The Orange Order: An Insider’s View of The Twelfth Day

Choyaa is an Fermanagh Orangeman

It’s the Sunday following the Twelfth and I arrive into church a few minutes early. The pews are generally empty as it’s the Twelfth period and our minister is on his annual holidays. A lady watches me attentively as I sit in one of the pews, I watch her from the corner of my eye and I suspect something is wrong. I have never spoken to this lady before but I have seen her in church frequently and I know her to be well respected. She walks over to where I am sitting and takes a pew beside me, after some mild pleasantries she leans over and whispers “I seen you on Friday (The Twelfth), I was very surprised that you’re in the Orange”.

I can instantly tell that this lady is not a supporter so I attempt to defuse the situation by responding, “Yes it’s the only colour that suits me”. The lady is not amused and proceeds to grill me, first by asking if I understand the meaning behind the colours on the Irish flag? I do and respond. She flirts with the idea of challenging my attendance at church but as I am out most weeks there is no mammon here for the lady and thankfully within the congregation, as is the case most Sundays around 30% of the males are members of the Orange (although another 30% were members).

A few more quick-fire questions are thrown my way that would have made even Andrew Neil proud, I answer them all and feel I have held my own but the lady clearly has no more time for me and departs with the quip, “I think the Orange has work to do”. The service is about to start but I’m left thinking, how on earth have we as an institution not managed to win over some support from a lady like this? Someone who has regular contact with Orange members and someone with an understanding as to what we’re about, but yet here she is clearly aghast that I am a member but until today has never before spoken to me.

Within this section I wanted to give some insight into a Fermanagh Twelfth but from an Orangeman’s perspective. It will be a nuts and bolts breakdown of the day and may not be of interest to everyone.

Some background trivia first of all, the most Nationalist district of Fermanagh is Newtownbutler, however this area has the biggest Orange presence with around 200 members encompassing 11 lodges and 8 bands. The mostly Protestant districts in Fermanagh such as Ballinamallard only have five lodges and two bands and around 70 members in total. In Fermanagh there are a total of 15 Orange districts covering 89 lodges.

(1)    Newtownbutler – Does not host a Twelfth and has 11 Lodges

(2)    Lisbellaw – Hosts a Twelfth and has 6 Lodges

(3)    Brookeborough – Hosts a Twelfth and has 5 Lodges

(4)    Lisnaskea – Hosts a Twelfth and has 5 Lodges

(5)    Enniskillen – Hosts a Twelfth and has 12 Lodges

(6)    Ballinamallard – Hosts a Twelfth and has 5 Lodges

(7)    Kinawley – Does not host a Twelfth and has 5 Lodges

(8)    Glenawley – Does not host a Twelfth and has 4 Lodges

(9)     Lisnarick – Hosts a Twelfth and has 8 Lodges

(10)   Pettigo – Hosts a Twelfth and has 7 Lodges

(11)   Magheraboy – Does not host a Twelfth and has 4 Lodges

(12)   Churchill – Does not host a Twelfth and has 4 lodges.

(13)   Maguiresbridge – Hosts a Twelfth and has 4 Lodges

(14)   Garrison – Does not host a Twelfth and has 4 Lodges

(15)   Tempo – Does not host a Twelfth but has 5 Lodges (This district did host a Twelfth back in the 90’s but for unknown reasons has stopped.

It’s easy to work out where the Twelfth will be as it goes up numerically. This year it was Lisnaskea (District 4) and next year it will be Enniskillen (District 5). Effectively there are eight venues where the Twelfth is held and each venue will host it once every eight years. Within the Twelfth procession the districts are in numerical order too, but it’s a little more confusing. A random district is chosen to lead, then it’s the districts from the Republic, then it’s the district that hosted the previous Twelfth (Brookeborough) and it follows on numerically with the host district always coming last (Lisnaskea).

Eagle eyed readers will notice district 13 is missing, this is a special district for the Royal Arch Purple (a degree within the Orange).

For many of us in Fermanagh the Twelfth really should begin the Saturday prior to the Twelfth of July when we attend the Donegal Twelfth in Rossnowlagh. This is then followed on Sunday when most of us will have our annual church parade and then the next event is the Twelfth itself which this year was held on Friday the Twelfth (Next year the Twelfth is on the 13th).

There’s much relief this year that the time of the Fermanagh Twelfth is back to a midday start, in previous years we have had very early starts to accommodate BBC live broadcasts which have detracted from the day and made things feel rushed which is not how we like to do things in these parts.

Despite this, the day still gets off to an early start. At 06:00 we as a family have our traditional Ulster fry, the radio is on in the background and it’s a relief to hear that the bonfires in Belfast have been much more contained than in previous years. As breakfast ends it’s time to get ready and into my new suit I get (I usually buy one each year specially for the Twelfth). As I am not holding office this year the only piece of regalia that I wear is a collarette (sashes are practically non-existent at Orange events and were phased out many years ago due to being more expensive to produce). Officers and bannerette carriers are all expected to wear white gloves and bowler hats but for the rest of us this is not a requirement.  This information seems to surprise many people as we’re all envisaged wearing bowler hats but this is not the case. I note, however, most Orangemen in Belfast wear white gloves, but this is not the reality in Fermanagh.

The early start is to attend my lodge meeting where we go through some preliminaries about the day and usually meet a few faces we haven’t seen since last year. The Twelfth morning is also ironically the day of the year when most resignations will come through, however thankfully there are none for my lodge this year.

We are due to parade the town at 09:00 before leaving for Lisnaksea. I have argued that 09:00 is a little bit too early especially as there are some within the town who will be hoping to commute to work etc. and our parade will delay them, however this is a battle I lost months ago and the old time of 09:45 seems to have been lost again this year.

There are two bands within our district and five lodges but only two banners are out this year as there are not enough Orangemen to carry the remaining three. I spot a member of my lodge looking a little disheveled as we line up behind the second band, he’s not hungover or anything but looks a little untidy and is missing his tie, I have a quiet word and he promises to go home after parading the town to get a tie (he’s true to his word and when he arrives in Lisnaskea later on he looks much sharper).

Once the town is paraded, I round up my family members and off to Lisnaksea we go. The Twelfth is one of my favourite days of the year, however in the car my wife points out how low the numbers were this morning. I recognise this to be true and I’m hoping a few more will be joining us at the venue.  As we arrive in Lisnaskea there are large tailbacks. There seemed to be some confusion at the head of the congestion with police unaware of where to direct people and the few Orange marshals that were on duty were not taking the initiative. In fact, there was a higher than normal police presence this year, possibly due to some disgruntlement on social media from people claiming to be from Lisnaskea (it transpired that many lived outside of Fermanagh), a petition against the parade “lockdown” had also been setup with the reason given that carers could not get through to see their patients, however these fears were groundless as there is never a full lockdown at a Fermanagh Twelfth and emergency services are always granted access. Thankfully the petition does not gain any traction.

One of the first issues at a Fermanagh Twelfth happens almost immediately, bands and lodges will arrives and park at different locations and it is from here that they will parade to the Assembly field. This can happen in dribs and drabs for several hours over the course of the morning right up until the main procession is due to begin. It can be quite confusing to onlookers who sometimes wonder what is happening? I also feel this is a part of the day that really needs some fine tuning, do we really need to parade to the Assembly field from all corners of the town at different times? It’s also worth noting that some choose not to and simply arrive at the Assembly field and await the beginning of the parade.

After getting parked my family make their way into town and I locate my lodge to parade to the Assembly field. It’s after 10:00 and there are not too many people watching as we parade. Arriving in the field the band mostly disperses to do their own thing, we’re all told to return at 12:00 for the main parade (in reality we won’t be leaving the field until 13:00).

Again this year there is not much interaction between band and lodge. I know some in the band don’t understand what we’re about and view us as characters who simply appear at the time every year. There are a few Orangemen within the band but it’s primarily made up of non Orange members.  This year the fee from the band is £350 which is a painful blow to the Orange coffers and barely sustainable – this is something we will need to look at because our declining numbers cannot justify these fees. The Assembly field is a good opportunity to catch up with friends and acquaintances, grab a coffee and watch the bands and lodges as they arrive at various intervals.

The main parade sets off exactly on time at midday, this is a sharp deadline for some of the bands and lodges who would have came from the Republic and may well have had to parade their areas before arriving in Lisnaskea. Some of us are hoping that the old time of 13:00 can return for next year, this gives those coming from afar more time and allows residents of the town who may want to get to work or leave for the day an opportunity to depart at a reasonable time before the roads are closed off.

The procession is led by the officers of the Fermanagh Country Grand Lodge accompanied by the new County Grand Master (Paul Stevenson), there are two bannerettes at the front of every main Orange parade in Fermanagh. One is the County Fermanagh bannerette and one has the names of the 31 Orangemen from Fermanagh who were murdered during the Troubles. All of the officers are attired in suits, bowler hats and white gloves.

Until recently the next districts would have been those from the Republic, however a number of concerns were raised that Orange numbers were so low within the Republic that it sent out the wrong message to onlookers to have them at the front of the parade, so instead a Fermanagh district leads the procession on a rotating basis and this year Magheraboy have pride of place. This district has 33 members on parade and one band, this sounds reasonable, however considering the area has four lodges but only one banner came out and of the 33 on parade only two are under 55, it’s clear there are issues here and this is a trend repeated throughout the parade.

The districts from the Republic are next, these include, Leitrim, Monaghan, Donegal and Cavan. The numbers are deeply alarming, the entire district of Leitrim includes 12 Orangemen (two of whom I know live in Enniskillen) and one small accordion band. Donegal is next which again includes one band and lodge (Ballymagroarty), there are around 20 members in each which is considerably less than in previous years. Monaghan and Cavan follow Donegal with a few lodges apiece and an average of five members in each. Many participants within the Republic’s contingency are made up of non-members parading in jeans, this casual approach has crept in over the years to the extent that now there are huge segments of the parade that look sloppy.

The Fermanagh contingency is lead by Churchill Silver who are one of the best bands on parade, although their formation is poor and members are missing pieces of uniform which detracts from their appearance. The accompanying district is very low in numbers with around 20 on parade, this includes four male lodges and one female lodge and again only two banners are out. The trend continues throughout the parade. Notable issues in supposedly Protestant towns are very apparent including Ballinamallard who have around 35 Orangemen on parade (this covers five lodges but only three banners make it out), Ballinamallard also have two bands, both of which look significantly weaker than in previous years. Lisbellaw and Pettigoe districts (Pettigoe encompasses Kesh) also have very low numbers on parade, no lodges have more than 15 parading and again many were missing completely with floating members merging into various lodges.

Further bad news develops as we are informed that Cornafanog flute band has went off the road, which was very unexpected as this had been a reasonably strong band. The stock approach of not mentioning this is adopted which serves absolutely no benefit to Orangeism within the county. Enniskillen district is as always a shambles, the Orange Institution has been declining rapidly here and many of the lodges have single digit membership. Other districts register poor returns too including Maguiresbridge, Tempo, Lisnarick and Garrison.

As we are close to the end this year, a few of us return to the field and get into formation ready for the parade. This year our ranks are swollen with two other lodges, our banner is out whilst theirs are not (we simply don’t have the bodies to carry three banners). In total we have around 15 parading which is the lowest I have ever paraded with. The band is sounding great as we leave the field (this is a reasonably active band) and the atmosphere within the ranks is good. There is the nuisance of several bodies jumping into our ranks as the parade has began. These individuals will also jump out before we get to the field. It’s an annoyance as they may just jump in front of someone rather than joining at the end, furthermore they will make no attempt to ensure the columns are balanced, at one stage we have seven of one side and three on the other which looks ridiculous, I bark out a quick order which sorts this out and the extra man joins the middle of the last row. Unfortunately, most lodges on parade will suffer this issue and few attempts are made to correct something as simple as this.

The parade is enjoyable as we waive at friends and family at the side, there’s always a nice element of banter at a Fermanagh Twelfth and again this is evident today. The sight of banners in front and behind fluttering in the wind is fantastic and reminds me of how special this day is. One or two onlookers reference how “small” our lodge looks (not realising there are three lodges here) and I do wonder why they are not members?

As the parade progresses I realise to my astonishment that the crowds of spectators just are not there. There are pockets of spectators along the route but it’s not the huge crowds there used to be, are people really going off the Twelfth? The final third of the route has virtually no spectators at all and this is a rather somber reality. Some muse throughout the day that as Lisnaksea is such a long town this is to be expected, however, I cannot help but feel our estimates of 16,000 spectators are not even remotely accurate.

Musings also go on throughout the day about the worrying condition of the Orange institution in Fermanagh. As Lisnaskea is the host district they are at the end of the procession and record a staggeringly low number of personnel on parade, in fact the district suffered a number of resignations on the Twelfth morning and it has been known for some time that this is one district that is facing extinction quite soon.

As hosts of the Twelfth, Lisnaskea district had the thankless task throughout the year of preparing for the event. This involved meeting with local businesses and residents throughout the year, getting insurance in place and arranging the logistics for car-parking and stall allocations etc. Furthermore they were responsible for marshaling the parade and managing the fields including ensuring the Assembly field was cleared before they left it to participate in the main parade, many worked late into the night on the 11th and were on the go from 04:00 on Twelfth morning and for this they deserve huge credit. No district really wants to be lumbered with the poison chalice of hosting a Twelfth and with demographics changing and a declining Orange presence within Lisnaskea, this could well be the last Twelfth to be held in the town.

The parade makes its way to the Demonstration field where there is a religious service and a demonstration of Orange principles including faith, Unionism and Loyalty to the crown hence why the Twelfth is called a Demonstration. The field is an awkward mix of bouncy castles, burger stands, stalls and a platform for the religious proceedings (usually a lorry trailer).

In reality whilst everyone should attend the religious service (including supporters) only a small number do. Many make their way back into town to meet their family and friends for lunch whilst others will go straight to the nearest public house.  This is something the Orange should look at, would it be better to have the religious service before the parade? The reality is if people do attend the service there is little to no time to catch-up with friends, have lunch and generally enjoy the day.

I stay in the field for a bit before leaving to go into town to be with my family. It has to be said that there is a strange atmosphere within the town, partially due to nothing of note happening as the town is rather silent after the excitement of the parade has ended.  There are some lambegs playing but after a few minutes this is off-putting. Three flautists accompany the lambeg drums but they are completely drowned out (This drum was never meant for music and was intended to put fear into your opponent and it’s easy to understand why). One interesting attempt by the Orange to include the Willie Drennan Ulster Scot folk band at various points throughout the day had huge potential but never quite takes off and at times they seemed out of place, perhaps a static point would have been better rather than driving around aimlessly on a tractor?

There is a real opportunity an the Twelfth during the interval for the Orange to provide some genuine entertainment possibly in the form of music, stories and reenactments, there is also the opportunity to have a team of people out trying to get new recruits into the Orange and to even have a stand where people can visit to learn more about the institution, sadly these are all missed opportunities with each passing year.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that our supporters seem to know less about the Orange from one year to the next. I ask the son of one leading Orangeman if he would consider joining? He advises that he has never been asked by anyone before and queries what are we about? I will end this story here but it highlights our grave problems. There is no serious or coordinated attempt at education or recruitment on the day other than some disjointed attempt made by people such as me to seek potential recruits. Frustratingly some in the Orange are only interested in recruits that will join their lodge rather than helping the overall Orange family.

One thing that is prevalent throughout the Twelfth day, and particularly at the interval, are the evangelists who preach damnation at every Loyal Order event and hand out leaflets usually with thinly veiled attacks on the Orange. Many at the Twelfth find this aspect off-putting and there is never any attempt made each year to circumvent this insurgency. There is also little point in denying that the public houses are buzzing on the Twelfth which is at odds with the religious aspect of the day and something that could be better managed. I am often reminded of the story of Gideon and his troops drinking water which we are all taught when we join the Orange as many rush for a drink at the interval. Would these people be dedicated to the Orange if no alcohol was available? I dread to even answer this.

Lack of toilet facilities is a significant issue every year at Loyal Order events. There are two portaloos within each field (a few more scattered throughout the town) accompanied with a screen for the gents made up of silage wrap. It’s certainly unfair on the females who have to spend long periods of time queuing up for the small number of toilets which many described as “filthy” but the males get a raw deal too and almost have to face public exposure. This issue has been raised innumerable times but has repeatedly fallen on deaf ears, the Orange is not an organisation that adapts easily.

Other issues with the venue include the lack of eateries, again unless people wanted to queue for over an hour the only other options were to bring a picnic or go without. In the past many bands and lodges would have had food stalls but these are a rare site in modern times with many citing the effort it takes for modest returns.

These issues may seem trivial to some but as a institution we are inviting thousands to our showcase event each year and this makes us look incompetent and can in some ways spoil the day for others. It’s certainly not a good advert. I am approached by a member of the council a few days after the event, it’s completely informal and off the record, but the issue of discarded rubbish is mentioned following the Twelfth in Lisnaskea with particular emphasis on innumerable realms of silly string. I do remember this being sold in large volumes on the day along with other rubbish from the various stalls and it is something I would prefer not to be sold. However we do need to be aware of the rubbish issues and tackle them head on. I am horrified at some of the images coming in the aftermath of the Belfast Twelfth in relation to rubbish, and as an institution we must do better in this field.

The designated charity this year is Air Ambulance which is no doubt a worthy cause and much self promotion is done by the Orange regarding this. However the extreme efforts to bring an Orange event together result in zero funds for the Orange, in order to improve how we operate, improve our halls and to be ready for any changes in rate rulings, and we have to be more realistic here. Many people who attend expect and indeed want to contribute to the Orange but there is never any means to do so.

If anyone ever wants to witness a literal vision of the Orange’s issues in Fermanagh then the best opportunity to do this is to watch the return parade from the Demonstration field. Not everyone parades back, some will leave at the interval, some will prefer to watch the return leg with their families and yes unfortunately some will simply stay in the public house they have found, often in no condition to walk. However for those who have made the huge dash to get back to the meeting point in the Demonstration field most will be unaware of the return route as it takes some unexpected turns which are never known in advance.

Leaving the field in Lisnaskea a left turn takes people to a country road where nobody is watching and it’s actually off the official parade route, whereas a right turn leads back into the town of Lisnaskea. After the officers have headed towards the town accompanied by the lead band we witness a swarm from the Republic’s contingency turning left as they exit the field and dispersing, one wonders why they didn’t simply disband at the interval rather than carrying out this painful farce?

As this was happening a 10 minute gap develops within the main parade that’s going through the town much to the confusion of the spectators, however the Fermanagh contingency only accentuates this confusion. Bands and lodges start falling out throughout Lisanakea, some just as they enter the town, some half way along it, some down side streets and some parade to the far end of town and proceed then along random country roads.

As every band and lodge from Fermanagh plays the National anthem before falling out which should be shown absolute reverence by all, there were numerous occasions when the anthem was playing and a band in full flow would parade past, onlookers were frequently unsure of whether to stand for the anthem or to cheer the passing band. There is actually no need for the anthem to be played as it is sang by everyone in the Demonstration field at the end so this repeat is a nonsense. Obviously, this confusion leads to delays and stoppages with many people thinking that the Orange is the most bizarre, incompetent and stubborn organisation ever to grace these shores.

It is fair to say that the return leg is not always worth waiting around for which is a significant flaw as it should be a highlight of the day. It’s something we would be extremely critical of if we were unable to parade the full length of the town on the return leg, however again we do ourselves no favours.

Other points are that bands and lodges can look very untidy during the return leg and the host district of Lisnaskea had all but given up at this stage and did not make the return parade. Some argue the point that band and lodges are simply returning to their buses, however the parade turns into chaos and this situation is simply untenable.

I always wait for the return leg to finish before leaving the venue and going home with my family, we are due to finish the day by parading our town again one final time, on our way home we are caught in several traffic jams due to bands and lodges parading through their own towns after returning from the Twelfth, it’s also clear that many of these bands/lodges must have left the Twelfth long before it ended to get the parade underway in such a  timely manner.

After arriving home and parading the town, the National anthem is played for the third and final time that day. I return home and we have a family dinner, read and watch the Twelfth highlights on TV with a nice glass of wine. I’m disappointed with the poor coverage Fermanagh gets, much information is inaccurate and repeated from last year and the new County Grand Master is not a natural in front of the camera, but at this point I am too tired to care. It’s a shame that there is not a social event held on Twelfth night, however with the exception of a few lodges running a barbeque and some having tea and sandwiches, not much else is available.

I want to touch briefly on the topic of standards on parade. Discipline is something I get challenged on each year from onlookers as well as from some whom I approach about joining the Orange. Lack of discipline, particularly on parade, is cited as a key reason why some refuse to join the Orange. It is fair to say that the standards we set ourselves regarding protocol on parade are not always met.

The parade itself commemorates William III and his march towards the Boyne. Most lodges generally have a banner which is connected to two poles and it takes two people to carry. If there are strings on the banner, further members within the Orange rank or often juniors will carry these. As most banners depict William III on a white horse on one side (he actually rode a dark coloured horse in battle with the white horse on banners symbolising victory) with a religious, military or local image on the reverse side of the banner. Protocol indicates that William’s image must be at the front going towards the field and on the reverse returning from it, but in Fermanagh many are unaware of this and it can be pot luck if the banner is facing in the correct direction.

The Orange in Fermanagh is divided into 15 districts and each district is lead by a standard bearer carrying a bannerette (a small banner that one person can carry). The standard-bearer is required to wear a suit, white gloves and a bowler hat. However this rule is often flouted, in fact some of the standard-bearers looked worse for wear and I spotted one wearing jeans and a hoodie, this does not reflect well on the district or Institution as a whole.

Throughout the parade it can be witnessed that standards are poor, ties missing or worn incorrectly, columns are uneven (one side may have six Orangemen and the other side three), jeans and trainers on parade are often all too apparent and even with regards to wearing a jacket or not is at the discretion of the Worshipful Master (leader of the lodge) but now everyone does what they want, jackets are also rarely buttoned on parade which is also a protocol.

In addition to this I have spotted members smoking and eating on parade and once or twice I have even seen intoxicated Orangemen parading which is unacceptable. Collarette wearing protocol is actually quite strict, it should be taken off if smoking or within a Public House, it should never be worn inside out or outside of an Orange event without appropriate approval and band members should not wear it over uniforms (band members instead should wear an Orange shoulder flash).

Whilst the Fermanagh parade does look sloppy at time the worst offenders are the Orange lodges in general and this is something bands have complained about. However, it’s clear a number of bands also need to improve on their dress codes with many having mismatching uniforms etc.

The contingency from the Republic always looks quite disheveled which is surprising as we were of the understanding that the Irish government contributes heavily towards the band and Orange scene within this region, but any investment is certainly not apparent on parade.

It’s clear too that many of the bands only come out a few times in the year, the quality of music can be mixed and I heard more renditions of “Auld Lang Syne” throughout the day than I would have on New Year’s Eve night. It’s always very dangerous to have such an inactive band scene as there is always the risk that they just won’t come out next year and with an average of one band per year folding in Fermanagh there is a great risk that some of these very inactive bands could simply disappear overnight.  A band and Orange forum is essential to improve relations and pool talent but it is still missing in Fermanagh.

Some bright points on the day were the return of Enniskillen Pipe band (still on life support but this can be built on) and the participation of a number of really fine bands including Killadeas and Clabby pipe as well as Ardess Accordion.

From the 89 lodges in Fermanagh only around 60 were able to take out their banner. Each lodge on average had 6 members parading with it along with thee more as part of the accompanying band, add to this each lodge missing two members due to work/holidays and a further two unable to parade due to their age, this leaves around 1,157 active Orangemen in Fermanagh. From this around 290 are under the age of 55 with 867 being over 55 (and many considerably older). These numbers are possibly being generous in some cases as it assumes the average lodge size is 13, however very few lodges on parade had 13 within them with most struggling to reach double figures. It could also be argued that a higher proportion didn’t attend Lisnaskea and more than 3 members of the Orange were in each of the bands. Add to this around 40 within the Juniors, 75 within the female lodges, 100 from the Republic and we can quickly realise that the situation within Fermanagh and the border counties for the Orange is critical.

In the not too distant past we boasted about having in excess of 3000 members in Fermanagh alone and even in recent years the figure was in excess of 2000. However, year after year a steady decline is being recorded with some lodges particularly within the Newtownbutler area facing extinction. The time for action was many years ago, however there is still a window of opportunity. But will the Orange in Fermanagh make the necessary adjustments? I have to concede that this year I lost a lot of interest in the Orange, we continue to let ourselves down, but I still have a love for it and I believe it is worth saving.

In the next article I will discuss where I feel we need to go to survive and hopefully thrive.

Read part 1 of Choyaa Inside the Orange Order series…