When William crushed the deposed Catholic King James ll and his Jacobite army of some 25,000 men, the victory was celebrated with songs and prayers in the Catholic cathedrals of William’s allies — the Dutch, the Danes, and the Germans, writes Clodagh Finn.
THE County Grand Orange Lodge of Belfast has come up with a cleverly titled campaign ahead of July 12 celebrations across Northern Ireland, urging those taking part not to overindulge in alcohol. “It’s about the Battle, not the bottle,” goes the catchy slogan.
Though, you have to wonder if it is even about the Battle of the Boyne any more. If the parades and displays of proud remembrance were really about the biggest battle ever to take place on Irish soil, then the details of that defining moment might be remembered more precisely.
It’s conveniently glossed over (read: intentionally forgotten) that the head of the Catholic Church backed the Protestant King William III and his 36,000-strong army.
Pope Alexander VIII supported William of Orange’s conquest of Ireland in 1690 as part of the League of Augsburg, an international alliance opposed to the power-hungry French King Louis XlV (the famous Sun King).
When William crushed the deposed Catholic King James II and his Jacobite army of some 25,000 men, the victory was celebrated with songs and prayers in the Catholic cathedrals of William’s allies — the Dutch, the Danes, and the Germans. That almost certainly won’t be recalled this week. Or the fact that there was much more than religion at stake on the battlefield at Oldbridge, Co Meath.
When the fighting started on July 1 (not July 12), “there was nothing to be seen but Smoak and Dust, nor any thing to be heard but one continued Fire for nigh half an Hour,” wrote Williamite chaplain George Story.
Another witness recounted the might of William’s vast army with its “great numbers of coaches, waggons [and] baggage-horses. I cannot think that any army of Christendom hath the like,” he said. This was a battle about much more than the triumph of Protestantism; it was an expression of a complex system of allegiances fighting for the future of the British throne and against French domination in Europe.
As for the July 1 date: That was calculated on the old Julian calendar. When the Gregorian calendar was adopted in England — it had been introduced by Pope Gregory more than a century earlier — 11 days were taken out of the year, July 1 became July 12.
The other side of the Battle of the Boyne story ends in St-Germain-en-Laye, outside Paris, where James II —or at least a part of him — was interred in the local parish church. If you visit today, you’ll see a monument to his memory and read how, after a visit to the church in 1855, Queen Victoria paid to have the exiled king’s last resting place embellished with carved lions, leopards, unicorns and the royal arms. A nod to a fellow monarch, or a way of putting the Stuart monarchy to rest? Perhaps both.
This business of remembering is a complex affair, though few of us allow the multi-faceted tangle of historical facts to get in the way of a hallowed tradition. The Orange Order is not alone in donning regalia and marching out with its own sacred version of a historic event.
All forms of remembrance and patriotism depend on a little bit of creative thinking. If you started to unbundle the package of assumptions behind any expression of national pride, they would unravel, perhaps not completely but at least enough to expose the necessary airbrushing out of inconsistencies and inconvenient facts.
Whatever about the omissions of the Orange Order’s commemorative parades, what is remarkable is that they have endured by drawing a connective thread, however tenuous, through three centuries of history.
The Order’s flag and regalia might be anathema to some, but the ideas they represent — however fluid and selective — continue to mean something to the thousands who will parade on the streets next week. If it’s not quite about the battle any more, it’s certainly about the bond. As people, we seem to crave that kind of bond. There is something about a flag that makes us lose our critical faculties and yearn to stand behind it to express some sort of collective consciousness.
We’ve seen it more harmlessly at the Euro 2016 soccer championships where Irish fans wrapped themselves up in the green, white and orange and sang their way around France. Their version of patriotism, heartwarming and uniting, was awarded a medal this week. In other contexts, flags have been used to cloak hatred, intolerance and sectarianism. I can’t help thinking that sometimes it is the flag, rather than the patriot, that provides the last refuge for the scoundrel.
Consider Ukip leader Nigel Farage and his treatment of the union flag, for instance. What kind of lasting damage has he done to that flag after wearing it on his shoes and then, figuratively speaking, stamping all over it by whipping up a divisive frenzy during the Brexit vote in Britain? When it was all over, he disappeared off into the sunset saying he wanted his life back. Don’t we all?
It’s a very uncertain time for flags and national identify. Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon donned her best European Union-blue on a visit to Brussels to make the case to keep Scotland in Europe. There’s a picture of her with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker; she almost blends into the EU flag in the background. Quite the coup.
Meanwhile, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, has suggested a vote for Brexit should be followed by a poll for a united Ireland, while London is starting to agitate to go it alone. Has the time come to fly St George’s flag in Brussels?
Whatever happens, we’re facing a reconfiguration of what national identity means in these Isles, which is probably not a bad thing. Though, somehow, you can’t help thinking that the Orange Order will still be marching out under the battle standard of the Boyne in another 300 years. Some things never change.
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