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Yes, our history's sensitive, but it deserves to be heard

Published 23/06/2015

Girls watch the start of the Orange Order parade in Belfast as the 12th of July celebrations get under way
Girls watch the start of the Orange Order parade in Belfast as the 12th of July celebrations get under way
Dr David Hume outside the new museum
A 1892 Unionist Convention Pin Badge and a Union is Strength Pin badge from 1912 at the new Orange Heritage centre

As a new Museum of Orange Heritage opens in Belfast and Loughgall, leading Orangeman Dr David Hume argues that closed minds must not prevail if we are to build a better future.

Being a pessimist in Northern Ireland is easy. The Grand Orange Lodge has just opened its Museum of Orange Heritage, a £3.6m project funded by the Peace III fund of the Special European Union Programmes Body, aimed at going beyond the stereotypical views of the Orange tradition.

Based at Schomberg House in Belfast and Sloan's House in Loughgall, the museum will take its place with other museums in Northern Ireland, telling our story through displays, audio-visual, unique artefacts and the opportunity for group dialogue. An extensive media campaign to highlight the museum and interpretive centres is under way.

But when one billboard was placed on the Crumlin Road (symbolically located between Clifton Street Orange hall and St Patrick's church), some residents at Carrick Hill complained. The billboard, while facing up towards the Orange hall, still caused offence to some on "the other side" of it. The result was that the landlord felt uneasy and the billboard was removed by the contractor.

How could anyone object to a billboard advertising a museum and interpretive centre, funded by the Peace III programme, and aimed at outreach and understanding? How could anyone object to a campaign slogan which proclaims that we wish to share our history so everyone can share the future?

It defies rational logic and explanation as to how this could be the case. The aim of the new facilities at Belfast and Loughgall is to set out Orange history and explain, with, it is to be hoped, a better sense for everyone of that tradition as a result.

It is a strong enough tradition in Ireland to be symbolically featured on the flag of the Republic, a flag designed by William Smith O'Brien in the 19th century. Green on the flag represents the nationalist tradition and white stands for peace between the Orange and the Green. Some in the republican community appear to need educating in that regard.

In the interpretive centre at Schomberg House in Belfast, visitors will hear audio of reflections by William III and James II after the Battle of the Boyne. We want to remind visitors of the Jacobite as well as the Williamite story, as we should.

The story of Orangeism is integrated with all the history surrounding it through the centuries. It is not a history without blemish, or contention, on any side of the argument. The Museum of Orange Heritage is an attempt to tell the story honestly.

That is why it is easy to be pessimistic when it seems that for some, any concept of a shared future does not involve us or the community which we represent. But while such attitudes are sad, they cannot be allowed to prevail.

It is important to learn and know about the past that has shaped us all; but no one should want to continue to live in the past. We should all be aiming to build for the future.

In the United States, where there was division every bit as deep in the 19th century as in our society, battles of the American Civil War are today re-enacted and attract large numbers. On one occasion, at the Battle of Nation's Ford re-enactment in North Carolina, I chatted to one of the re-enactors and asked how they decided which side they would be on. He smiled and explained that one day re-enactors were Confederates and the next day Union troops so that everyone was happy.

Across the world there are many examples where sensitive histories can be shared and appreciated when there is the will to do so. This process is never easy and will not be easy in our society. But it is not impossible.

As part of the planning for the Museum of Orange Heritage the funders asked that we have a committee of people from outside the Orange institution as a counter to any sense of the polemical straying into the arena.

Those who shared with us discussions on the interpretation included people from a nationalist background. Their input was very respectful, inquiring and helpful. The finished product is informed by the things they wanted to learn about the Orange Order.

As part of our outreach surrounding the Reach (Reaching out through education and cultural heritage) project, we have built up strong and lasting relationships with schools in the maintained sector and we deeply value and appreciate those links and friendships.

There is considerable interest in the classrooms in Roman Catholic communities and around 60% of our schools engagement has been with maintained schools. It is noticeable among our own membership and community that many who never learned about the Battle of the Boyne and most of the rest of Irish history during their time at school are enthused and excited by the prospects of the new centres. We hope they will be proud of what has been created to tell the story of their community.

A re-enactor friend and folk singer from North Carolina once told me that he felt if you did not know where you had come from, you could not know where you were going to.

Another person I know once told me that they thought the proper place for the Orange Order in the future was in a museum. It was not meant in a complimentary sense, but nevertheless the new Museum of Orange Heritage has arrived.

It will tell the story of our past and in so doing inform us for the future. We are not a dusty display in an antiquated museum. We are a living cultural tradition which has an important place in history and I hope an even more important role to play in our society in the years ahead.

I don't suppose there would be much point in taking the people who complained about our billboard through the museum. In all societies there are people with closed minds.

But I am optimistic that the majority of people in Northern Ireland want to move forward and to do so respecting their neighbours.

  • Dr David Hume MBE is director of services of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland and is also an author, historian and broadcaster

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