formed in September 1795, and within three years of its formation the Nation was thrown into turmoil by the Rebellion inspired by the United Irishmen.  The influences on radical thinking of the period were more than local.  The impact of European radical thinking which had inspired the French Revolution, the experiment in democracy in North America, to which many Ulster Presbyterians had emigrated  between 1718 and 1775, as well as the significant influence which came from Scotland with men like Francis Hutcheson – the connection between Scotland and Ireland was cemented by the fact that Irish Presbyterian Ministers had to go to Scotland to be educated.

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

BECAUSE IT IS A SHARED HISTORY: Not only is it a shared history because the Island of Ireland was one – united – with her own parliament, but because the Orange Institution can trace her history to ‘both sides’ – which make us the proverbial ‘bridge builders’ as far as this issue in society is concerned.  It is true that the members of the Institution in 1798 supported the forces of the Crown and in many instances whole Lodges joined the Yeomanry.  But it is not to be forgotten that it was the subsequent generations of the men who were ‘out’ in ’98 who became the leaders of the Institution in the next generation.  Subsequent to 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 reformation replaced revolution as the preferred means of changing society. This has remained the preferred option  of Orangeism. There is a shared history to be commemorated in 1798.

BECAUSE IT INVOLVES ISSUES OF SOCIAL JUSTICE: The academic thinkers or ‘radicals’ as they are sometimes called 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.  Social Justice stands at the heart of Orangeism.

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 Presbyterian population at the end of the eighteenth century, were little better off than their Roman Catholic neighbours.

We today can readily understand what it was to be ‘disaffected’.  By and large the Unionist/Protestant population of Northern Ireland are DISAFFECTED.  Disaffected with the lack of local democracy – or the ‘democratic deficit’, to which politicians often make reference.  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 ‘disaffected’!

MARKING 1798: What are we as an Institution doing to commemorate 1798?  We have been and are working in a number of areas.  The Education Committee wrote to County Antrim and County Down Grand Orange Lodges some time ago about this.  Accordingly, County Antrim Grand Orange Lodge – Antrim District, are to hold a re-enactment of the Battle of Antrim on Saturday 6th June 1998.  County Down Grand Orange Lodge – Ballynahinch District, are planning a re-enactment of the Battle of Ballynahinch on Saturday 13th June 1998. Comber District are holding a ‘Cultural Exhibition’ in Comber Orange Hall, 2-6 March 1998.

Education Committee of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland: has published two booklets to mark the bicentenary,  “Murder Without Sin”, being edited extracts from the publication:-“ORANGEISM; ITS ORIGIN AND HISTORY” by Ogle Robert Gowan, first published in Toronto 1859.

We have also published another booklet by way of a reprint from the Official history of the Order – “The Sunshine Patriots: The 1798 Rebellion in Antrim & Down” by R.M. Sibbett. Reprinted from:- “ORANGEISM IN IRELAND AND THROUGHOUT THE EMPIRE” [Thynne & Co., Ltd 1938]

We will also be hosting a Dinner and a Lecture to mark the occasion on Friday 12th June 1998.

We are commemorating 1798 because of the elements of shared history, social justice and ‘disaffection’.  We have a lot to learn as citizens, from the events of 1798, so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past.  Equally the Government have a lot to learn from how they handled the ‘disaffection’ of the past.  We can only hope and pray that they and we will not repeat the mistakes of the past!

Rev. Brian Kennaway


Education Committee.

Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland


This article appeared in the Down Democrat 4th February 1998