Sense of community and heritage runs deep through rural Orange heartland

Armagh’s Twelfth gathering passes peacefully and pleasantly


On the morning of the Twelfth, the men of the Clantilew Bible and Crown Defenders lodge in Loughgall march from “the back of the hill” to the “head of the road”.

There they get a bus to Armagh’s Twelfth demonstration in Markethill. Lambeg drums echo across the countryside from the many lodges in a five-mile radius, and the cattle don’t know where to run.

This is the heartland of the Orange Order. When I arrive, David Jackson the lodge’s worshipful master, brings me to their hall. “He’s trying to find out what it’s all about,” he explains, after introducing me.

“If you find out let me know,” says his son Philip (all of Jackson’s sons are members). When I arrive they’re testing the drums and using a wrought-iron contraption to tighten the skins.

The drums feature pictures of King Billy and field marshal Montgomery. Another, made to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, is still called “the new drum”.

This rural lodge dates from 1825 and the building from 1885. At the end of the room there’s a ceremonial chair and a case containing an open Bible. There are royal photos, bunting celebrating the Will and Kate wedding and pictures depicting the siege of Derry and the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo. Along the walls are photos of the lodge through the years, and certain names recur – Matchett, Turkington, Trueman and Jackson.

Joe Trueman, the lodge’s recently retired secretary of 63 years, is in every photo from 1951. “If you look closely you’ll see him in paintings of the Battle of the Boyne,” says Jackson.

He then drives me through prosperous and beautiful “apple country” to Dan Winter’s cottage, where the order began in 1795. Hilda Winter shows me an ancient chair, a nine-county map of Ulster, and a huge collection of sashes gifted by lodges in Scotland and England who visited “to say they’d had a meeting at Dan Winter’s”.

RUC men

There’s also a poster featuring all the RUC men killed during the Troubles. “But we’re supposed to forget all that now,” she says.

On the morning of the Twelfth, when the lodge arrives at “the head of the road”, they have a quick drink before boarding the bus to Markethill. “Sometimes you need a sheepdog to get them out of the pub,” says Jackson.

A naggin of whiskey is floating around. Nobody overindulges, but one of the oldest members, William Matchett, pretends to need help on to the bus as a joke. There are some temperance lodges, but this lodge only went temperate once, for a year, a long time ago. “I think it was as a punishment,” says Jackson.

They tease me. One man tells me he got his union tie in Dundalk and everyone cracks up. “I’m surprised he’s even heard of Dundalk,” another man says to me. During a break between singalongs (Willie McBride, The Boys from the County Armagh) Jackson says: “Patrick says he wants to join. Get him a form!”

Earlier I’d been asked about the history of my surname, a question I didn’t decode until someone said “if you don’t mind me asking, are you Protestant or Catholic?” I tell him I was baptised Catholic.

At Markethill, busloads of Orangemen and marching, pipe, flute and accordion bands gather. “There’s a wee bit of competition between lodges,” observes John Anderson, a retired bank manager. Each has its own style. Some wear bowler hats (this lodge does not). Some wear sashes (this lodge wears “collarettes”). Some carry swords. “But don’t worry Patrick, they’re just part of the ornamental furniture,” says Anderson.

The assembled banners celebrate Christian values, patriotism, martyrdom and triumphant victories. Biblical and historical scenes include: “the Good Samaritan”; “the Battle of the Somme”; “King William’s fortunate escape”.

A picture of Ridley and Latimer being burned to death is accompanied by the words “they suffered rather than submit to popery”.

The drumming tradition has been kept alive in this lodge thanks to the enthusiasm of Nigel Matchett, and men stop by to listen to him. A man from another lodge praises Clantilew’s drummers. “Our drummer’s woeful,” he says.

The Clantilew Bible and Crown Defenders start their brisk march through the town with about 150 other lodges. When the drummers get tired they subtly alter the beat, and others step in and take the drums.

The streets are lined with union jacks and people in deckchairs eating sandwiches. Some stick their fingers in their ears as the drums go past. Some toddlers, amazingly, sleep through it.

Fast food vans

At the field at the end of town there are fast food vans, amusements and a man dressed as King Billy. Flurries of rain pass over ( drums have to be protected from rain). John Anderson and Don Robinson kindly whisk me and the photographer over to where their wives Florence and Sadie are waiting with Tupperware containers of crisply cut sandwiches, fruitcake, chocolate bars and tea in china cups.

“We won’t charge you too much!” says Robinson with a wink. “Will you take euros?” asks the photographer.

“I will!” says Robinson. “We’re going to Dublin next week.” Some members seem to visit Dublin regularly.

On the back of a truck, senior members of the order host a prayer service. They bemoan “Twelfth of July Orangemen” who only turn up for parades, the rise of secularism (one man entreats people to write letters of complaint when offended by television programmes), and, of course, the hated Parades Commission.

More contentious

At Markethill it’s easy to feel Orangeism is purely about sleeping toddlers and sandwiches (and I never feel unwelcome or intimidated), but there are several reminders that things are more contentious elsewhere. The Portadown District’s bannerette, for example, is a replacement. The real one is kept at Drumcree.

Members of the Clantilew lodge express discomfort about marching where they’re not wanted. John Anderson thinks opportunities for compromise are often missed. They all say that rural lodges are different from those in the city. “We’re embarrassed by what happens in Belfast sometimes,” says Matchett.

Here and now, in this predominantly Protestant town, they’re clear that their interests are about heritage and family and not about offending anyone. Soon they march through town again, before going back to the hall where David’s wife, Jill, is heroically preparing dinner for 50. “It’s about community,” says Jackson, but earlier he explained how nothing in the North is simple: “Everything that happens in the North, someone writes a song about it or a poem about it and nobody can mention a tragedy without someone else saying ‘but what about . . ?’” He sighs.

“That’s a problem here, all the ‘what abouts’.”