“Protestants in the South felt limited in celebrating their Orangeism after partition”

Grand Master Edward Stevenson opens the exhibition Southern Protestants - A Resolute People at Schomberg House on February 7 alongside other senior Orangemen
Grand Master Edward Stevenson opens the exhibition Southern Protestants – A Resolute People at Schomberg House on February 7 alongside other senior Orangemen

A new exhibition at the Museum of Orange Heritage at Shomberg House on Belfast’s Cregagh Road, focuses on the plight of the brothers who were left in a beleaguered position after partition in 1921.

The Southern Protestant exhibit titled “A Resolute People”, which was opened Feb. 7 by Grand Master Edward Stevenson, former Grand Master Reverend Mervyn Gibson, and a host of other senior members of the Order, was curated by in- house curator and historian Dr Jonathan Mattison.

“This exhibition highlights the impact of the partition and creation of the Irish Free State in 1921 on the Southern Orange family,” said Jonathan.

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Cherished drums and banners are on display as part of the exhibition which takes a close look at the plight of brothers below the border who felt separated from the Union in 1921 when the Irish Free State was founded.

“It was a major heartbreak for the Orangemen below the border because, as a leading Orangeman in Cavan in 1921, a Major Saunderson, said, ‘Now I have no country left.’ It was a community that considered itself British and part of the Unionist family that had opposed Home Rule. “The creation of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State then left this community outside the UK.

“Previously, under the Act of Union, they considered their Irish identity to be part of their British identity. Now it was as if their identity was under siege. “There was a tremendous sense of disappointment among the brethren mixed with a real sense of anger that they felt alienated within the new dispensation.

“They saw themselves as culturally British and felt left out. Between 1911 and 1926, the Protestant population of the area that became the Irish Free State fell by 35%.

“There were significant periods of violence, intimidation and, in some cases, murders because the Protestant community was not seen as belonging to the community and this feeling of alienation and intimidation sometimes led to a sort of mass exodus,” Jonathan continued.

Orange sashes and a biography of key Reformation figure William Tyndale with a bullet hole were displayed

These were turbulent times during the Anglo-Irish War of Independence, which raged between 1919 and 1921, and the Irish Civil War which continued between 1922 and 1923.

Ireland was in turmoil and Protestants in the South felt estranged from their brethren once the border was imposed in 1921.

“Some Republicans were very indignant at the Protestant, Loyalist and Unionist population, as they did not consider them Irish and you can understand how beleaguered their position was.

“After the birth of the new state there was a strong feeling that to be a valid Irish citizen one had to be nationalist, republican and Roman Catholic.”

The views of many Southern members of the Orange Order have been recorded and exhibited for posterity

The last Loyal Order celebrations below the border actually took place in 1931 when several of the twelfth celebrations were attacked, so to prevent this kind of violence, members of the Orange Order stopped holding their annual celebrations in border counties of the Republic.

In Monaghan for a time they had held Orange picnics, but Orangemen began traveling to Northern Ireland for their annual festivities as they began to consider it too dangerous to practice their cultural heritage under the border.

Today, Rossnowlagh remains the only truly significant celebration of Orangeism that takes place every year in the Republic, apart from a handful of Black Saturday celebrations.

Currently there are about 50 Orange Lodges around the border, with Brethren traveling north for the Glorious Twelfth.

Dr Mattinson speaks of the immense hold that the Catholic Church in particular had over the new Irish Free State until its ideology became so overwhelmingly dominant that being outside of this orthodoxy became somewhat daunting to Southern Protestants.

“The Young Ireland movement in the 1840s created the Irish tricolor which was meant to symbolize peace between orange and green, or between Protestant and Catholic, but unfortunately in many cases it did not work out that way.

“The Dunmanway Massacre in County Cork in April 1922 is a stark example of this, when 13 Protestants were murdered, one of whom was just a 16-year-old schoolboy, another an 82-year-old pensioner, and these were certainly not people who could be considered to be involved in anti-state activities.

“During the War of Independence the Irish government did not have full control and sadly you often found innocent Protestants caught up in violence and intimidation.”

Orange Order’s headquarters were originally located in Dublin before being occupied by Sinn Fein in 1922.

Then the headquarters moved to Belfast that year and one of the items on display as part of the new exhibition is a biography of William Tyndale, a leading Reformation figure, who has a bullet hole.

This happened when Anti-Treaty forces occupying Orange’s headquarters in Dublin after Sinn Fein had used everything they could get their hands on to block the windows of the building while it was under siege.

Jonathan continued: “The whole philosophy of the exhibition is to remember and give voice to the Protestants of the South who felt so abandoned during the formation of the Irish Free State and the creation of the ‘North Ireland.

“We want to give voice to a community that has lived through so much over the past century. It was a community that felt set apart.

“You had Eamon De Valera in 1932 saying that the majority of people in Ireland were Catholic and that his government believed very strongly in Catholic principles.

“He said it was fair and just that the principles his government would apply were the principles of Catholicity.

“In 1935 he augmented this by stating that: ‘Ireland has been a Christian and Catholic nation. It remains a Catholic nation and will not accept any system that denies or jeopardizes this destiny.

The Orange Order became very important to Protestants in the South as it acted as a kind of glue, a network, and a means of maintaining community with their Protestant neighbors.

“When the Ulster Unionist Council voted in 1919 to adopt partition and agree to a six-county separation which left the Protestants of the South behind, there was anger even at Edward Carson, who became a member of the Orange Order in his youth while studying at Trinity College,” adds Jonathan.

“And Orange Hall became not only a place where the brothers could celebrate their faith, but also their cultural heritage and a place where they could connect with others in a community that felt so torn from the Union and cut adrift and even betrayed by their brothers in what became Northern Ireland.

The exhibit contains a narrative of history presented in colorful panels, photographs, artifacts, medals belonging to the Orangemen, sashes, drums, banners, and details of interviews with 1920s Southern Protestants from the 1940s until today.

But it’s not an entirely negative story as these “determined people” prevailed, they continued to be proud of their heritage and culture and the expansion of the Orange Order throughout the 19th century is also considered.

However, it is undeniable that as the 20th century progressed, Southern Protestants felt abandoned and their freedom to celebrate their Orangeism was sadly curtailed.

The exhibition Southern Protestants – A Resolute People is currently on view at the Museum of Orange Heritage at Schomberg House on Belfast’s Cregagh Road. It is visible from Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last entry at 4 p.m.).

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