10 August 2000 Edition

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The Orange Aussies

Australia is, we are often told down here, the most Irish country in the world outside of Ireland. From Famine era settlers to Fenian convicts, the popular memory of Irish immigration to Australia is largely Gaelic, nationalist and Catholic. The cultural and historical legacy of the Irish contribution to this country is well documented and recognised.

Nevertheless, there is still a tendency in the Australian press to view the Drumcree dispute and the last 30 years of conflict in the north of Ireland from the ``two tribes'' perspective. Most Australian journalists reporting on the conflict emphasise, for instance, how alien the ``Old World'' tribalism of the Orange Order is to the ``Australian national character''. This ignores the fact that historically speaking Orangeism was an Imperial phenomenon that spread to all corners of British colonial world and even penetrated the remote corners of outback Australia.

Prior to the 1920s, between ten to twenty percent of all Irish immigrants to Australia were Protestant. And more than a few of these were Ulster loyalists. The first Australian Orange Lodge was established in Melbourne in 1843. In 1846 there was a riot during a July 12 parade there and shots were fired. The Argus, a popular newspaper at the time, trumpeted the Orange cause, blaming the street disturbances on ``rabble of the lowest description'' from amongst the ``Irish papists''.

By 1848 there were also nine Lodges and about 5,000 Orangemen in Sydney. In November 1867, a Protestant hall in Melbourne displaying a large picture of King William III at the Boyne was stoned by Catholic Irish-Australians and the offended Orangemen opened fire on the crowd with rifles, killing an 11-year-old boy.

It was not until a man named Henry James O'Farrell attempted to assassinate the Duke of Edinburgh at a Sydney beachside gathering in March 1868 that the Orange Order reached its zenith in Australia. O'Farrell was a Fenian sympathiser and following his failed attempt on the life of Prince Alfred (the first royal to visit Australia) the number of Orange Lodges in New South Wales increased enormously.

By 1876 there were 19,000 Orangemen in over 120 lodges. Even in the small town of Kiama, in rural New South Wales, a concentrated burst of Ulster Protestant migration led to the establishment of no less than nine Orange Lodges and the naming of part of the local farming area as ``Loyal Valley''.

So divided was Australia following O'Farrell's attempted assassination that a bankrupt philanderer named Sir Henry Parkes was able to use anti-Catholic bigotry to eventually become New South Wales premier. Only slightly less opportunistic were the proprietors of a waxworks in Sydney's Pitt Street, who cashed in on the hysteria by modelling a life-size wax replica of O'Farrell, ``the most terrible spectre in sunny Australia's annals''. (Entrance was ``one shilling, children half-price''. ``Timid ladies'' beware.)

A few years thereafter, the Orange movement in Australia went into decline, although its modern remnants can still be seen in the sad, crumbling office of the NSW Loyal Orange Institution on Parramatta Road in Sydney. Essentially, the narrow bigotry of the Orange Order failed to make the transition into 20th century Australian political reality.

Since the outbreak of ``the Troubles'' in 1969 - which precipitated the flight of hundreds more Irish families to Australia - those Ulster Protestants who have come to Australia have generally shunned the antiquated intolerance of the Orange Order. While St Patrick's Day is still a large and popular cultural celebration, ``The Glorious Twelfth'' has fallen to rack and ruin in this country.

This is not to say that the Order has softened or completely disappeared. Last year, the Grand Secretary of the Orange Order in New South Wales wrote to the Irish Echo (an Irish-Australian community newspaper) and argued that ``the Orange Institution'' in Australia ``unashamedly continues to uphold and develop the Protestant faith, even if we don't have the numerical strength we had 100 years ago''.

The Grand Secretary insisted: ``What we may lack in quantity we like to feel we make up in quality. After all, Gideon defeated the whole Midianite army with only 300 men, so why should we be worried in contending for the faith, if the Lord is on our side?''

Time definitely isn't on their side. The Orange Order is a sectarian club that is slowly declining in Ireland and is on its death bed in Australia. As a supporter of the peace process and as an Irish-Australian, I will not mourn its passing.

An Phoblacht
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