Orange Order: Origins, 1784 to 1800

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Orange Order: Origins, 1784 to 1800

The process that led to the September 1795 formation of the Orange Order originated in the Armagh Troubles, a complex and long-running sectarian conflict that started in the early 1780s. Like so many of modern Ulster's sectarian clashes, the Armagh Troubles were rooted in Protestant insecurity over the loss of privileges deemed necessary to protect them from their Catholic rivals. In Armagh the major destabilizing force proved to be the formation of the Irish Volunteers, a home-defense force that became the muscle behind efforts to gain parliamentary reform in Ireland. Individual Volunteer companies called for Catholics to join their ranks. While few did so in Ulster, the prospect of Catholics carrying arms was worrisome for many lower-class Ulster Protestants, particularly in County Armagh, which was precariously divided between Anglicans, Catholics and Presbyterians. For many Protestants these changes were particularly problematic because they occurred in an era when the government was removing many of the economic and political restrictions that had been placed on Irish Catholics in the early eighteenth century. The tide seemed to be flowing in a Catholic direction.

In 1784 bands of plebeian Protestants known as the Peep o' Day Boys ransacked Catholic homes throughout mid-Ulster, ostensibly in search of arms. Almost inevitably, these assaults brought a reaction from Catholics, who increasingly joined the Defenders, a secret society originally designed to protect Catholics from such attacks. Recognizing the Peep o' Day Boys as the primary aggressors, members of the Armagh gentry attempted to bring them under control. They were largely successful by the late 1780s; the arms raids had stopped and sectarian conflict was now limited to sporadic and highly ritualized "battles" between Catholic and Protestant combatants.

The famous Battle of the Diamond started as just such an affair. On 17 September 1795 Catholic and Protestant crowds squared off at a crossroads near Loughgall, Co. Armagh. For three days the "battle" proceeded in typical fashion, with threatening shots fired in the air amid negotiations to disperse the combatants. On 21 September, however, a real fight broke out in which dozens of Catholics were killed by the betterarmed Protestants. In the wake of the clash many of the Protestant participants met at an inn near Loughgall, where they founded the Loyal Orange Order.

The men who founded the Orange Order were not members of the elite—farmers and weavers from Armagh and Tyrone dominated the first meeting. The plebeian origins of the Order can be seen in its early rules and regulations, which refer to the Twelfth of July festivities, where Protestant loyalists marched in procession to commemorate late seventeenth-century Protestant victories at the Battle of the Boyne and Aughrim. Although such marches long predated the creation of the Orange Order, they quickly became associated with the organization. The Twelfth celebration would prove to be one of the most controversial aspects of Orangeism, as marchers often clashed with Catholics offended by the partisan display of power and ascendancy. Wanting to avoid controversy, gentry members tended to downplay the marching tradition. Of course, Orangeism was about much more than marching. Like many of its predecessors, the Orange Order was above all a Protestant association, dedicated to preserving the Protestant constitution and advancing the Protestant cause in Ireland.

What made the Orange Order different from its predecessors was that it soon gained the support of the Protestant elite and the acquiescence of the British state. This was largely a consequence of the tumult of the 1790s, for with the rising threat of organized rebellion, both the British government and its elite supporters searched for loyal groups that could be depended upon. If the Orange Order's anti-Catholic excesses caused discomfort in some government circles, most members of the establishment argued that this was a small price to pay for such a loyal body. The growing acceptance of the Orange Order was marked by two public events in 1797: the formation of an Orange lodge in Dublin that soon attracted a number of influential leaders of the Irish Protestant establishment, and General Gerard Lake's public review of an Orange procession in Lurgan, Co. Armagh. By early 1798 the Loyal Orange Order had become a national institution.

The 1798 Rebellion greatly strengthened Orangeism's position in Ireland. The story of the rebellion is inextricably tied with the Society of United Irishmen, an organization formed in Belfast in 1791 to push for radical reform. Frustrated by the absence of meaningful reform and forced underground by increasing state pressure, the Society abandoned reform for revolution as the 1790s progressed. Although United Irish leaders had called for a union of Irishmen of all creeds, the rebellion that broke out in 1798 took on a nakedly sectarian appearance in Wexford and other locations. Orangemen participated actively in putting down the revolt, committing a host of sectarian atrocities in Wexford in particular. But Orange excesses were largely overlooked in the aftermath of the rebellion. By seemingly confirming the Orangemen's view of Irish Catholics as untrustworthy rebels, the 1798 Rebellion accelerated the Orange Order's move to respectability and influence. While members of the Order initially had opposed the Act of Union of 1800, Orangemen quickly became its most fervent supporters, seeing a more formalized union with Britain as their best protection against Irish Catholics. The weavers and tenant farmers who had founded the Loyal Orange Order could now rest easy: Their exclusivist vision of Irish society had won and would dominate Irish politics for the next two decades.

SEE ALSO Act of Union; Church of Ireland: Since 1690; Defenderism; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1778 to 1795—Parliamentary and Popular Politics; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1795 to 1800—Repression, Rebellion, and Union; Orange Order: Since 1800


Farrell, Sean. Rituals and Riots: Sectarian Violence and Political Culture in Ulster, 1784–1886. 2000.

Gibbon, Peter. The Origins of Ulster Unionism: The Formation of Popular Protestant Politics and Ideology. 1975.

Miller, David W. "The Armagh Troubles, 1784–1795." In Irish Peasants: Violence and Political Unrest, 1780–1914, edited by J. S. Donnelly, Jr., and Samuel Clark. 1983.

Senior, Hereward. Orangeism in Britain and Ireland, 1795–1836. 1966.

Sean Farrell