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Sunday, August 20, 2017
Date Posted:

Days of Deliverance Part 13: The Providential rise of the Orange Order: What it was and what it was not

Dr Clive Gillis

If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. 2 Chr. 7:14

IRISH REPUBLICANISM reached fever pitch in the years before the 1798 Rebellion. 

Despite the might of the British Navy, the successful French General Lazare Hoche appeared off Ireland’s Bantry Bay in 1796 with 7,000 men, though rumour made it twice that number.  United Irishman Wolfe Tone was on board ready to form a Republic.

“Had Hoche’s corps of army consisting of about 15,000 men landed, nothing could have prevented them marching on Dublin and establishing there a provisional government,” wrote Roman Catholic, United Irishman Miles Byrne, a leading figure in the 1798 rebellion.  He continues, “Edward Fitzgerald, Arthur O’Connor and Wolfe Tone (the leading United Irishmen) would have … organised national guards … whilst waiting to raise a national army … the Protestant counties of the north were all organised and ready to shake off the English yoke … The Presbyterians … were all Republicans … all the north would join him at once”.

Mercifully God blanketed the French fleet in fog and they were scattered, never to land.

Miles Byrne

Miles Byrne composed his Memoirs just before he died in 1862.  He still recalled the failure of this French invasion all those years later.  “It is quite fresh in my memory and I shall never forget it, the mournful silence, the consternation of the poor people.”

Fellow United Irishman O’Connor was more intellectual and foresaw revolution throughout Europe.  He said that if the expedition of General Hoche had succeeded in separating Ireland from England, England would have lost the best source of recruits for her Navy and Army and that old feudal Europe would have lost the powerful support that it had so long received from England.

Readers will recall that the ‘Volunteers’ were a large, though unofficial, voluntary army, consisting chiefly of Presbyterians, formed to defend Ireland when England was reoccupied with the threat from France.  Some of the more militant Volunteers formed the ‘United Irishmen’ with a view to forming an Irish Republic independent of Britain.

O’Connor, like Wolfe Tone and the other United Irishmen, was a secularist.  Unfortunately this secularism blurred the traditional Protestant – Roman Catholic divide.  O’Connor was very anti-catholic but nevertheless supported Catholic Emancipation because he wanted to form a coalition with the Roman Catholics to fight for an independent Ireland.

Rome opposes United Irish

On the other hand the Vatican was opposed to revolution in Europe as Rome functions best with compliant monarchies.  It still hoped for the ‘Conversion of England’ with a Romanist monarch ruling both Britain and Ireland.  Hence Byrne recalled, “The priests did everything in their power to stop the progress of the association of United Irishmen … poor Fr John Redmond … refused to hear the confession of any of the United Irish and turned them away on their knees”.  This priest was nevertheless hung after the Rebellion.  The priests would toe the Vatican line until there was overwhelming local reason not to and then they would throw their weight behind local movements.  This reluctance of Rome to join the revolutionaries in overthrowing monarchies runs through 19th century history and beyond and is essential to understanding the part played by Rome in Ireland.

The Lord’s people were again in immense danger.  What Protestantism needed was an army committed to the true Gospel, to the open Bible, to the Protestant Succession and steadfast in its opposition to Rome.  The Volunteer army was Republican and looked to America or France.  So, with the Irish situation in mind, the British government raised a new domestic force, in 1782, throughout Britain and Ireland.  It was called the Fencibles.  The Volunteers were outraged and those who accepted pro-British Fencible commissions were execrated.

The great change

This terrible problem for the British Crown persisted until just a few years before the 1798 rebellion, when a great change swept through the Irish yeomanry (the official army of the crown in Ireland).  They were, in the words of Miles Byrne, “henceforward to be upon the true Protestant or Orange system”.  Thus the Lord suddenly raised up a body of sound Protestant men, the Orangemen of Ireland, imbued with the spirit of 1690 and all that the Williamite victory had meant to their fathers.

Although at first small in numbers, the Orangemen, through their zeal and commitment to Protestantism and the British crown and their total opposition to the creeping alliances with Romanism, endowed the Yeomanry with their character in this hour of destiny.  Miles Byrne’s opposed the Orangemen and he gives vent to his hatred in his Memoirs: “cruel Orangemen … cruel monsters … persecutions of the Orange magistrates … the country being everywhere pillaged and decimated by the king’s troops and Orangemen,” all of which witnesses to the pivotal role of this mushrooming group in 1798.

The Orange

The word ‘Orange’ has been so bandied about that we need to look carefully at the origins of this movement – so crucial in 1798 – in order that we may understand what a remarkable movement of God it was.  Naturally the word ‘Orange’ was easily applied to any Protestant activity or grouping from the time of the victory of William of Orange onwards.  Despite the stagnation of Protestantism, the sacrifice of its ideals to an accommodation with Rome, and the prevailing spirit of Republicanism, the values of 1690 still burned bright in many of the hearts of the Lord’s people.

In 1915, R M Sibbett published his invaluable two volume Official History: Orangeism in Ireland and throughout the Empire.  This was a collection of articles previously published in the Belfast Weekly News.  He was at pains to suggest that there was continuous Orange activity from 1688 onwards.  Hence he speaks of the Williamite war being fought by “Orange forces … Orangemen … with Orange proceedings and followed by Orange celebrations”.  Indeed as a good Protestant he commences his history with the 1641 Rebellion, identifying the “tracks of the Williamites” from 1641 forwards – well before William of Orange ever came on the scene!

The Protestant struggle is a continuous one and will be until the Lord returns.  The present writer admires Sibbett’s style and would always seek to emulate it.  However the use of the word ‘Orange’ has confused even experienced historians.   Thus there was an Orange Lodge very active in Belfast in the 1780’s which was the absolute antithesis of the movement we are discussing.  It is considered by the historian of the United Irishmen, A T Stewart, to be “the cradle of the United Irishmen brotherhood,” as it sought to forge a Protestant-Roman Catholic alliance in the land – a policy that could only bring disaster.  This blurring of the traditional Protestant-Roman Catholic divide was the very thing the true Orange Order was raised up of God to deal with.

The loss of the divide between Romanism and Protestantism deserves a digression as it makes the eventual intervention of God in raising up the true Orange Order all the more remarkable when seen against the darkness amidst the Order arose.


During the Enlightenment of the 18th century there was a general growth of Freemasonry, not least in Ireland.  The rolls of membership of the important Masonic lodges in Belfast and elsewhere show that many of the Volunteers, imbued with Republican ideas and looking to ally with America or France against the crown, were freemasons.  A substantial number of the earliest Volunteers, the Belfast First Volunteer Company, also called the Green Company, and another the Blue Company, were identified as belonging to the Orange and True Blue Masonic Lodges.  Indeed it seems likely that the Volunteer Companies were a Masonic initiative.

Thus examination of the known membership of these Lodges reveals that John Brown, Worshipful Master of the Orange Masonic Lodge was Captain of the Blue Company (and reputed the wealthiest man in Belfast).  A number of Presbyterian ministers were both Masons and Volunteers.  When the Society of United Irishmen arose from the Volunteer movement, its first regular venue was an ex-Jesuit chapel now become the Hall of the Tailors Guild.  This also just happened to be the headquarters of the Grand Lodge of Freemasons.  An important date in the Masonic calendar is St John’s day, June 24th, and Volunteer parades would often be held on the same date.

RC – Protestant divide blurred

“Once the fact of Masonic involvement in the Volunteer movement is realised, its extent becomes staggering”.  It seems that the Masons gave birth to the Volunteer movement and twenty years later to that new, quasi-Masonic organisation, The Society of United Irishmen, which comprised the more militant of the Volunteers.  And at the heart of this Society of United Irishmen was co-operation with Rome to secure its ends.  The fact was that despite Clement XII’s 1738 bull excommunicating Romanists who became Masons, the new rich Roman Catholic merchants needed masonry to prosper and were admitted freely to the Masonic lodges, where the anti-Catholic laws were ignored.  This gave Roman Catholics access to the Volunteers and subsequently to the United Irishmen.

The evaporation of the Protestant Catholic divide from 1780 onwards, which so threatened Protestantism, can only be explained in terms of secret co-operation within Freemasonry.  There was no other arena for such disparate groupings to unite their interests.  This intermixing of Protestants with Romanists went so far at this time that the centenary celebration of the Siege of Londonderry was actually as “ecumenical celebration”!

Happily the origin of the true Protestant Orange Order had absolutely nothing whatever to do with these Enlightenment lodges and societies.  Recent research has thrown great light on that remarkable movement of God, the Orange Order, which was so crucial at the time of the 1798 rebellion, as we shall see in the next article DV.

Stewart tells us that in 1896, when the White Linen Hall of Belfast was being demolished, the workmen discovered the original foundation stone in which a glass tube was found to contain documents.  One read “28th April 1783: These papers were deposited an authentic information to posterity that by the firmness and unanimity of the Irish Volunteers this kingdom (long oppressed) was fully and completely emancipated … let … posterity look … to the glorious example of our forefathers who at this time appointed an army independent of government, unpaid and self appointed of eighty thousand men.  The discipline, order and regularity of which army was looked upon by all Europe with wonder and astonishment.”

The inscription on a metal plate attached to this stone reads, “The first Stone of the Belfast White Linen Hall was laid on the 28th April AD 1783, in the year of Masonry 1783, by John Brown Esq, Worshipful Master of the Orange Lodge of Belfast No 257 … In aid of which building the Orange Lodge presented the managers with the sum of £100.”  The Orange Lodge 257 achieved its particular prominence from the exertions of one Amyas Griffith “prominent in the Volunteer Movement in Munster and … a very active Freemason”  Arriving in Belfast “penniless”, to escape a lawsuit over a married woman, he promoted the Lodge with socialising and his ability to write plays and books.  He used his post in the Revenue to advantage Irish liquor over imports and was the darling of the brewers.  He increased lodge membership numerically to 170, but also in quality with the powerful and rich.  Eventually he became bankrupt and was imprisoned, despite a Masonic collection, but leaving the Orange lodge powerful and prey to every new idea.

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