The secret history of early Orangeism…


THIS MONTH in 1795 saw high tensions in Armagh and the event known in history as the Battle of the Diamond.

This skirmish has long-lasting impact on Irish history, not because of the outcome of the battle but of what came out of the event itself.

After the battle, local Protestants, who had been in the centre of a tense and volatile area where retaliations were the norm, decided to band together in mutual protection. But after the battle, what really happened next?

orange medal
An early Orange medal

Who was involved in the early Orange Order, what influenced the new organisation, and how, within a few short years, had its headquarters moved from James Sloan’s Inn at Loughgall to the metropolitan setting of Dublin?

The Battle of the Diamond, it is worth saying, did not occur in isolation. And the focus on the Orange story after the Diamond was not an accident of history or of random inspiration. To begin with, the Orange tradition had been a long-standing one in Irish Protestant society.  In the years after the Glorious Revolution, Protestants had celebrated the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in July, or William III’s birthday in November. William had been seen as the deliverer of Protestantism and Protestants in Ireland and at the higher level of society banquets were held to mark these occasions. In Dublin an organisation called the Aldermen of Skinners Alley was comprised initially of Protestant alderman who had been thrown off the city corporation during the Jacobite Ascendancy, and had immediate reason to celebrate the legacy of William. At the other end of the social spectrum were the Boyne Societies, initially formed of men who had fought for William at the Boyne and elsewhere. We know little of the structure or activities of these societies but we do know that they were widespread and that after the Orange Institution was formed they continued to function, amalgamating in most if not all cases with the new structure.

A sense of the importance to the Protestant community of the Boyne societies is that they may have crossed the Atlantic with 18th century emigration movement. There is a long-standing historical tradition that Ulster Protestant emigrants in the Appalachians were called King Billy’s Men because of their adherence to the folk history of William of Orange. I found that this certainly pertained to a music tradition in the 1990s when I met a folksinger from Edneyville, North Carolina, called Robbie Gilbert. We were at a re-enactment weekend at the Elijah Clarke State Park in Lincolnton, Georgia, and discussion centred on the folk culture which emigrants might have taken with them. Robbie played a tune on his guitar which had come down the generations among the mountain people. He did not know what the tune was called or anything other than its basic provenance. He played Lillieburlero, the William march, the tune which was said to have chased James II from three kingdoms. But there was perhaps more than the music by way of historical legacy. During the Revolutionary War, General Cornwallis attempted to capture the south as part of a pincer against Washington in the north. But he stirred up a hornets nest in the Appalachian states. At Sycamore Shoal’s in Tennessee, the Over Mountain Men assembled to take on the British and Tory force moving north from Georgia. Rev. Samuel Doak, a Presbyterian minister from the Sixmilewater Valley in County Antrim, delivered a fiery sermon to the crowds that were gathered and there were rousing cheers at the instruction to go forward “by the sword of the lord and of Gideon”. These specifically chosen words and their connection to Orange Order ritual are either an outstanding coincidence or they hint at the deeper reason for the term King Billy’s Men from the Mountains.

Am Revolution
A marker in North Carolina highlights the route of the Over Mountain Men to battle in 1780; were they Orangemen in all but name?

If that is the case, there is a parallel with the formation of the Orange Institution just 15 years after the Ulster American victory at Kings Mountain in October 1780. The parallel is that in times of trouble, the Protestant community looked to a sense of security. The motto from the Revolution to ‘trust in God but keep your powder dry’ was highly apt.

There were at least two other groups who are important players on the stage of Irish history relating to the Orange tradition. One is, again, at the upper end of the social scale. The Masonic Order was widespread in Ireland and an extremely important fraternity with strongly ritualistic overtones. Interestingly it is in the Masonic Order that we find the strongest connections to the Orange Institution of the 1790s, both in terms of terminology and also in relation to the structure, ritual and symbolism of the new organisation formed in 1795. George Benn in his detailed History of Belfast from the 19th century mentions an Orange Lodge in the city in 1784, noting that the members processed through the city to publicly donate towards creation of a Market House in the city.  The significance of William III as a bringer of civil and religious liberty was an important factor in Masonic attachment, and the Masonic Order played an important role in the structure of Orangeism.

trowbridge ontario
Orangemen in Trowbridge, Ontario; the organisation quickly spread to Protestant settlements across the world, and with Protestant emigrants

The second grouping which was significant in terms of the development period of early Orangeism was the organisation known as the Peep o’ Day Boys. This was a group which was dedicated to depriving Catholics of weaponry, hence the title accorded to the fact that they raided homes at break of day. Most historians would detail the economic background to these raids and the fact that looms were often broken up suggests an ulterior reason for the activities. The discovery of what are believed to be temporary settlements of refugees from this ‘linen war’ in Galway recently lends credence to the displacement which occurred due to the activities of the Peep o’ Day Boys.[1] Historians disagree as to whether the Peep o’ Day Boys became the Orange Order or not. What we do know from contemporary documents is that some certainly made their way elsewhere; the diary of John Blair’s voyage from Larne to South Carolina in 1796, for example, notes the presence on the Sally of Savannah of both members of the Catholic Defenders and Protestant Peep o’ Day Boys; Blair tells us that the argument between the groups continued on the high seas, for around 6am on June 19, 1796, there was “a general scuffle between the parties we have on board, namely Defenders, or Roman Catholics, and Break of Day Boys, or Protestants. It was occasioned by the former accusing the latter of a murder committed in Ireland; they intend going to law as soon as we arrive in America.”

The Peep o’ Day Boys, whether some of them joined the Orange Order, certainly informed the progress of the new Order: most likely in the direction of ensuring that it was more controlled and structured.

The Peep o’ Day Boys were certainly what appears to have been a reason for the battle ground being determined for the Diamond outside Loughgall in September 1795. Armagh was a place of considerable tensions and often deadly attacks.  The rise of the Defenders is clearly charted through the 1790s and the most notorious, brutal and murderous attack was that at Forkhill on the schoolmaster Alexander Barclay, who opened his door at night on the voice of his neighbour Terence Byrne, to be violently assaulted, his tongue and fingers cut off, his wife similarly brutally assaulted and subsequently dying, and her 13 year-old brother also savagely attacked. This 1791 outrage resulted in one man being hanged. But while it was the most brutal it was not isolated.

Prior to the Diamond attack there had been many other incidents, including in June 1795 when two large bodies believed to be Peep o’ Day Boys and Defenders were prevented from attacking each other by a party of militia. During the summer there had been several small affrays in the vicinity of the Diamond crossroads and Defenders came from farther afield to join these.  In September 1795 explanations as to why the Defenders emerged at the Diamond include;

  1. As already related, the area had become a cockpit of intermittent conflict
  2. It has been suggested that it was believed by the Defenders that the Peep o’ Day Boys met at Dan Winter’s inn,
  3. and/or that Dan Winter was a member of the organisation.
  4. that the location was strategically important owing to its location and could have been a significant ‘bridgehead’ for the Defenders in continuing attrition, leading to the flight of Protestants from the area
Memorial at the Diamond in County Armagh commemorating the battle in September 1795

This makes rational sense of the assembly of Defenders to attack the Diamond in September 1795. Herewood Senior outlines that there was serious trouble in the Spring of 1795, when a Defender was beaten by Peep o’ Day Boys during a cock-fight at Dan Winter’s Inn at the Diamond, and that retaliations had continued in the interim, despite efforts by the authorities to curb them.  The Battle of the Diamond was therefore another aspect of ongoing troubles. We know that the Defenders came into the area from September 14 and that there were attacks on Protestants and their houses in the Tentaraghan area, with some Defenders houses then being attacked in retaliation.  On 18th September a gravel pit at Annaghmore was taken possession of by around 500 Defenders, while local Protestants, greatly alarmed, assembled on Cranagill Hill opposite.  One of the Defenders was killed that morning in a skirmish near Teaguy or Teague nearby.

Defenders from as far away as Monaghan, Lough and Tyrone, appear to have assembled on a hilltop overlooking the Diamond and this was soon responded to by Protestants assembling on the adjacent hill. The Diamond was a strategic area and consisted of around 14 cottages, four or five of which were inhabited by members of the Winter family. Despite efforts at negotiation by landlords and Roman Catholic clergy, which resulted in a short-lived truce, on September 21, 1795, the skirmish at the Diamond took place, with considerable loss to the Defenders. It has been suggested that almost 50 of them were killed and only one Protestant wounded.

And in the aftermath of the Battle, history tells us that the Orange Institution was formed.

The story as to how it was formed offers options;

  1. the Institution was formed in the back garden of Dan Winter’s cottage after the end of the battle
  2. The Institution was formed at James Sloan’s Inn in the aftermath of the Battle

On the face of it an incompatibility exists between the Order being formed in Winter’s garden and at Sloan’s public house.  Rev. John Brown suggests that

“It is very probable that a meeting of some kind was held at the Diamond on the day of the fight, and that a decision was taken to form an organised society to counteract the existing organisation of the Defenders…It is not so likely that what finally seems to have been a fairly elaborate ritual and secret system of signs and passwords was devised at such a meeting under such circumstances. A more accurate guess may be that this was done either that same evening, or very shortly afterwards, in James Sloan’s inn at Loughgall, according to a decision already made at the Diamond.”[2]

Brown makes the point that the Peep o’ Day Boys do not appear to have had any systematic method of recognition or assembling. Another possibility for the meeting at Winter’s (at a bush beside a spring well, we are told) could be that it involved existing Peep o’ Day Boys and that discussion was about a more structured approach suggested by someone such as James Wilson of the Dyan, who was present at the Diamond with his Orange Club members.

Brown may be accurate in what he suggests about the meeting in Dan Winter’s garden (his house was by that stage roofless after a concerted attack):

“May we suggest that, if any form of initiation took place that day at or near Dan Winter’s house, it was James Wilson and his men who admitted certain people, whom they thought they could trust, to the secret means of recognition belonging to their own society? These were already devised. The idea would have been to extend the existing organisation to cover County Armagh, and the meeting at James Sloan’s Inn in Loughgall on the same evening falls naturally enough into place. It would have been a meeting of those already initiated, for the purpose of initiating others and for making preliminary plans for the fuller extension of the society.”[3]

A weapon in the Orange museum in Loughgall, believed to have been used at the Battle of the Diamond

Wilson was the man who received the first Orange warrant from James Sloan, while the Diamond men received No. 118 eventually, suggesting some form of disagreement or schism initially. The first several warrants of the new organisation all went to Orange Clubs, including Derryscallop, Derryaughill and Knocknacloy, something which Rev. Brown did not see as a matter of chance as was suggested by R. M. Sibbett in 1939. The traditional story of how the first warrant was issued was now the men from the Diamond arrived at Sloan’s and sought it, but were sent out for paper and ink by Sloan, who was working in his garden. While they were away, Wilson arrived on the same mission and when told that ink was being sought, he is supposed to have broken a twig of hyssop from a tree in the garden and asked Sloan to write with it (possibly in Wilson’s blood). When this was done the Loughgall party was so upset they did not seek a warrant until 117 others had been issued. This story seems almost allegorical, especially considering that hyssop was symbolically a tree of eternal truth from Biblical times, so perhaps this reference was ritualistic and clear to the initiated. What the truth of the story, the first warrant went to the Orange Boys.

The Orange Club or Orange Boys of Dyan had been formed by James Wilson after an incident in Benburb in which Defenders had been abusive to local Protestants after a funeral and he had sought support from fellow members of the Masonic Order. It was St. John’s Day, June 24, 1794. Protestants who had gone to Benburb to defend their co-religionists had often ended up fighting each other, so Wilson’s motive appears to have been a uniform structure and response.  The Masonic Order members were reluctant to accede to his request and as a consequence he supposedly stormed from their meeting saying that he would light a star in Dyan that would eclipse them forever. He found a more ready response in men including Isaac Jeffs and bothers John and Abraham Dilly, who lived near Moy, and they devised a constitution, signs and passwords for the Orange Clubs. These Clubs would have provided a strength to the fledgling Orange body, to which was added a more detailed ritual. The fact that the first warrants went to them suggests a deal between Wilson and the others and Sloan.

An early Orange seal on a member’s certificate

Interestingly, the founders of the Orange Order were Freemasons; Wilson, Sloan and Winter were all members of the fraternity. Wilson was a member of Caledon Lodge No. 333, Sloan and the Winters members of Loughgall Lodge No. 603. Other Masons are recorded as having helped set down the ritual; Captain John Gifford is said to have helped devise the ritual and he was a Freemason and an officer of the Royal Dublin Militia. He is placed at Loughgall when the first meeting takes place. Another Freemason, John Templeton, is said to have helped introduce a higher degree at a meeting at which Dan Winter was present the following year, this being the Marksman or Plain Purple degree.

The prevalence of early degrees resulted in considerable debate within the early Orange movement. Aiken McClelland, Orange historian, notes that for the next 30 years the Orange Order, under the influence of brethren who were also members of the Knights of Malta, “formed the basis for an amazing number of degrees.”[6] The debate of degrees would lead to much discussion for a number of years and it is clear that the structure involved had borrowed from the Knights of Malta and Masonic Orders. Ironically, early Orangeism shared at least the influence of structural ancestry with the Defenders organisation;

 “Like the Defenders and nearly all contemporary fraternal societies, the new Orange Society took the Masonic Lodges as its model, and many early Orangemen were also Masons. Meetings and initiation ceremonies were held behind hedges and in ruined buildings, attended by armed members…”[7]

 As time went on, the system changed to ensure greater control; the introduction of the Purple or Marksman degree required members to swear not to initiate members into the Order ‘on roads or behind hedges’.[8] 

 This change happened quite quickly; within a year, it would seem. Another change which seems to have occurred quite rapidly also involved the leadership of the organisation. Some local gentry, such as the Blackers of Carrickblacker, William Brownlow of Lurgan, and the Verners of Churchill were involved with the early Order. Others were opposed but in the turbulent era of the 1790s it became clear that the existence of a body of men who foreswore loyalty to Crown and Constitution could be useful.  Thomas Knox MP of Dungannon was reflective;

“As to the Orange Men we have a rather difficult card to play, they must not either be entirely discountanced, on the contrary, we must, in a certain degree, uphold them, for, with all their licentiousness, on them we must rely for the preservation of our lives and properties, should critical times occur. We do not suffer them to parade, but at the same time, applaud them for their loyal professions. I hope I shall be able to manage it with our Tyrone people that they shall not be lost to the cause of their King and Country and at the same time, be kept within due bounds.”[9]

Orangemen were viewed with potential fear by the gentry, because they represented an independent and potentially volatile force in society. The much stated ethos of equality within the lodges, mentioned in subsequent generations, may not have been or be seen as such a virtue in Protestant Establishment Ireland, where the fabric of society seemed under considerable onslaught. Efforts were quickly made to ensure that the early Orange Order was controlled and channelled.

Orangemen were soon to be found in the ranks of the local yeomanry, and often whole lodges formed yeomanry units.  But that was not without concerns to the authorities: Thus, when two local Orange societies were encouraged to form yeomanry corps near Saintfield and Downpatrick in 1798, John Waring Maxwell, who entered into an arrangement with the societies, had to accept their electing their own leaders from the lodges as yeomanry officers. The fear of the authorities over loss of control was also revealed in a comment from Alexander Knox to Sir George Fitzgerald Hill in County Londonderry; “I hear of an Orange lodge in Derry. I trust you and your connection will keep clear…”

However, local gentry became increasingly involved in the organisation – historian Allan Blackstock suggests as a means of controlling the new combinations that were being formed among tenants.  The newly formed Orange Order, while professing loyalty, was a body which caused concern because it came from lower social roots; the founders of the Order included a Presbyterian farmer from Tyrone and an innkeeper from Armagh, for example, while many of the members were undoubtedly tenant farmers and labourers. Historians would see little coincidence in the fact that within three years of its foundation, the balance of power had been shifted from Sloan’s Inn at Loughgall to Dawson Street in the centre of Dublin.

By 1797 Thomas and David Verner had formed an Orange Lodge in Dublin, No. 176, which was to prove extremely influential, attracting some of the prominent of the Protestant nobility. A Grand Lodge was formed in Portadown in July 1797 but probably due to the influence of LOL 176 in attracting members of the nobility and gentry the Grand Lodge of Ireland was formed in April 1798 in or near Verner’s house at Dawson Street in the city. This signified a new chapter in the history of the development of Orangeism and to some extent the closing chapter of the early formative period. The founding fathers, Wilson, Sloan, Winter, all move off the centre stage and are replaced by others whose social standing is greater. Brown reminds us of this;

“On the occasion of a great Orange demonstration on the 12th of July, 1797, a Grand Lodge had been formed in Portadown. James Sloan, Dan Winter, James Wilson and their like retired from notice, and William Blacker, Thomas Verner, David Verner, and Thomas Seaver of Armagh, Dr. William Atkinson and William Hart of Antrim, and John Crossle of Tyrone, with Wolsey Atkinson as acting Grand Secretary, took over the direction of Orangeism.”[10]

Interesting questions remain and may never be fully answered. There were other organisations in existence prior to the Battle of the Diamond; the Orange Clubs, the Peep o’ Day Boys, Boyne Societies and others. The exact balance of their early involvement remains unclear. The influence of the Masonic Order in terms of the ritual, structure and influence of the early Orange Order also remains unquantifiable. There is debate as to the decision to form the new organisation and the issuing of the warrants is a grey area.  One thing is very clear, however, which is the potential of the new organisation to be more appealing, more structured and more durable than any of its predecessors.

The Battle of the Diamond was really only a skirmish in the context of numbers involved and fatalities. The ‘whinny hill’ where the men of Dyan are supposed to have taken their oath as Orange Boys was hardly an icon historical site. But those places are landmarks in the evolution and development of an organisation which would become an institution and would spread and be known in many parts of the English speaking world.

The motive was very clear in the Armagh of the 1790s: quite literal protection of Protestants and their property. The means was through establishment of a structured network of defensive bodies, to be known as lodges, and brought together under a centralised control. Some historians argue that this structure in itself was enough to counter the Defenders and prevent further outrages. And the opportunity was to a large extent the events of September 1795, because they focused in a very real way the dangers which had to be overcome – about which people were “encompassed” to quote Orange ritual. Opportunities also existed in terms of connections with the Orange Clubs and the Masonic structures which the founders were familiar with. Out of that was created a new structure with signs and passwords which were then much more than speculative, as lives could have depended on them.

It is generally accepted that the Orange Order was born following the Battle of the Diamond. But there are many intriguing questions surrounding those few days in September 1795 and what followed on from them. The subsequent history of Orangeism is well documented but perhaps that little less intriguing.

An old Orange certificate; the early structure, ritual and symbols of the organisation owed much to the Masonic Order and the chief founding fathers of the Institution were all Freemasons
[1] Archaeology Magazine, 2017; 220 Year old refugee camp found near Galway
[2] Rev. John Brown in Orangeism a new historical appreciation, Belfast, 1967
[3] Brown, op cit, p99
[4] Quoted in Sibbett, History of Orangeism in Ireland and throughout the Empire
[5] Sibbett, op cit, p290. Underline emphasis mine.
[6] Aiken McClelland, ‘The Origin of the Imperial Black Chapter of the British Commonwealth’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries in Ireland, 1968, Vol. 98
[7] Hereward Senior, The Early Orange Order, 1795-1870, in Williams, ed, Secret Societies in Ireland, Dublin, 1973
[8] Op cit, p39
[9] An Ascendancy Army. The Irish Yeomanry 1796 – 1834, Allan Blackstock, Four Courts Press, 1998
[10] Brown, p107