Protestant fraternity returns to Irish spiritual home

BOYNE VALLEY, Ireland (Reuters) - For John McAdam, the Orange Order’s new lodge on the banks of the Boyne river is a homecoming, spiritually as much as physically.

Members of the Orange Order march past an ice cream vendor on their way to a ceremony to mark the formation of Boyne Loyal Orange Lodge 1690 on the banks of the Boyne river, Co.Louth, Ireland, May 30, 2009. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Hailing from a farming community in County Cavan in the Irish Republic, McAdam’s membership of an organisation rooted in Northern Ireland’s Protestant community is unusual and not something he normally trumpets when he is south of the border.

But this day was different.

Grappling with a huge drum, which will beat out the time of the march, McAdam is thrilled at the prospect of parading in the Republic and, most importantly, at the site of the Battle of the Boyne, the core of his community’s cultural identity.

“Just the fact that we are here, down south. I love it,” said the plant manager, who has been living in England for 16 years. “It’s in my manor, if you know what I mean.”

The Orange Order’s origins date from the 17th-century battle for supremacy between Protestants and Catholics.

William of Orange, originally of the Netherlands, led the fight against his Catholic father-in-law, King James.

William’s final victory over James along the Boyne in 1690 sealed the religion’s supremacy in Britain and Ireland.

Every year, members of the Order, wearing orange sashes, and black bowler hats, celebrate the battle in marches across Northern Ireland.

The ceremony on Saturday was the first in living memory to take place at the site of the battle and a sign of how cross-border relations have improved since a 1998 peace deal ended three decades of conflict between pro-British Protestants and pro-Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland.

The violence killed 3,600 people.

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Robert Saulters, grand master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, is full of praise for the Dublin government’s help in setting up the Boyne Loyal Orange Lodge 1690, one of around 50 lodges in the Republic.

The Order wants to rebuild a large obelisk by the river that marked the battle. The Irish Republican Army blew it up in 1923.

“We were delighted with the work the southern government have done,” Saulters said.

But not everyone is comfortable with the Order’s presence.

Many pro-Irish nationalists regard the Battle of the Boyne as a crucial step towards the institution of full British rule in Ireland up until the early 20th century.

The Orange Order’s parades, with their distinctive soundtrack of thunderous drums and pipes, are seen by many Catholics in Northern Ireland as a triumphalist display.

Despite the 1998 peace deal, entrenched sectarianism in the province means that the parades often spark violence.

In Drogheda, close to the Boyne Valley, some residents said the Orange Order was entitled to celebrate its history.

“I think it’s a good idea. It shows we have moved on,” said Tony, 75, who declined to give his last name.

But not everyone in the town, which has a memorial to 10 IRA members who died on hunger strike in 1981, approved.

“After all these years they should just leave things be,” said Joe, a retired builder. “They are only stirring up trouble.”

“If they rebuild that obelisk it will just be blown up again.”

Editing by Michael Roddy