This is a post I have wanted to write for some years. The closest I got was when I made the post about the Belfast Black Taxi Tours in November 2012. It is always immensely difficult to write about modern history as people still have living memories of those events. That means it is very hard to distance yourself and say things that aren’t going to ruffle feathers.
When Jack and I parked up in Bushmills we saw the beginnings of their Loyalist bonfire. 3 weeks early for the 12th of July, but still the pallets were being brought in and carefully stacked.
In Belfast I saw no less than four bonfires – just during my casual drive. The one in Shankill was nearly 50 feet tall, one guy on tour told us after coming back from a taxi tour. When I went up to have a look there were lads heaving more and more pallets up the side.
In the Beginning There was Some 17th Century History
There is a lot of history behind this day and it goes back to the 17th Century. On 11 July 1690, William III/II of Orange (the Protestant king) and James VII/II (the Catholic king and father-in-law of William), met in the Boyne Valley for the battle known as the Battle of the Boyne. This battle was quite significant in settling the dispute about who would reign in England.
James II had ruled England as a Roman Catholic for four years from 1685-1688. This didn’t sit too well with the English Parliament, which was overwhelmingly protestant. With religion still playing a massive part in the politics of the time having a Protestant parliament and a Catholic king was not working out.
When James II’s second wife gave birth to a son, who would become the Catholic heir to the throne, seven noblemen, the Immortal Seven, decided to make a massive change to the British Monarchy. Fortunately, James II had two protestant daughters from his first wife: Mary and Anne. The Immortal Seven wrote to Mary’s husband, William III of Orange, and invited him to use military force to overthrow of James II. William III obliged in 1688. William III and Mary II became co-rulers in England.
The conflict eventually moved to Ireland where James II had the support of the predominately Catholic population. Ireland had a lot to gain by supporting James II during the conflict. The Irish hoped for religious tolerance for Catholics, lands, and better treatment from the English lords. After the battle was lost James fled to France and spent the rest of his life in exile there. Amongst the Irish, James became known as Séamus an Chaca or “James the Shit” for abandoning them.
The Irish, of course, fought on. With the Treaty of Limerick the Irish Catholics were allowed to keep a lot of their land. However this upset many Protestants who did not want the Catholics to have too much power. Thus, penal law saw the return of oppression in Ireland. Irish Catholics could not work in the law, own weapons, and were forced to give up a lot of their lands. Although a lot has changed, some elements of this conflict persist today.
Commemorating the Wrong Event?
Now I did mention up there that the Battle of the Boyne took place on 11 July 1690. It was the Battle of Aughrim which took place on the 12 July 1691. This battle was less about Catholic against Protestant and more about securing land. After the Orange Order, people who identify with William III, was founded the focus of commemorations of the 12th of July shifted to the Battle of the Boyne. The battle where the Protestant king faces off with the Catholic one provides a stronger subtext for the commemorations.
The commemoration of the 12th of July remains hugely controversial in Northern Ireland. A particular source of tension is the Orange Marches where Unionist Orangemen march through what they see as their territory. Unfortunately, this often means crossing over into Nationalist (essentially Irish Catholic) areas of the city. Nationalists could, and many do, view these marches as an attempt to “show them who’s boss.” This regularly results in clashes between the two sides, even today.
This year, 2014, there were 18 parades. You don’t have to look far to see why the 12th of July stirs tensions. The Orangemen complained about not being about to “travel the Queen’s Road” as road blocks prevented them travelling passed Nationalist households. In previous years it has been an all out riot. Now police and local governments have installed some measures to try to keep the peace. However, the 12th of July in Northern Ireland is massively passive aggressive. Some may even argue that is no better.
And those bonfires I mentioned earlier? They were eventually covered in the symbols of the Republic of Ireland, including flags and effigies. Although they sometimes get things wrong, as Barry McColgan showed in this photo:
The Irish flag is Green White Orange. If it is Orange White Green it is the Ivory Coast. And sometimes it isn’t even Irish Catholics being targeted like in this article here, which shows how an ethnically Asian politician was targeted in this year’s burning.
Some interesting, and varying, news reports: