Why ‘opening up’ Orange culture isn’t as easy as it sounds

Belfast’s Museum of Orange Heritage managed to stir things up even before its launch


The new Museum of Orange Heritage began causing controversy before its doors even opened to the public. A billboard for the interpretive centre, which is in the Orange Order’s headquarters in Schomberg House, in east Belfast, was removed after complaints by residents in the nationalist Carrick Hill area in the north of the city.

The advert made no political claims but simply said: “We want to share our history so everyone can share the future.”

It also carried the logo of the European Union Peace III programme, which funded the £3.6 million project, with the aim of promoting shared space and reconciliation through education. The order’s response was swift.

“It is unfortunate that there are some in society who would rather display intolerance, and in doing so promote apartheid in areas of our capital city,” a spokesman said.

Nelson McCausland, the DUP MLA for North Belfast, said: “There is so much intolerance and bigotry in Carrick Hill that they can’t tolerate even an Orange poster, never mind a parade.”

Parade disputes

Perhaps the volatility is unsurprising. The most heated and violent parade disputes in recent years have been in north Belfast. Loyalists established a protest camp at Twaddell Avenue in July 2012, after a Parades Commission decision to curtail an Orange Order march in the area. The cost of policing the camp is £333,000 a month, according to Minister for Justice David Ford.

But it was a very different scene on Wednesday at the official launch of the museum. The former president Mary McAleese, who was one of the guests, spoke about the importance of being good neighbours.

“This place is built with a view to celebrating Orange culture but also to explaining it to a wider audience, opening up that culture so that we don’t live in ignorance and mythology but that we do live with true understanding of one other,” she said.

“The culture of the Orange is not my culture, but it is the culture of my neighbours. And we who are the children of the Jacobites and the Williamites, who share this space, who share this island – we haven’t always shared it happily with each other – we have decided we want to share it happily for the future.”

The museum itself is impressive in its ambitious chronological sweep, going right back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and also in the remarkable artefacts that the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, a Protestant fraternity that itself dates back to 1798, has been able to provide.

William III, the Prince of Orange, is, of course, to the fore. His ornate brocade saddle cloth, a pair of stout brown leather gauntlets and the last letter he wrote before coming to Ireland, its red wax seals intact, are all on display.

The order also recently acquired a musket used by a Jacobite soldier at the 1689 Siege of Derry and at the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, presented by the late Rev Ian Paisley to the former taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

There are also more contemporary items, such as George Best’s boyhood collarette; his father, Dickie, was master of a local Orange lodge, and George was given the job of “holding the strings” of the banners on the Twelfth of July.

An interactive screen offers visitors the opportunity to chart the spread of Orangeism around the world. Click on Ghana or Togo and you can see African lodges on parade, in black bow ties and sunglasses.

Go to Canada and up pops Mohawk LOL – Loyal Orange Lodge – no 99, of Ontario, in feathered head-dresses and fringed orange tunics, proudly bearing the Union flag.

Dr David Hume, the Orange Order’s director of services, seemed rueful rather than angry about the row that marked the opening of the centre.

“I’m disappointed. The advertising billboard stood between Clifton Street Orange Hall and St Patrick’s Church, and for me that was symbolic.”

St Patrick’s, a Catholic church on Donegall Street, has become a parade flashpoint after a loyalist band was filmed playing a sectarian tune outside the chapel two years ago.

“We want to reach out and educate people and encourage mutual understanding,” Hume said. “It’s harder to stereotype people if you know their history.”


Dr Jonathan Mattison, the curator of the museum, which has another site soon to open in Loughgall, Co Armagh, said they were in the business of mythbusting.


“We’d like to demystify what the Orange Order is all about, where we’re coming from, our place in history and the modern world. Not everyone will agree with everything we have on show here, but we do ask people to give us a fair wind. Come here, explore, feel free to ask questions. We’re open to challenging conversations”.

The Orange Order sees the opening of the centre as a natural extension of the outreach it has been doing for years with schools in the Catholic-maintained sector, where they have built up strong and lasting relationships. People from nationalist backgrounds also provided advice about the content of the museum’s exhibits.

“In some schools we go into they’ve never met an Orangeman,” Hume said. “We say that it’s okay to have differences, but that doesn’t mean that people have to have antagonism towards each other.”

One of the things the museum alludes to but never really spells out is why men feel moved to join the Orange Order.

“For me the order represents everything that I hold dear,” Mattison said. “My Protestant faith, my culture, my heritage. But history is full of dichotomies. For instance, Mattisons were arrested for smuggling guns to the United Irishmen. You have to show history in the round. There’s a rich tapestry there, and a positive legacy for relationships within and between communities.”

David Scott, the order’s community education officer, said that, for him, Orange culture is a powerful expression of his identity.

“It says everything about me. I’m unashamedly Protestant, I celebrate that tradition, I promote the values of our fathers and our faith. But being pro-Protestant doesn’t mean you’re anti-Catholic.”

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