Love it or loathe it, the Orange tradition is part of what we are
It's always been my ambition to escape Belfast on the Twelfth of July, but for various reasons, I've never managed it. Every year it sneaks up on me, and there I am again, feeling trapped. It's not like I haven't had plenty of warning. I mean, you couldn't miss those king-size Union flags everywhere, could you? Not to mention the numerous smaller parades in the run-up, and then the late night techno-thump of the Eleventh night bonfires, the noxious stench of burning tyres on the summer evening air. But it gets me every time.
Why do I have this urge to flee the Twelfth? Mainly because Orange culture feels alien to me. On that particular day of the year it takes over the entire place. The gut-thunder of the Lambeg drums, the skirling of the flutes, the triumphalism, the bowler hats, the piety, the provocation, the sashes, the anger. The sense of thwarted entitlement. The scurf of Blue WKD bottles that many band-followers leave in their wake. Worst of all, that distinctive, tense flammability in the air that I associate with the Twelfth: the feeling that something awful might be about to happen.
I know it's not the same in many country areas, where most parades are uncontentious and pass off peacefully. And I don't believe it was the same when I was growing up in a Co Down market town in the 1970s. I remember waving a little flag on a stick. I might even have had a tiny drum of my own to beat. Though I always hated the way the noisy blatter of the Lambegs echoed in the pit of my stomach. Later I came to connect that feeling of menace with the madness of Drumcree, the terrible deaths of the young Quinn brothers. And I've never forgotten the five white-gloved fingers that some Orange Order members held up as they marched past Sean Graham's bookmakers shop on the Ormeau Road, in 1992, to celebrate the murder of five people there by the UFF. The obscenity of that gesture is hard to erase from your mind.
So you might wonder why I was making my own solitary march up the Cregagh Road in Belfast last Monday morning, headed for the new Museum of Orange Heritage at Schomberg House on its first day of opening. Well, it's because I think this interpretive centre, funded by £3.6m of European peace money, is a good thing. The most interesting aspect of the Orange Order is its extraordinarily rich, strange and colourful history, and this museum has been established to tell that story. There's another outpost, opening soon, at Sloan's House in Loughgall.
Of course, the telling is done from the institution's particular perspective, and we could argue endlessly about its interpretation of historical events - the Battle of the Diamond, Dolly's Brae - but it's still a story well worth hearing. And it's also an opportunity to see some of the evocative artefacts it has kept tucked away in its treasure chest for centuries. There's an ornate brocade saddlecloth belonging to King William III, and a handwritten letter from him dating back to 1690, its red wax seals still intact. They've also got George Best's boyhood collarette - his father was a local master and apparently George himself "held the strings". My favourite part was the interactive display about the spread of Orangeism around the world: photographs from Ghana and Togo of African members on parade, resplendent in blinding white shirts and black bow ties, or Mohawk LOL no 99 marching in Ontario, Canada, with feathered head-dresses and fringed orange tunics. It makes you wonder just what the magic ingredient in Orange culture was that made it take root and flourish wherever it went.
As ever in Northern Ireland, it's the extremists - from whatever side - who grab the headlines and disgrace the moderates. The Orangemen who curated this collection are not cornerboys, hate-mongers or rabble-rousers. They're quiet, reflective men who derive a deep sense of identity from their history, and they have a true passion for sharing it with others. They're not afraid of disagreement and discussion; all they ask is that people hear them out. I don't think that's too much to ask. Whether you celebrate it or despise it, the Orange tradition is part of who we are as a people. So why not go and take a look?