IF, ON first meeting him, you did not know his background, you could easily imagine Chris Thackaberry strolling down O’Connell Street in a Celtic jersey or coming home from Hill 16 on a summer Sunday having seen the Dubs lose from a winning lead for the umpteenth time.
His accent tells you he is a working class Dubliner.
Yet unlike many of the people he grew up around, the signs and symbols of Irish nationalism mean nothing to him.
Chris Thackerberry is an Orangeman. He is a working-class Dublin Protestant who, on the day I speak to him, is getting ready to go north to attend the only Orange parade in the Republic of Ireland.
There are an estimated 45 to 50 Orange lodges in the Republic.
Most of them are based around the border counties of Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan, with one still left in Leitrim.
Thackaberry is one of 62 members who make up the lodge that lies furthest south; the Dublin and Wicklow Loyal Orange Lodge 1313, which sits on Northumberland Road in leafy Dublin 4.
Every year on the Saturday before the 12th of July, the members of the Dublin and Wicklow lodge join their fellow Orangemen from the Republic in Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal, to celebrate the victory of King William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
There are Lambeg drums and bowler hats and marching men in suits. Orange sashes are everywhere and yet since it started in 1978 there has rarely been trouble.
Thackerberry is happy to go to Donegal, but he looks forward to the day that southern Orangemen will be able to march in the capital. “I reckon it could happen in the next few years,” he says. “I could see a change where the 10,000 odd Orangemen that live in the Republic and who are citizens of the Republic will look to have their parade in Dublin and I certainly will be pushing for that.”
LOYAL TO THE CROWN
Thackerberry’s Orangeism is in no way contrived or contrarian. His family history is steeped in loyalty to the British crown and he has an inherent feeling of Britishness. Today he is a bit of a rarity but not so long ago the cities and towns of the south had strong working-class Protestant populations.
“If you take my auntie on mother’s side,” says Chris. “Her name was Nancy Connor, she only died in 1995 but she would have considered herself British. She lived over there in the inner city on Daniel Street. She was working class and was a cleaner all her life and most of her street were Protestant. So growing up, there would have been a strong affiliation to Britain. Being Irish but certainly being part of Britain — that’s the view that would have held in the house.”
It was a view that at times did not sit too well with some of Thackerberry’s neighbours, particularly when the family moved out to the suburbs of north Dublin.
“It was bad in the ‘70s and early ‘80s,” recalls the 38-year-old. “During the hunger strikes you would have had lads, teenagers, shouting in at the house because it was a Protestant house.”
Thackerberry, who has just started a tour company called Dublin Loyal Tours, is keen to emphasise that Orangeism, particularly in the south, should not be seen as an attempt to usurp the authority of the Irish republic. It is merely an alternate point of view.
“Orangeism is a different version of Irishness,” he stresses. “In Northern Ireland they’re protecting their passport, their protecting their citizenship. In the south we’re saying we can look at it somewhat differently like in say Canada or in Australia where you have Orangemen who are loyal to the British connection but they’re Canadian or Australian first. And I think the same could be applied to the Republic. We are a state and our culture is part of that state.”
CHALK AND CHEESE
So are northern Orangeism and southern Orangeism that different? “We’re completely chalk and cheese,” he laughs. “I don’t care what anybody says. Southern and northern Protestants are completely different but on an institutional level we’re certainly united.”
Somewhat ironically, the root of the Orange Institution, to give it its proper title, can be found in the need for the British empire to protect itself by recruiting soldiers from the Catholic population. Before the American War of Independence, Catholics were not allowed to join the army but when the empire was being stretched in its lucrative colonies, recruitment was opened up.
As an enticement, various Land Relief Acts were passed which gave Catholics more access to land than they had previously enjoyed. Unsurprisingly, this caused simmering tensions in what are today the border counties and in Armagh they boiled over in the late 1700s where gangs from both sides of the religious divide regularly attacked and murdered each other.
The ins and outs of the Order’s beginnings may be debated but there is no doubt that it was a child of this violent time. Started in 1795, the Orange Order was brought about to protect the interests of Protestants of the working and merchant classes against what governor of Armagh, Lord Gosford, described at the time as the crime of the “profession of the Roman Catholic faith”.
Although the stronghold was always in the North, southern lodges were surprisingly numerous and sprang up in the towns where there was a critical mass of working Protestants. At one point it is believed that Dublin had at least 300 lodges, while Cork is known to have had at least eight, the last lodge disappeared sometime during World War I. Bandon in Cork had two lodges while parts of Offaly, Tipperary, Mayo, Kerry and Sligo were known to have had a tradition.
“It was always niche,” says Professor David Butler, head of the Department of Academic Ancestry at the University of Limerick. “There were quite a number of families in the south that dabbled in it, even gentry and aristocracy in the period up to 1830, but after that it seems to have become more and more a sort of Protestant working man’s club and it was just sort of a way of celebrating difference and maintaining difference and maintaining identity.”
Butler, who has researched the subject extensively, says the Order’s countrywide peak probably came sometime between 1800 and 1835 but that even before the Famine of the 1840s, numbers had started to decline. Catholic Emancipation in 1829, a campaign against the Church of Ireland, the aforementioned land relief bills and intermittent crackdowns on fraternities and mass meetings all contributed to what Butler calls “a perception that Ireland was becoming a cold country for Protestants”.
Gradual erosion of Protestant privileges heralded the disappearance of lodges in the south. An economic recession led to a mass of people leaving the country, the bulk of them Protestant. In the far more contentious and tribal North, industry kept the lodges alive and many of its members stayed at home.
“I was lucky enough to come across a minute book of the last Bandon Orange Lodge,” says Butler. “It dated from 1879 to 1891. And very early in that period, there were still two lodges in Bandon and one in Cork city. But the two in Bandon were coming together at that time. And most years there were frequent references to members who were now living overseas.”
It is believed that the last Bandon lodge closed sometime around 1922 but Butler emphasises that the demise of the Orange Lodge is not strictly connected to the establishment of the Free State but rather should be looked at over a long period of time. And even then, it is likely to have continued in some form.
“I discovered in west Cork that as late as the Troubles breaking out in 1969 a mini-bus of I presume Cork city and west Cork enthusiasts at least, if not members, used to travel up to the marches,” says Butler. “Nobody was ever kept away from standing on the edge of a parade and singing and clapping along. I think in the south, pre-1969, there was a far greater affinity with the parades when there wasn’t the viciousness. That has only really come in the last 40 years.”
But not every Protestant was particularly enamoured with the Orange Order, either here or in the north, and some denominations, such as Quakers and Reformed Christians, were never involved. To others it was something of an embarrassment. The major issue has always been sectarianism.
“The very raison d’etre of the Orange Institution is to maintain the true Protestant religion,” says Butler. “It is a sectarian organisation. It would advocate that its members should not attend Roman Catholic churches no matter what the reason, there should be no inter marriage, there should be no inter church activity at all and certainly an Orange Hall wouldn’t be open to the wider community unless it was under the auspices of a member.”
But, as Butler points out, if they were not sectarian then there would be no point in their very existence. And this is something Chris Thackaberry has no problem with. “We are sectarian in some respects. Sect as in a group and we’re Protestant and conservative.”
But Thackaberry points out that although he would consider himself against the Catholic Church as an institution, he has no truck with Catholics themselves. What he is looking for is more recognition for a tradition that has been an integral part of the history of the island both north and south.
“In Dublin you have Africa Day, you have Chinese New Year in Smithfield and you have a gay pride parade. Now there could be arguments against the Orange Order because of the sectarianism but we are citizens of the state and I think it’s time that we had our parade like any other citizen of the state in Dublin.”
Whether or not that ever happens, and Thackaberry seems quite confident that it will, the future looks bright for the Orange Order in the south.
“There’s a second lodge opening up in Dublin. It’s Trinity 1592 and obviously connected to Trinity College. There used to be one there before but the warrant [licence] was surrendered in 1965. So the Grand Lodge chaplin is the man behind getting the warrant re-issued to students, employees and ex-graduates. And I found out there recently that Lord [Edward] Carson was affiliated to the lodge when he was at Trinity.”
“We’re also looking into the ownership of the Lodge in Bandon,” he continues. “So there’s a possibility of re-issuing a warrant in west Cork.”
While Thackaberry doesn’t envisage the British queen becoming head of state here, he would like closer links to Britain. “More closely on a political level with greater connections. The benefits for me would be more social than anything.”
There may not be many Orangemen in the south, but those who remain seem determined to protect their heritage and to prove to the rest of us that their version of Irishness is no less valid than anybody else’s.