Belfast Telegraph

Orange Ku Klux Klan row artist McWilliams terrified by Twelfth and first depicted Order supporters as hooded racists during Drumcree

By Ivan Little

Artist Joe McWilliams, whose work of art depicting Orangemen as Ku Klux Klan fanatics in an Ulster Museum exhibition has caused a storm, included similar images of the American white supremacists in earlier paintings about the Drumcree stand-off, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

Two years ago, the north Belfast artist told this paper how he had been frightened of Orange parades in his youth and that he did not believe the Twelfth of July was any closer to becoming an all-inclusive celebration.

Mr McWilliams, who died last month, had been painting Orange parades for years, particularly as they went past St Patrick's Catholic church on Donegall Street in the centre of Belfast.

The work which has sparked the row is at the Royal Ulster Academy (RUA) exhibition at the Ulster Museum.

The painting, one of the 76-year-old artist's last, is his interpretation of an incident in which members of the Young Conway Volunteers marched in a circle outside St Patrick's in 2012 and played the Famine Song, though they claimed it was the Beach Boys hit Sloop John B.

Band members were later convicted of provocatively playing a sectarian song outside the church.

In the corner of the painting are five figures in white hoods and Orange sashes which are generally accepted as Mr McWilliams' representation of members of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Orange Order claimed the painting was offensive to their members and the TUV called for the work to be withdrawn from the exhibition.

Yesterday, the RUA put up a notice at the exhibition warning that some paintings might cause offence, but they refused to remove Mr McWilliams' work, which he called Christian Flautists Outside St Patrick's.

At the height of the Drumcree stand-off in the 90s, Mr McWilliams included Ku Klux Klan figures in a number of paintings about the controversy surrounding the Garvaghy Road impasse.

One painting, which included at least 15 people in Ku Klux Klan hoods, was later published on the cover of a reprint of a book by one of Northern Ireland's most acclaimed historians, ATQ Stewart.

The first edition of The Narrow Ground: Aspects of Ulster, 1609-1969 jointly won a prize set up in memory of Sir Christopher Ewart-Biggs, Britain's ambassador to Ireland, who was killed in an IRA bomb attack in Dublin in 1976.

The Rev Ian Paisley once held up the book in his church and said: "This is a great book which tells the truth about the history of Ulster."

It is understood there were no complaints after Mr McWilliams' Drumcree painting was used on the reprint. The painting is now in the hands of a private collector.

Mr McWilliams based all his paintings of Drumcree on TV footage and newspaper pictures, but he later contacted me and asked if I would let him accompany me to the Garvaghy Road where I was reporting on the stand-off for UTV. He did so but he was not able to get as close as he would have liked to the action and had to observe from a distance. Two years ago, he told me he was working on a painting about the Young Conway Volunteers marching outside St Patrick's in Belfast.

He said that he had been painting the Twelfth on an almost annual basis since 1958, when he went as an art student to City Hall to see the procession.

I asked him what the fascination was for someone who used to find Orangeism, especially the speeches at the fields, so terrifying.

He replied: "From childhood, I've always felt the Twelfth was something that I didn't really belong to. And as the years went, the parades become more linked to our local politics and aggression. I never saw the Twelfth as a folk parade. It was more militaristic, but at the same time there was always so much colour, which is great for an artist. For me, it's like a mixed metaphor of everything that is going on here."

Mr McWilliams said he often used to ask himself if the Twelfth could ever become like Bastille Day in France where "people have long forgotten the politics of the revolution but have turned the commemoration into a French National Day of celebration".

Mr McWilliams answered his own question two years ago when he said: "Somehow I think we're further away from that than we ever were," little realising that a furore over one of his Orange paintings would erupt less than a month after he passed away.

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