Byzantine rituals of the Orange Order

Posted By: July 12, 2005

Byzantine rituals of the Orange Order

Irish Times. Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Our Fathers knew thee, Rome of old, And evil is
thy fame . . . From Hymn 757 of the Free
Presbyterian Hymnal, writes Fiachra Gibbons.

This morning in Belfast as the embers of the 11th
Night bonfires die away and the last remaining
revellers stagger home for a few hours sleep
before the drum and skirl of the first parade,
Orangemen and women will innocently rise to
perform rituals that far predate the Order or
even King Billy himself.

While their many detractors scoff at this
“festival of chauvinism and invented tradition”,
the truth is that Orange parades have in them
something of the most dazzling city of the
ancient world and a culture now so exotically
remote that few of the marchers – and probably
fewer of those ranged up behind the British army
“spit screens” to protest against them – will
ever have heard of it.

For generations Ulster Protestants have looked
into the deep past for solace, justification, or
some precedent for their predicament, often
seeing themselves as “the lost tribe of Israel”.
But all along the answer was in the place they
least expected . . . Orangemen may well be the
last of the Romans.

Unlikely as this sounds, if you stand back and
view today’s Orange Order parades through the
prism of their symbolism, their dogged adherence
to traditional routes, and even the order of the
processions, all roads lead to Rome – and even
more so to the new Rome that was Byzantium, the
capital from which the Eastern Roman Empire took
its name.

Rome is of course a very tricky concept in the
tightly marshalled mental landscape of your
average Orangemen. No other word in the loyalist
lexicon quite has the resonance of the four
letters that spell out that “cesspit of evil and
error”, as Dr Ian Paisley put it, the seat of the
“anti-Christ”. But the rule of Rome is all over
today’s parades for those who care to look hard

Let’s start with the obvious. The Twelfth parades
are in essence posthumous Roman triumphs for the
men who returned victorious from the Boyne and
such good fun their descendants decided to
perform them in perpetuity. True, no cowed
barbarian kings are led in chains behind a
chariot to be pilloried by the rabble, they tend
now to be burned in effigy on the “bonny” the
night before, but there are still plenty of
colourful triumphal arches to be marched under
and stretches of disputed streets to be stamped.

However, it really gets interesting when you
look, as Catherine Burns, of Queen’s University’s
Institute of Byzantine Studies, has at the
parallels with the eastern capital,
Constantinople, one of the few cities in history
whose passion for parades can stand comparison to
Belfast’s annual roll call of more than 200. (Nor
is she alone in her suspicions: Lorna Graham of
Cambridge University drew similar conclusions in
another paper to a major conference earlier this
year at the institute, one of Europe’s finest ).

Constantinople (modern Istanbul) was the “second
Rome” and imperial capital for 13 centuries till
it fell to the Turks in 1453. Even today its few
remaining hard-pressed Greeks call themselves oi
Romoi or Romans.

Like their Belfast brethren, a siege mentality
inevitably developed as waves of barbarian Arab
and Mongol hordes tried to breach their walls. At
times of crisis, like the Avar siege of 626 while
the Emperor Heraclius was away pillaging Persia,
the holiest icons of the saints as well as the
city’s unrivalled collection of relics were
paraded round the city walls. Faced with the
sight of so many bits of blessed limbs being
waved at them, the Avars miraculously melted away
and the city was saved. Its clear Orange
equivalent, the Siege of Derry in 1690, is also
marked by a parade around the city walls where
the iconic banners of the Rev George Walker, who
led the defenders in prayer, are held aloft with
those of the other Orange “saints”, Luther,
William of Orange and Carson.

Where the Byzantines had their miracle-working
icons, the loyal orders have their banners, which
Ms Burns claims are accorded a reverence almost
akin to holy relics. In a further mirror of the
icon tradition, Orange banners tend to follow
strict, unchanging designs.

The parallels keep piling up. Byzantine
processions also stuck to anointed routes, just
as Belfast is criss-crossed with equally
traditional Orange routes that years of parading
have rendered sacred. Any deviation risked
breaking the protective spell on God’s chosen

Politics, religion and monarchy were bound
together in other ways Orangemen would recognise,
Ms Burns argues. “The symbolic message of the
Byzantine processions was that Constantinople and
its emperor was supernaturally protected and as
long as its population carry out the rituals
appointed by the church, this protection would

“The message of the Orange parades is the same.
God protected and supported the Protestant
religion and Protestant monarchy in the past; if
the people continue in their faith then the
political system will be sustained.” Yet perhaps
the most intriguing link is with King Billy. The
classic gable wall mural of William on his white
charger rearing over the defeated corpse of
Catholicism springs directly from the dragon-
slaying St George, the most popular saint in

Fiachra Gibbons is a journalist with the Guardian
who is currently writing a history of the
southern Balkans