Marching the Queen's Highway: Dolly's Brae to Drumcree (1849 to Today), Part 2 of 2

Part 2 of 2: Dolly's Brae to Drumcree (1849 to Today)

By Christine Kinealy (First produced in 2003)

By 1849, the nationalist threat had passed, but the Orange Order used the marches on July 12th, 1849, as an opportunity to demonstrate their continuing supremacy within Ireland. In 1849, dozens of additional parades took place throughout Ulster and they were better attended than in preceding years. The attempted uprising in 1848 infused the marches in 1849 with deeper sectarian significance than in previous years. Government officials were aware of the heightened tensions and the likelihood of armed conflict, and from early July, they sent troops and extra police to areas that were regarded as sectarian flashpoints. For the most part, the high military presence meant that the day passed peaceably, although one Catholic man was killed in Ballymacarrett in Belfast. However, it was in a small Catholic village known as Dolly's Brae, near Castlewellan, where the conflict was most violent.

Above, an Orange Order sash, typical of those worn by members during marches.

Dolly's Brae was an exclusively Catholic village, and the Orange Order had never marched through it before. The government had been warned that in 1849 they had decided to use this route and, in anticipation of the likelihood of trouble in Dolly's Brae, they sent a company of dragoons, additional police, and magistrates to the village. They allowed the march to go ahead, however. The march through Dolly's Brae on the morning of the twelfth was peaceful, even though the Orangeman were described as being "armed to the teeth" and they sang anti-Catholic songs as they passed through the village.

The dead included Hugh King, a 10-year-old who died of gunshot wounds, and Anne Taylor, an 85-year-old woman whose death was caused by her skull being struck with a blunt instrument.

In the afternoon, the Orange lodges from the surrounding areas met at the estate of Lord Roden in Castlewellan, and, after giving them whiskey, he urged them to "do their duty as loyal, Protestant men." About 1,500 Orangemen returned through Dolly's Brae in the evening. By this stage, about 500 Catholics had gathered in the village, armed with muskets or pikes. The conflict was triggered by the firing of a single gunshot by an Orangeman, although later reports attributed it to the Catholic side. The fighting was swift and brutal, but the military and constabulary initially did not get involved in the conflict or attempt to stop it. By the time they did intervene, ten houses and the Catholic Church had been burnt to the ground. Five Catholics also had been killed and nine others badly wounded. The dead included Hugh King, a 10-year-old boy who died of gunshot wounds, and Anne Taylor, an-85-year-old woman, whose death was caused by her skull being struck with a blunt instrument. Thirty-five Catholics were arrested, but no Orangemen.

  • Part 1 of 2: Battling 'The Pagans' (Origins to 1849)
  • Part 2 of 2: Dolly's Brae to Drumcree (1849 to Today)

The incident at Dolly's Brae quickly became embedded in unionist mythology as a significant victory of Protestantism over Catholicism. Lord Roden was proclaimed the hero of the day. A long-term consequence of the incident at Dolly's Brae was the passing of a Party Processions Act in 1850 that banned the July 12th marches in Ireland. This legislation had only limited success. Some marches continued to be held and in 1857, 1864, and 1867 they were accompanied by violent sectarian fighting. On each occasion, the police, the military, and the government proved reluctant to intervene to stop the parades, even though they were illegal. Instead, in 1872 the marches were again made legal as a way of appeasing Orangemen in Ireland.

This period coincided with a revival in support for the Orange Order (link to Orange Order books on Amazon), largely in response to the success of the Home Rule movement. In 1886, the year of the first Home Rule bill, violent riots took place around July 12th, resulting in 32 dead in Belfast and large numbers of Catholics being forced out of their homes. By the end of the 19th century, the Orange Order had become clearly associated with a new form of militant unionism, and the 12th of July commemorations had become a visible sign of Protestant identity and, increasingly, of Protestant separateness within the island of Ireland.

Courtesy of CAIN website
The flag of the Orange Order. The purple star is the symbol of the Williamite forces.

In 1912, a Home Rule Act was passed by the British government and should have been enacted in 1914. Orangemen and and unionists responded angrily, holding a day of protest in September 1912, when people were asked to sign a covenant refusing to accept Home Rule. The founding of the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1913 showed a willingness to fight in order to remain part of the United Kingdom. The commencement of the Great War in 1914, therefore, provided the government with a reason to suspend it. The Home Rule Act was never implemented. Instead, a compromise of sorts was reached in 1920, when the British government decided to partition Ireland—an option that had neither popular support nor precedent.

After the partition of Ireland, the new government in Northern Ireland—which was overwhelmingly unionist—declared itself to be "an Orange state." It also decided that the 12th of July should be recognized formally as a public holiday, thus linking the new state with its sectarian past. Despite the fact that Catholics had little political or economic power in the six counties, sectarian conflicts did not end. The annual July 12th marches continued to reaffirm Protestant supremacy and frequently the day ended in violence. In 1952, when the Orange Order decided to march along the Catholic Longstone Road in Annalong, County Down, a route that was neither traditional nor direct, the Northern government intervened to ban it. But, in the face of a loyalist outcry, they lifted the ban July 3, due to fear of alienating their traditional support. In the 1950s and 1960s, a number of Orange marches were deliberately rerouted to pass through Catholic areas.

After 1969, the marching season acquired a new political significance. It was in the wake of riots during the marches in 1969 that the British government decided to send troops into Northern Ireland. At the same time, Protestant memory attempted to re-invent the parades as colourful, peaceful pageants, which historically had no political or sectarian overtones. However, as formal symbols of Protestant power were being eroded, visible symbols, such as the annual marches, became important signifiers of supremacy. Inevitably, the marches were often accompanied by violent clashes. Numerically also, the frequency of the marches grew; in 1985, there were under 2,000 annual loyalist marches and this had risen to 2,600 in 2000.

"We are not here to play games. We are here to save Ulster. If the parade doesn't go down Garvaghy Road, there will be civil commotion to an extent the authorities cannot handle." 
—Ian Paisley, July 7, 1996

However, it was in the small village of Drumcree that the conflict over the right to march came to a head in 1996. Events in Drumcree took place in a highly charged political atmosphere, with Protestants in Northern Ireland believing that they were under threat from the Catholic community. They also felt they were being let down by the British government, which, in their view, was no longer protecting their interests. At the beginning of 1996, the IRA cease-fire had come to an abrupt end with a bombing in London. Tensions were inevitably high during the following summer marching season.

On July 6, 1996, the RUC notified the Orange Order (link goes to to books on modern Ireland) that the march from the Church in Drumcree was to be rerouted away from the Garvaghy Road. The Orange Order ignored this directive and the standoff commenced. By the end of the day, 5,000 supporters had arrived in Drumcree, which within two days had grown to 100,000. The RUC responded by sending in 2,000 police dressed in riot clothes and erecting barbed wire fences around the protestors. They were supported by armored vehicles and the British army. The situation quickly became violent, with a reported 758 attacks on police officers one day. Yet the RUC (90 percent of whom were Protestant) were largely passive, allowing the Orange Order to amass in Drumcree despite the illegality of the march.

Since 1995, an annual march across the religious boundaries of Drumcree has prompted renewed violence and political instability. Is the Orange Order an organization with no future, or can they adapt to the changing landscape and bring themselves into the 21st century? The authors examine this question in "Drumcree: The Orange Order's Last Stand"

As an act of intimidation, the names of members of the police who acted against the protesters were called out over loudspeakers. The Orange Order also orchestrated other acts of civil disorder throughout Northern Ireland, which included the setting up of road blocks and closing the international airport in Belfast. Inevitably, the conflict spilled over into other areas and a Catholic taxi-driver was killed in nearby Logan.

After 4-1/2 days, the RUC reversed its decision and allowed the march to go ahead. The police and the troops were now used to contain the nearby nationalist population. This was achieved through the use of plastic bullets and baton charges. In the course of the conflict, almost 7,000 plastic bullets used in Drumcree (this is based on RUC figures, but Human Rights Watch claim that the RUC distorted figures). Overall, the violence in 1996 was the worst since the Hunger Strikes in 1981, when 10 republicans had starved to death. Clearly, there was a break down in law and order in Northern Ireland yet the British government refused to intervene.

In 1997, to ease the situation, a Public Order Act was passed relating to parades but its main provision was to ban the drinking of alcohol on such occasions. But the new Labour government realized the centrality of these disputes in any conflict resolution and so appointed a Parades Commission headed by Chris Patten. In 1998, it imposed a one-year ban on the march in Drumcree, to the outrage of the Orange Order and other unionists. For example, Ian Paisley described ban as "a sell out to the IRA," going on to say that the decision was "an indication that all through the marching season the Unionist and British identity will be sold on the alter of political expediency by government authorities." Yet, despite Paisley's rhetoric and the apparent determination of the British government to resolve the parades question, five years later the issue remains unresolved, and in July 2003 Orange marches in Drumcree, Belfast, and elsewhere were again deliberately provocative.

Courtesy of Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition 
The thin Orange line. Each year less and less show up at Drumcree. Will it prove to be the death knell of their organization?

Ironically, the increased activities and militancy of the Orange Order since the mid-1990s has been carried on against a backdrop of falling numbers and increasing international opprobrium. Also the conflict at Drumcree, while initially appearing to unite the Protestant community, has revealed internal divisions, with even David Trimble (who used the conflict at Drumcree to win control of the Unionist Party) distancing himself from the more populist elements of the Orange Order.

To conclude, the crisis at Drumcree has clear precedents. But attempts to ban this and other marches in Ireland have met with the same defiance that has characterized the Orange Order since its inception in 1795. Historically, the Orange Order has responded to various nationalist challenges with intimidation and violence but these tactics would not have been successful without the tacit support of other groups, notably, the police, the judiciary, and the British government. Instead, the Orange Order has been allowed to abuse the civil rights of Catholics for more than 200 years. More recently, the Orange Order's license in Drumcree has threatened the Peace Process. Drumcree, however, might eventually prove to be the final march of the Orange Order. WGT

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Tags: 18th, Century, Faith, Ireland


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