The early years
Throughout the 1780s sectarian tension had been building until boiling point in County Armagh. Here the number of Protestants and Catholics in what was then Ireland’s most populous county were of roughly equal number and competition between them to rent patches of land near markets was fierce. Dr. William Richardson stated in a detailed analysis of the situation in 1797:
“Much offence had lately been taken because the Catholics in the general increase in wealth had raised the price of land by bidding high when it became vacant. This was the real cause of our ill-humour: [not] the relaxation of the popery laws but the pretence.”
By 1786, drunken brawls in the Markethill area of County Armagh between groups known as the Bawn Fleet, Bunkerhill Defenders, and the Nappach Fleet had become openly sectarian, despite originating in a quarrel between two Presbyterians. They then reorganised as the Protestant Peep o’ Day Boysand the Catholic Defenders. The next decade in County Armagh was marked by a raging sectarian conflict between both groups.
Lord Gosford observed of the Peep o’ Day Boys that they were a “low set of fellows who with guns and bayonets, and other weapons break open the houses of the Roman Catholicks, and as I am informed treat many of them with cruelty”. Some Protestant gentry gave weapons to Catholics so that they could defend themselves. Soon, however, guns were also being given out to the “Protestant Boys” to defend them from attacks by Catholics.
The sectarian violence soon spread to south Armagh were Catholics were a majority and turned on the Protestants “with a ferocity not seen for more than a century”. The point of no return occurred on 28 January 1791, when Catholics cut off the tongue and fingers of Mr Barkeley, a popular schoolmaster from Forkhill and his wife. As “the same hereditary enmities handed down from generation to generation” raged to the fore, violence spread to neighbouring counties.
In July 1795 a Reverend Devine had held a sermon at Drumcree Church to commemorate the “Battle of the Boyne”. In his History of Ireland Vol I (published in 1809), the historian Francis Plowden described the events that followed this sermon:
“Reverend Devine so worked up the minds of his audience, that upon retiring from service, on the different roads leading to their respective homes, they gave full scope to the anti-papistical zeal, with which he had inspired them… falling upon every Catholic they met, beating and bruising them without provocation or distinction, breaking the doors and windows of their houses, and actually murdering two unoffending Catholics in a bog. This unprovoked atrocity of the Protestants revived and redoubled religious rancour. The flame spread and threatened a contest of extermination…”
Battle of the Diamond
In September 1795 at a crossroads known as “The Diamond”, near Loughgall. Defenders and Peep o’ Day Boys gathered to fight each other. This initial stand-off ended without battle when the priest that accompanied the Defenders persuaded them to seek a truce after a group called the “Bleary Boys” came from County Down to reinforce the Peep o’ Day Boys. When a contingent of Defenders from County Tyrone arrived on 21 September, however, they were “determined to fight”.The Peep o’ Day Boys quickly regrouped and opened fire on the Defenders According to William Blacker the battle was short and the Defenders suffered “not less than thirty” deaths.
After the battle had ended, the Peep o’ Days marched into Loughgall, and in the house of James Sloan they founded the Orange Order, which was to be a Protestant defense association made up of lodges. The principle pledge of these lodges was to defend “the King and his heirs so long as he or they support the Protestant Ascendancy. At the start the Orange Order was a “parallel organisation” to the Defenders in that it was a secret oath-bound society that used passwords and signs.
One of the very few landed gentry that joined the Orange Order at the outset, William Blacker, was ill-pleased at some of the outcomes of the Battle of the Diamond. He says that a determination was expressed to “driving from this quarter of the county the entire of its Roman Catholic population”, with notices posted warning them “to Hell or Connaught”. Other people were warned by notices not to inform on local Orangemen or “I will blow your soul to the low hills of Hell and burn the house you are in”. Within two months, 7000 Catholics had been driven out of County Armagh.
According to Lord Gosford, the governor or Armagh:
‘It is no secret that a persecution is now raging in this country… the only crime is… profession of the Roman Catholic faith. Lawless banditti have constituted themselves judges… and the sentence they have denounced… is nothing less than a confiscation of all property, and an immediate banishment’
Two former Grand Masters of the Order William Blacker and Robert Hugh Wallace, have questioned this statement, saying whoever the Governor believed were the “lawless banditti” they could not have been Orangemen as there were no lodges in existence at the time of his speech. According to historian Jim Smyth:
Later apologists rather implausibly deny any connection between the Peep-o’-Day Boys and the first Orangemen or, even less plausibly, between the Orangemen and the mass wrecking of Catholic cottages in Armagh in the months following ‘the Diamond’ — all of them, however, acknowledge the movement’s lower class origins.
The Order’s three main founders were James Wilson (founder of the Orange Boys), Daniel Winter and James Sloan. The first Orange lodge was established in nearby Dyan, County Tyrone, and its first grand master was James Sloan of Loughgall. Its first ever marches were to celebrate the “Battle of the Boyne” and they took place on 12 July 1796 in Portadown, Lurgan and Waringstown.