An insiders guide to the Royal Black Institution and the Fermanagh Black Twelfth…

Choyaa is a Fermanagh Orangeman

The anticipation of the big parade has been building up for the past year and come the first Saturday in August all preparations are about to be realised. There’s a plethora of speculation about who will be within the procession with some very famous dignitaries anticipated along with spectators expected to reach tens of thousands. There is a buzz, there is vibrancy, and there is a feeling that this parade is part of the mainstream psyche. The media coverage has been astronomical, and history is being made, however enough about Belfast Pride, for this instalment we’re going to take a drive up the M1 to Brookeborough for a very contrasting parade. It’s one of the lesser-known Loyal Order events called the Fermanagh Black Twelfth also known as the “The Battle of Newtownbutler Annual Black Parade”.

I have used Pride as a backdrop to this parade as they are very different events, Pride is popular, vibrant and a little tacky whereas the Fermanagh Black Twelfth is virtually unknown, small, somber and styled on being dignified and respectable.

The origins of why the Royal Black Institution (RBI) was formed are fairly simple; it came about in 1797 two years after the Loyal Orange Institution with a mission statement that amounts to the promotion of scriptural truths and the Christian Reformed faith. The Orange is seen as Christian centric with historical, political and cultural dimensions, but the raise de entre for the Black is exclusively religious. The Orange only has two official degrees which are reasonably straightforward, however, within the Black there are 11 degrees, so it is a lot more involving.

To get into the Royal Black Institution is a little confusing, one has to be a member of the Loyal Orange Institution and male, however, one also has to have completed the Royal Arch Purple (RAP) degree which is linked to Orangeism but is not recognised by the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland. In fact RAP meetings are rarely held, they are supposed to be opened after a normal Orange meeting closes but as many members have not completed this degree and indeed the RAP meeting will have nothing of note linked to them, it’s a rather pointless process. The RAP is another example of disunity and ambiguity within the Loyal Orders, it would make more sense if the Orange recognised the degree and brought it inhouse. The degree itself is fairly controversial as it is heavily ritualistic and plays out parts of the old Testament, nobody prepares members for what they undergo, and the experience is unique. I did mine many years ago, I didn’t mind it, but it was daunting, however, at the end there was a great feeling of camaraderie between other members and me and as a reward we were served tea and sandwiches. I did think to myself at the time that this process would be a difficult sell to most people outside of the Orange, however as I have since learnt it is a difficult sell to many within the Orange hence why it is not recognised by Grand Lodge which is absurd as most within Grand Lodge will have completed it. The process of completing the RAP is known affectionately within the Institution as “riding the goat” or as we say in Fermanagh “riding the buck” (no animals are harmed when completing the initiation).

As previously mentioned, the Royal Black Institution is more ritualistic than the Orange and within it there are 11 degrees namely:
1.   Royal Black Degree
2.   Royal Scarlet Degree
3.   Royal Mark Degree
4.   Apron and Royal Blue Degree
5.   Royal White Degree
6.   Royal Green Degree
7.   Gold Degree
8.   Star and Garter Degree
9.   Crimson Arrow Degree
10. Link and Chain Degree
11. Red Cross Degree (A red cross will be on most banners)

There is an overall retrospective degree that covers the 11 mentioned above and is like a refresher, however this is unofficial and is rarely rolled out. None of these degrees are in the same league as the RAP and all are much milder in tone. Membership of the Black requires much more commitment than that of the Orange and for this reason it puts many off. In fact, despite or because of the numerous degrees many members prefer the Black over the Orange considering it to be a more mature and introspective organisation with a strong sense of fraternity, and Christian fellowship whilst charitable donations are also a significant part of the Black.

The Royal Black Intuition is seen as the most senior of the Loyal Orders with the Orange being the intermediary and the Apprentice Boys the junior organisation. The Black is also the organisation that is the most old fashioned and conservative whilst also the one that is declining fastest. Members of the Institution are sometimes referred to as Blackmen but for obvious reasons, this has been a word used less often in recent years. The official title for a member of the Black is “Sir Knight” which for me is dreadfully out of date, in the Orange members are referred to as Brothers and Sisters.

Fermanagh has three Black districts comprising of 24 Preceptories namely:
1.       Enniskillen (13 Preceptories)
2.       Lisnaskea (8 Preceptories)
3.       South Donegal (3 Preceptories, despite the name this area covers Kesh)

A Preceptory is like a club so for example in the Loyal Orders there are Orange Lodges, Black Preceptories and Apprentice Boy Clubs. All Preceptories rollup into the district and the district rolls up into the County Grand Black Chapter. The Country Grand Master of the Black in Fermanagh is well known local politician Tom Elliott. In many ways Tom is the perfect candidate for the role, he has strong Loyal Order credentials (one of the few politicians who is not a member to gain votes), active within his church, experienced leadership roles throughout the Black, is a former County Grand Master of the Orange and he has strong political credentials. However, I fear that things have not improved thus far under Tom’s tenure (just over one year to date), if a list of success stories were rolled out for the year, I can imagine that they would be the following:

–          New banner unfurled by Brookeborough Black Preceptory (Not linked to the leadership)
–          Successful Black Twelfth in Brookeborough (the stock line after every Twelfth is to indicate what a success it was)

The above is a significant problem as the lack of effective leadership is causing decline within the Black and most fear Tom’s role is more figurative rather than to actually improve the Institution within Fermanagh. I feel if I asked Tom for an action plan about how the Institution can be improved over the next 12 months, there would be a blank response but secretly one imagines he would hope that the decline can be slowed down, this is simply not going to save the Institution within Fermanagh.

The structure of the Black and the problems faced are very similar to that of the Orange and in many ways the Black needs the Orange to fix its problems so that changes can feed their way up. Attracting new members is almost impossible due to the following:
–          Limited pool to choose from
–          Being seen as old fashioned
–          Many feel being in the Orange is enough
–          Fees are off-putting. My own Preceptory costs £80 per year with an additional levy of £20 which is for charitable contributions, in addition to this there are several expensive pieces of regalia that members are required to purchase.

The usual problems of collecting dues are apparent within the Black, however, because of the extra dedication needed for the Black over the Orange it’s not quite as painful, and most members will pay on time. Meetings are generally on the second Monday of each month and like the Orange attendance at meetings is low at around 35%. Outside of the degrees there is not enough to compel members to attend, meetings can be bland or indeed similar to that of the Orange which is a huge issue.

The nuts and bolts of the Black Twelfth are similar to that of an Orange Twelfth in that all Preceptories will have their church parade leading up to or sometimes after the Twelfth. In recent years the Fermanagh Black Twelfth was on the second Saturday in August, however as this clashed with Derry day (the main Apprentice Boys of Derry’s parade) Fermanagh suffered in attracting the crowds with many preferring the popular Derry day. For many years a push was made to get the date of the Fermanagh Black Twelfth changed to avoid this clash and eventually this happened around 2010/11, however by this stage the crowd was lost, failure to adapt by the Loyal Orders contributes significantly to our downfall. Ironically we now clash with Pride, however I don’t envisage the date changing to allow supporters to attend this event also.

The Black in Fermanagh for a rather quasi reason holds this event to commemorate the battle of Newtownbutler, however it has always appeared strange why the Black aligns itself to a battle and it’s further confusing as most Black Twelfths pass without even an utterance of Newtownbutler. Further irony is that Newtownbutler is a town where the Twelfth is never held and commemorating an event that took place so long ago that only made up part of the Williamite wars compares unfavorably to Pride which has an actual forward-looking reason for its parade. In the Loyal Orders we need to look forward more rather than constantly harking back, this does not mean we should not remember but we have to have an active and vibrant purpose in 2019 and beyond.

My Preceptory and band have our meeting at 9 am and parade our town at 10 am which is a much more sensible time and causes less issues with local residents. Turnout was extremely low, we have around 55 on the books, however only 25 were on parade that morning including 6 visitors. In the Black we pride ourselves on our appearance, dark suits, white shirts, ties, black collarettes, white gloves, ceremonial aprons and bowler hats are the order of the day with no exceptions. However, that morning several bowlers are missing (particularly noticeable on a bald head) and several in the ranks look scruffy. I am much less active in the Black than the Orange, however the standards slipping is extremely disheartening with nobody taking ownership of the issue, I mention it to a few who look particularly haphazard but it’s a delicate topic and a directive really needs to come from the top. I’ll raise it at the next meeting as it’s a widespread problem. I am questioned a number of times on the day from members of the public as to what the dress code is for the Black? On a few occasions I am told that the Black in 2019 now almost look as scruffy as the Orange on parade and it seems like the bowler hat is on the decline. I receive negative feedback from several people that a number of Preceptories are looking untidy on parade, it is an issue that the public clearly don’t appreciate (nor do many members to be fair), however getting it tackled by the County has proven an uphill battle.

I drive to Brookeborough with my wife (I feel she would have preferred to have went to Pride), there are no issues with queues going into Brookeborough, the Black Twelfth is a much more condensed event and the turnout at the Demonstration will be small. My wife and I park and call into the local Orange hall for coffee and traybakes (that’s a true stereotype I’m afraid). The atmosphere is very mild-mannered and respectable, the ladies working there are extremely generous and friendly and the hall is an amazing historical gem with many old Orange banners hanging on the walls around it. I’m reminded of discussions on this topic on Slugger and the fact that there is so much history and culture encapsulated within these banners that it would be to the shame of my generation is these were permanently consigned to history. I should note that on the subject of halls there are no RBI halls in Fermanagh and very few in Northern Ireland with Orange halls generally playing host to Black meetings.

After our Preceptory parade to the Assembly field my wife and I walk around the village and catchup with friends and family. The atmosphere is very sedate, crowds are small but respectful and primarily comprises of the family members of those on parade. Walking past the public houses there seems to be a good trade established, not quite as lively as at the Orange Twelfth but it still fits in awkwardly with the principles of the day. Stalls selling the usually rubbish are plentiful, one can purchase an upside-down Union flag attached to a pole or an Israeli flag for £10, other disposable toys that break upon being unpackaged are available. Israeli flags are particularly inappropriate at an RBI event and this really does illustrate the lack of knowledge some have of the organisation.

The procession kicks off at 12:40 so my wife, a few from my Preceptory and I take a position close to the Assembly field and watch as the parade winds down the main street of Brookeborough. The opening of the parade in which all the leading dignitaries of the Black are assembled is always impressive and there are no attire issues here. Killskeery Silver band lead the parade (One of two Tyrone bands within the procession), they’re a bit scratchy in general, they seem to have lot of young members but the more mature members have dropped off and they are out of formation with some missing pieces of uniform and it’s not a good impression from the band leading the parade, I am very surprised with the RBI allowing this to happen. Killskeery is a band with huge potential but without the necessary leadership it appears incoherent on parade and perhaps with some fine tuning it would be more apt at leading a parade. The next contingents are those from the Republic (Cavan, Monaghan, Donegal and Leitrim), however the writing is on the wall for the Institution here, some Preceptories had around three people parading with them, others had non-members carrying their banners which is a terrible look on a Black parade and one that has infiltrated the Scarva event too. I feel that if truth be told many of these Black Preceptories in the Republic probably don’t actually exist and only show up on the Twelfth with a banner, at some point in the near future this will almost certainly cease too.

One small Orange Lodge and Black Preceptory in the Republic are lead each year by the Enniskillen Fusilier’s flute band, however it looks bizarre on parade to have a rather large band accompany a virtually nonexistent Lodge/Preceptory. Obviously, Lodges and Preceptories can be led by whatever band they choose but it would be more apt to pick a local band from the Republic who might relish an extra parade in the year and who would not dwarf the Preceptory.

The dress code amongst Sir Knights from the Republic leaves much to be desired, virtually no bowler hats are worn, several look scruffy with ties hanging loose at the collar if indeed worn all and many stragglers are allowed into the ranks. It would be unfair to label only the Republic as having dress code issues as the Fermanagh ranks have declined in standards too, this decline in standards was possibly allowed to slow down the decline in numbers but in reality, our loose standards have only accelerated numerical decline and this feedback is received every year. Numbers within the Fermanagh Preceptories were concerning across the board, Enniskillen, Killadeas, Necarne, Lisnaskea, Ardess, Brookeborough, Cleenish and Tempo all had extremely low turnouts, furthermore the rate of decline within the County Grand Master’s ranks of Ballinamallard continues to gather pace, clearly something is wrong with the Loyal Orders in this part of the world and this is certainly where the County Grand Master’s work begins. The two biggest Preceptories in Fermanagh have also declined, Maguiresbridge looked smaller and scruffier than normal whilst Derrygonnelly looked reasonable but benefitted from having a number of visitors within its ranks.

I mentioned that some of the bands looked scratchy, this is more concerning in that as less bands appear at the Black Twelfth(35 this year) and it’s usually the higher quality assembles that are on parade. However Newtownbutler Border Defenders, Loughkillygreeen, Ballinamallard and Tempo Accordions, Magerheraboy and Florence Court flute bands all looked disheveled and or depleted on parade and a few from the Republic looked worryingly weak and untidy including Cappa Accordion. There were some great bands on parade too including Moyne, Killadeas, Drumharvey and Enniskillen Pipe bands and Brookeborough Flute band (although with this band the former County Grand Master of the Orange should have paraded with the Black and not the band, protocol can be conveniently ignored).

We’re close to the end of the procession this year and as we make our way to the Assembly field the band is ready and waiting. As usual there is not much communication between Preceptory and band, their fee is £400 which is painful but it also includes them leading us on our church parade. Like the Orange this cost is unsustainable based on our declining numbers and other Preceptories are likely to be in a similar position. Our ranks are now around 30 which is an improvement but questions will have to be asked about our missing members and where we’re going wrong? Most of the music at a Black Twelfth in Fermanagh will be hymns with the exception of a few renditions of “The Sash”, “Killaloe” and of course “Old Lang Syne”. Jokes aside I think we need to phase out “Old Lang Syne” otherwise we’re going to run the risk of “Jingle Bells” infiltrating our ranks and Christmas is going to start in Fermanagh on July 12th.

As we make our way through Brookeborough there is a lovely atmosphere with small pockets of families lining the streets, the crowds are not overwhelming but are dignified, respectful and there is a good age mix. It’s mostly females and children spectating with males on parade and this is the reality of the gender imbalance within the Loyal Orders and accompanying bands. The banners are generally of a very high quality and depict images primarily from the Old Testament, there are no depictions of William crossing the Boyne on a Black banner. Like the Orange Twelfth the parade makes its way to a Demonstration field for the religious service. As is the norm most people avoid the platform proceedings and make their way back into town to meet family members, enjoy a picnic or indeed grab a swift half. Considering that few concern themselves with this aspect of the day it is something that both the Orange and Black need to look at, I genuinely feel as both organisations as based on Protestant Christian principles then the religious aspect should happen but perhaps it is the timing that needs to change with all members encouraged to attend the religious event. County Grand Master Tom Elliott marketed the Black Twelfth as a family day with a festival atmosphere, however in essence it’s a parade to and from a religious service so again the narrative from the Loyal Order is confusing. As I have said previously the RBI is solely a religious organisation, however in Fermanagh it dabbles in politics by promoting the Union and the Royal Family as well as drifting off to remember the Williamite wars including of course the battle of Newtownbutler. We really need to get better within the Loyal Orders of promoting a consistent and clear message that is true to our principles because at present the narrative is frankly confusing and contradictive. The Demonstration ends with the National Anthem, like the Orange we will play this again at the end of the procession and once more for good luck when we finish the parade in our home town.

When the parade makes its way back through Brookeborough there are the usual problems, however one sight stood out in relation to a Preceptory on parade. Trillick Preceptory returning from the Demonstration field looked noticeably disheveled, either they were reenacting the battle of Newtownbutler at the field or they were intoxicated on the return leg, if it was the latter then this will not have been the first time this Preceptory has been guilty of such antics and the County Black Chapter needs to take action, we certainly don’t want this nonsense happening in Fermanagh or at any Loyal Order event in the world. Trillick’s ranks are severely depleted in comparison with previous years and I have no doubt that this drinking culture is partially to blame. I am certainly not against anyone having a drink but there has to be a modicum of common sense used particularly on public parade and if people are staggering around and looking disheveled then clearly this is unacceptable. As I have mentioned before the return leg at Loyal Order events is a mess with contingents falling out at random locations, there were several examples caught on video of the lead part of a Preceptory parading one way with the band and remainder of the Preceptory breaking off and parading in a different direction, if ever there was a literal metaphor illustrating the problems of the Loyal Orders in Fermanagh then this was it. During the return leg most of the procession got caught in heavy rain, I noticed during this time that as Preceptories were falling out that some managing the banners were not well versed in the task and a few banners were being trailed in deep puddles when they were being rolled up which has the potential to cause damage to the banner. With banners costing in the region of £2-4k we can ill afford to be so cavalier in how we treat them lest we mention the history and significance behind banner and this is an issue that could be remedied with some leadership and a little bit of training.

After the parade ends, we return back to our hometown to parade it one final time. There is generally nothing arranged by any of the Preceptories for the Twelfth evening so we meet up with friends and go out for dinner. There will be no TV coverage of the parade although the local newspapers may devote a few lines to us in their next edition along with a photograph of someone eating an ice-cream. As we enjoy a lovely meal that evening a friend asks me if I think there will be a Black Twelfth in 10 years’ time? I smile but say nothing but others at the table are much more vocal on our pending extinction.

If people struggle to understand the Orange then the Black is almost an alien concept to many and I don’t believe very many watching understand our principles, I am also beginning to feel this is true of our members too. There is no education done on the day in terms of stalls etc and anyone wishing to join will have to be asked. I do find it bizarre that many very senior Orangemen are not in the Black, furthermore the majority will not even attend the Black Twelfth which is a problem in itself. I’m not as well versed on the numbers within the Black in Fermanagh, however there are 24 Preceptories within the county and there is an average of 30 members within each (I suspect in many cases 30 is being extremely generous) which leaves 720 members within the county of which 85% are over 55, the reality is that unfortunately the Black Twelfth is unsustainable. I recognise that it is old fashioned and for many a little stuffy and unwilling to change, however its decline is very disheartening. I know some would sacrifice the Black to save the Orange, however as both are in decline this is not a viable tactic and there are opportunities for it to survive which I will delve into further within the next installment.

I wanted to share a few lines on Scarva, this is an event that I have attended a number of times over the years and to be perfectly frank I really don’t like it but I feel that I should as it’s the Loyal Order’s showcase event. The Scarva Demonstration is overcrowded in the extreme with a small village hosting in excess of 60,000 people (this time the Loyal Orders have not exaggerated the figures). The venue feels cramped and uncomfortable and there is almost no toileting facilities to accommodate the huge crowds. The procession itself it tight and there are a number of exceptional bands on parade, however others are less impressive and often consist of various members from different bands. Like Fermanagh the Preceptories are declining fast in terms of numbers and many on the day will have had their ranks swollen by visitors. Furthermore, there is the issue of many members of the RBI missing pieces of attire which in the past was unheard of at Scarva and almost all of the banners are carried by non-members which is not a good look on parade. The Demonstration field is almost like a funfair with amusements and very loud pop music being played along with endless burger and ice-cream vans. The famous Sham fight occurs after the first leg of the parade which few will get to see due to the confined space it happens within and also due to the large crowds but it really isn’t worth watching and consists of groups of men firing blank rounds at two flags until they fall off their pole while William and James battle it out in a sword duel. One of the problems with this fight is that some Loyal Order members seriously advise that this is historically accurate with James having being chased from the Boyne to Scarva where he dies in an epic sword fight against William. As one person told me, “If it didn’t happen then why is this event here every year?” Quite why the Black host the Sham fight is beyond me as it’s better suited to an Orange Twelfth, however I do feel a proper reenactment of an aspect of the Battle of the Boyne or even something from World War I is a serious opportunity for the Loyal Orders and would garner significant interest. After the Sham fight the religious service begins with very few watching it, many instead prefer to have their picnics or a cool one before the return leg, of course all the amusement rides etc are going on throughout the service and to say it’s an odd mix is an understatement. Some of the parade participants do look disheveled on the return leg and like Fermanagh the route can vary, in fact I have seen the return parade begin before the religious service has ended as some bands have to catch their train by a set time. Scarva also has a notorious drinking culture particularly within the wooded area coming into the Demonstration field, everyone turns a blind eye to this but it sits extremely awkwardly within the context of a Christian organisation’s showcase event and on a few occasions, I have seen some low level scuffles breaking out. Overall there are a lot of good ingredients within the Scarva event, however it does not quite come together, I feel the better RBI events are held on the last Saturday in August or even the modest Fermanagh Black Twelfth is a much more fitting occasion than Scarva.

I wanted to conclude this segment on the Black Twelfth in Fermanagh with this thought. On a day in which everyone was talking about the Belfast Pride event, for me my pride was within the many good members within the Loyal Orders and bands in Fermanagh who make it tick and contribute so much to the survival of their religion and culture. The Loyal Orders are evolving too as there were several gay members on parade with many of them being very active within their Preceptories and lodges and perhaps this pride that they have in being themselves within the Loyal Orders is a great testament to an organisation that’s more diverse than one might think.

Photo © Rossographer (cc-by-sa/2.0)