Inside the Orange Heritage Museum
David the tour guide is brandishing a hand gun which he taps against his left palm as we enter the foyer. It’s not loaded: it turns out to be a flintlock pistol carried by a Jacobite dragoon at the Battle of the Boyne.
What followed was a fascinating account of the Williamite wars in Ireland and the origins of the Orange Order. It was as measured, balanced and accurate as it is possible to be in a part of the world defined by radically different views of the past.
The importance of sharing our history was brilliantly articulated by Paul Mullan, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Northern Ireland, when he said in a previous Scope interview:
“Here we are in Northern Ireland, a place where people have looked at history in monolithic terms, single narratives which are unchanging.
“These single narratives are put up in competition with each other. But the more you look into and understand history the more you realise that it’s more complex than that. History can often be about manipulation and misunderstanding seldom about the truth. So I believe that heritage leads to a better understanding of ourselves leading to a much better place
“Heritage brings people together and the point about history is that whenever you try to create historical apartheid you end up creating problems more often than not.”
“The more people recognise the different narratives, the more settled they are. It’s not about challenging peoples sense of nationalism or unionism but it does become easier for a nationalist to respect a unionist and vice versa. If you understand their position it is much better than simply disagreeing."
The Orange Heritage Centre is stacked with interesting artefacts including William III’s saddlecloth, one of his letters and an extraordinary damask linen tablecloth he dined on.
There are also opportunities to create your own arch and lodge banner, there are displays on the history of Orangeism across the world and, most impressive of all William’s Paymaster’s Book of Accounts which lists those paid during the Williamite wars.
This gives visitors the chance to see if they had any family members fighting at the Boyne (or as it also lists payments to informers,) if you have an ancestor who was secretly working for William.
There is also a meeting room This is a replica room, so not as atmospheric as those at the Apprentice Boys Hall in Derry/Londonderry, but it does have a recently commissioned stained glass window dedicated to members who were killed in the conflict, together with an electronic book recording all the names which relatives are encouraged to read and submit any alterations before it is put into printed form.
But if you do visit take a tour, they come free with the £4.50 admission price and our guide David was very engaging.
He explained the background: the “Glorious Revolution” in England which secured the primacy of parliament and the ousting, by invitation of parliament, of the Catholic King James, by a dual monarchy: William and Mary.
James and his family fled to France from where he was armed and funded by the French to travel to Ireland where the Earl of Tyrconnell was still holding out in his name.
David put what followed in its full historical context: as part of the War of the Grand Alliance where William led his allies, supported at the time of the Boyne by the then Pope against France.
His account of the battle itself was riveting, with its contingents of Dutch, Danish English, Irish and French Hugenots on William’s side and Irish and French on James’.
Telling comrade from foe was difficult: both sides had troops wearing what was to become the British redcoat and there were all manner of flags and banners including two royal standards. Jacobite soldiers wore white cockades on their hats and William’s men, with glorious irony, wore green. David did not quote from The Sash:
It is old but it is beautiful, and its colours they are fine
It was worn at Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne.
My father wore it as a youth in bygone days of yore,
And on the Twelfth I love to wear the sash my father wore”
Which is clearly not true, as the order was not formed until the next century!
Asked why it was the Boyne that was celebrated by the Orange Order, which after all was a relatively minor clash with only 1,500 dead rather than Aughrim a year later which was decisive, leading to the total destruction of the Jacobites with very severe losses on both sides, he explained it was the symbolism of having both monarchs there that made it important.
He agreed that Aughrim was the bloodier and more important battle militarily and said that if the Jacobite general had not had his head blown off by a cannon ball at a critical moment, the result might have been very different.
On the foundation of the order David is equally candid and balanced: explaining its origins in the violent sectarian struggles between agrarian secret societies in the latter part of the 18th Century, a time when the Irish economy was struggling and forces of law and order non-existent.
It was genuinely fascinating. It also put the exclusively Protestant nature of the order, in its full historical context. There was, however, much less detail about its subsequent history and evolution, which was a pity because I would have liked to have understood more about that.
Nevertheless the visit was an excellent experience: fabulous value for £4.50 with a tour thrown in, all the staff were warm and welcoming there is a shop selling some interesting looking books along with the inevitable Orange souvenirs.
It’s a significant addition to Northern Ireland’s cultural and historical heritage and a great way to spend a couple of idle hours. For an organisation which is so often misunderstood both by its supporters and opponents, the opening of the centre in Belfast and its sister site in Loughgall has got to be a welcome development.
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