Book review: Rights of the soil and sky

Once upon a time, a Catholic priest insisted that Orangemen march down the Falls Road, as he and his flock enjoyed the show so much. Patricia Craig praises a plea for reason and respect; The Faithful Tribe by Ruth Dudley Edwards HarperCollins, pounds 17.99, 448pp
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The Independent Culture
Not men and women in an Irish street," lamented the poet William Allingham in the middle of the last century, "but Catholic and Protestants you meet". It was those insidious and ineradicable tags that kept the country divided. Around the same time, Allingham's near-contemporary, the Co Tyrone novelist William Carleton, was declaring with vehemence that "I have never entertained any ill-feeling against the people on either side; it is their accursed systems which I detest."

By "accursed systems", he meant the Orange Order and the Ribbonmen, the complementary tribal alliances which, in Carleton's day, kept the people of his Clogher valley at one another's throats. The Catholic Ribbon Movement, with its squalid acts of violence and revolting agrarian crimes, never attracted to itself any of the glamour of the lost cause or, so far as I know, gained a single apologist of any consequence. It petered out as more inspiring outlets for disaffection began to present themselves.

The Orange Order, its counterpart in militancy, was a different matter. "Protestant; but not sectarian" was how an early historian of the movement described it - and indeed many people may be surprised to learn that the principle of religious tolerance is among the Orange Order's most cherished tenets. How can this be?

A headstrong element, in one version of the story, perpetually hijacked and goes on hijacking the Order's celebrations and demonstrations. It lent to these proceedings a triumphalist air when, ideally, they should have been non-threatening, and provoked retaliation from the other lot. It's a wretched and seemingly irreparable situation, and one in which everyone who succumbs for an instant to instinctive bigotry is implicated.

The enemy of bigotry is knowledge and consequent understanding. The Faithful Tribe - subtitled "an intimate portrait of the Loyal Institutions" - applies itself with gusto and diligence to investigating the positive side of Orangeism. The Loyal Institutions have found an unlikely but commanding champion in Ruth Dudley Edwards, the biographer of the leader of the Easter Rising in 1916, Padraig Pearse. She is herself of Southern Irish, Catholic extraction although, having washed her hands of that murky ideology, she is now an atheist. "I have never," she states, "known a community as misrepresented and traduced" as Ulster Orangemen and women -- a body whose assets do not include proficiency in public relations.

The Irish nationalist perception of bigotry as a Protestant phenomenon has been widely accepted by the world at large, though the Catholic Church was never behindhand when it came to imposing a sectarian outlook. There was exceptions, however: it's salutary to remember that during the present century, three Orange Lodges were in the habit of parading each Twelfth of July past St Paul's Catholic Church on the Falls Road in Belfast. They were not only encouraged to do so by the Parish Priest, Father Convery, but positively forbidden to consider any other route, since he and his parishioners enjoyed the spectacle so much.

No one remembers Edward Carson's advice to the Ulster Unionist Council, after Partition, to make it very clear that "the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from the Protestant majority". Yet everyone remembers Sir James Craig's comment in 1932, defining the North as a Protestant state and a Protestant people - but not that it was a riposte to de Valera's boasts about Southern Ireland being a Catholic state for a Catholic people. Competing bigotries, you might say, shaped the two halves of Ireland in their earliest political incarnations.

It's true that the Ulster Unionist Council did not exactly act on Carson's advice, that one-party government was never a recipe for democracy, and that egregious injustices were enacted. But ordinary decent Unionists and Orangemen (no less than ordinary decent nationalists) had no wish to live in anything other than amity with their fellow citizens, and many achieved this desirably undramatic state of affairs.

There have been moments, in the last 50-odd years, when it looked as though the modern world might catch up with Northern Ireland; that a secular morality might come into being, sectarian animosities abate, and reason finally assert itself. But history was against it; and inflexibility, and tribal oneupmanship. The noisy minority, Orange and Green, refused to grasp that it is possible to uphold your own culture without abominating someone else's. (It is always the other side that's accused of doing the abominating, so that outsiders, however well-meaning to start with, quickly become exasperated with the whole farrago.)

Ruth Dudley Edwards devotes her last seven chapters to the annual deadlock at Drumcree, considering the situation fairly, and remaining alive to its ironies. This deadlock represents a missed opportunity. The Catholic residents of the Garvaghy Road might, from a position of strength, not weakness, have welcomed or at least tolerated the Orange marchers, and even put up a banner to that effect in the Irish language ("Failte roimh na hOreistaigh", or some such). Or, alternatively, the marchers might have responded to changed circumstances- the influx of nationalists and republicans into the area - and chosen to go by a different route. But no one was in the mood for a quixotic gesture.

The Faithful Tribe is on the side of pluralism, rather than exclusiveness, in Irish life. It contains some jokes, some first-hand experiences, some outrage and a lot of common sense. It aims to separate the Orange Order - the unique, historic association - from much of the opprobrium it has gathered, for good and bad reasons, and to reinstate it as an upright organisation. If this is not exactly an easy task, it is nonetheless a timely and a worthwhile undertaking. "For we have rights," wrote the poet John Hewitt (not an Orangeman, but nevertheless a spokesman for Planter entitlements in the north of Ireland), "For we have rights drawn from the soil and sky."

Patricia Craig edited the "Oxford Book of Ireland" and is writing the biography of Brian Moore