No More We’ll Talk About The Boyne

James Wilson explores this celebration of the Twelfth of July that has come to stereotype the culture of the Ulster Protestant underclass.

No more we’ll talk about the Boyne. Well not for another twelve months at any rate. The Orange banners are dried out, rolled and stored away, the sashes are folded in the dressing table for the next lodge night, the off licence owners take a well earned trip to the holiday beaches, and the smouldering bonfires (not to mention a few burnt out houses) await the council clean up.

The old Sticks who read this blog, (and there a few) will recognise the lyrics of the song by Dominic Behan and The Long Kesh Ramblers:

No more we’ll talk about the Boyne
For now we know the cost
When James and Billy flipped a coin
T’was the poor of Ireland lost

Historically the celebration of the Boyne was far from triumphalist. For most of the 18th Century it was celebrated on the 1st July (the official celebrations ignored the adoption of the Gregorian calendar), and were characterised by genteel civic ritual with banquets, dignified statue circling formalities and the Belfast Volunteers attending Mass at St Mary’s.(1)

It was the Armagh Volunteers who were first to celebrate ‘the Twelfth’, this may have been an attempt to convert the date to the Gregorian calendar, but they overlooked the fact that in 1690 there was only ten days difference, so the correct anniversary should have been the 11th July New Style. (2)

The Armagh Volunteers had a long history of sectarian clashes with Catholic Defenders, and on the disbandment of the Volunteers in 1793, this animosity along with Williamite traditions and Masonic ritual passed to the embryonic Orange Societies. They absorbed disaffected Masons and, in the Loughgall area, a sectarian group styling themselves ‘the Peep O Day Boys’.(3)

From the first Orange society Twelfths in 1796, Orangeism was never just about celebrating 1690 and the Glorious Revolution. The 1790s sub text was to counter the United Irish movement, and in the aftermath of the rebellion, (Lord Castlereagh thwarted the Grand Lodge ambition to become a special corps of Yeomanry ) the Orange was to remain a plebeian society whose main role was to provide pan–Protestant solidarity group to counter the Ribbon Society and their sectarian plans to rid Ulster of heretics.

The use of Orangeism by William Johnston in 1865 to engineer his election to Westminster was to change the face of Irish politics forever. First, at party level it demonstrated to unionism that the Orange fraternity was the vehicle that could transform their opposition to Home Rule into a popular and sectarian mass movement.

Secondly, it established the precedent that an ambitious unionist politician that in backing a contentious Orange parade, one could ride the tiger to electoral and political success. A ride that was to be taken by Faulkner, Trimble and on numerous occasions, by Paisley.

Thus inspired by both anti Home Rule feelings and unbridled personal ambition, unionism effectively hijacked Orangeism and by the 1900s the two had become synonymous. Gentry and middleclass took over the private lodge, county and Grand Lodge positions. The lodge meetings moved out of the public houses and into custom build Orange halls with strict and respectable rules of temperance. The Twelfth became less about celebrating the Boyne and more about the flaunting of a volunteer force in waiting.

In the post-partition era, Orangeism became the social cement of the Northern Ireland state. The Twelfth was elevated to the status a national day – if you were Protestant. This was the golden age of Orangeism. Membership was highly beneficial in terms of seeking employment or housing.(4) Even in the 1960s I recall my late father failing to get a job that he was well qualified for, and being advised by a neighbour that he would stand a better chance if he joined the Order. He never did.

The Troubles and in particular the PIRA campaign was a game changer for the Loyal Orders. The mundane business of lodge is time-consuming. Many young Protestants joined the Orange, but seldom attended or held office. There was a war on and they volunteered for the Security Forces or in the Loyalist paramilitaries.

Republican volunteers can argue that their war was directed against the British Occupational Forces, but the reality was that the funeral cortege ended up at a Protestant graveyard. This and the indiscriminate bombing reinforced the fear that as Ireland’s Pied Noirs the Prods would be rounded up, and given the option of joining ‘the disappeared’, or be herded like cattle to Larne harbour. That fear stiffened resistance. The war became sectarian and tribal.

If the Orange had a role to play it was physiological. There was an imperative to maintain and even increase in the number of parades, particularly feeder marches that encroached Catholic areas. The reasons were simple. Protestants had to send out a message of undiminished resolve and strength. Any compromise would be interpreted as weakness. This zero sum stance would haunt the immediate post conflict era.

The other corollary of the Troubles was the creation of the loyalist bands culture. Prior to the Troubles, the band was generally a branch of the lodge, and subservient to the needs of that private lodge. However from the early 1970s the independent band began to emerge. Their membership was exclusively young working class males, their music was what is now termed ‘blood and thunder’ flute, and they gradually created their own cultural niche and their own independent parades.(5)

Loyalist paramilitary groups were quick to see the potential of these bands, and some were to become synonymous with local units of UVF, UDA and RHC. The ‘colours’ of these groups were on parade as a bold recruitment gesture. Outside the paramilitary groupings, it is clear that all Protestant marching bands have become more militaristic in dress and decorum. The bands fraternity also spawned the United Loyalists, a grouping that provided the muscle and discreet leadership for the 2012 Flags Protest. (6)

On another blog site, David Gilmore has made a valiant but vain effort to defend the 11th night bonfire culture.(7) I would make the following observation. There are two species of 11th night bonfire. There is the small community/lodge event, modest size, no tires, and more in the ethos of a Halloween potato roasting blaze. Then there is the other animal. Ask yourself this: Which organisations guard these sites? Who controls what happens on the site? Who applies for the funding? And who takes a slice of the ‘transactions’ that go on around the site? For that reason these bonfires are wittingly built as towering phallic symbols designed to stamp authority over the working class communities they dominate.

The Orange Order is a declining institution. A good many men of integrity and Christian values walked away after Drumcree.(8) Youth are loath to leave the macho image of the band for the sombre suit and collerette. For many it is simply tradition, the much needed sense of belonging to something in a demographic that has no strong sense of parish, divided by multipliable Protestant denominations, and is facing rapid change.

In summer school I am often asked if the Twelfth will survive if the Orange Order decline continues. I would argue that this a culture based on the collective memory of sectarian battle honours, and as such the Orange Order is not the ultimate custodian. If you want to see a Twelfth celebration devoid of conventional Orangemen go to Youtube, 12th July in Benidorm 2013 uploaded by Lynda McGlynn. Led by Benidorm Protestant Boys (I kid you not!) Sun, sand, flegs galore, a wee dander around the seafront, then no boring speeches, just a cool pint at the Ibrox Bar.

But I would argue that even this unorthodox Benidorm parade epitomises the real attraction of the Twelfth. A collective act of escapism from dreary jobs, unfulfilled lives and the unrewarding task of being Britain’s unloved redundant garrison. For one day in the year it is possible for them to believe that they are the chosen few. Somehow better off than their equally deprived Catholic fellow citizens.

Partition matters to Socialist Republicans, but as McKearney argues, the urgency of its importance is less than the level of opportunity they now possess – impossible during the Orange State - to develop cross-sectarian solidarities. The UK is in a process of seminal, once in a lifetime, socio-political change. The point is to influence what is happening. (9)

God save the Queen.
God bless the Pope With your harps and lambeg drums
As you live in despair and dying hope
In your Falls and Shankill slums.(10)


(1) Belfast News Letter, (July3-7th1793).

(2) James Wilson, ‘The Origins of Orangeism reconsidered’ in Retrospect,(Cork University Press, 1992), pp.20-22. 

(3) James Wilson,’Orangeism in 1798’ in Bartlett,Dickson, Keogh,and Whelan (eds), 1798:A bicentenary perspective, (Four Courts Press, 2003), pp. 345-362. 

(4) Paul Stewart ‘From Orange state to sectarian state’ in Tommy McKearney, The Provisional IRA: From insurrection to parliament, (Pluto Press, 2011), pp. 1-19. 

(5) Some Youtube band sites have six figure hits.

(6) Glendinning and Wilson, Flagging it up. (Community Relations Council, 2013).

(7) David Gilmore, ‘Bonfire porn and our contempt for the working class’ in,(12 July,2016) 

(8) Brian Kennaway, The Orange Order; A tradition betrayed, (Methuen, 2006) pp.235-264.

(9) Tommy McKearney, The Provisional IRA, p. 214

(10) Brendan Behan, Our last hope.    


  1. Enjoyed that James....very interesting article.
    “Somehow better off than their equally deprived Catholic fellow citizens.” I think this line sums it up to Catholics as well, for they perceive the 12th as a day when Protestants remind them of just who is in charge irrespective of both groups sharing the same social conditions. My dirt smells sweeter than your dirt!
    It’s hard to imagine how that could change without the removal of Britain which empowers Unionism to behave so. They've been at this carry-on for over a hundred years and long before partition.
    I’ve often wondered what policies Unionism would stand on in an election if the union with Britain were removed. What would entice the Protestant working class, if there is such a thing as working class now, still to continue to vote for the likes of Foster and the rest of her Neanderthals if the union were gone?

  2. "Historically the celebration of the Boyne was... characterised by... the Belfast Volunteers attending Mass at St Mary’s"

    Great example of the danger in applying the values of your own time to the past.

    Thanks for posting this, James. Quality piece.

  3. You may or may not find this interesting.

  4. There is no doubt that the future can be different to the tribal past but it will involve progressive leadership within loyalism. The coming together of the working class through equal opportunity and trade unionism can breed a new shared future where the working class must grasp their fair share in society. The Ireland of today has without doubt the potential to accommodate all sections of society without the age old ties to Britain while respecting and enshrining Unionist/Loyalists British Identity under a new and United Ireland. But the new future for us all must be born from Socialism.

  5. Well said Paddy.

    Niall, I wouldn't vote for the DUP if you put a gun to my head. They are a bunch of religious zealots, arsewipes and nutters in suits.

    Nobody would see that they had their best interests at heart in a UI. I would imagine people would vote for their pocket instead of their heart. A mate of mine in Dub said that 'Nobody rolls out a f*ck up quite like Fine Gael'.

    Looks like we would be between a rock and a hard place!

  6. Fantastic insight into The Twelfth. I think that much has to do with the sense of belonging, and escapism, as described. And no doubt, the traditional Twelfth is evolving. Excellent article James!