I’ve talked about Orange Order marches before, as far back as my discussion on the event that inspired them. The practise of Protestant societies marching on the 12th of July had already caused a great deal of trouble, rioting and killings before 1849, and the activities of the Orange Order had brought a response from the Catholic underclass, in the form of the Ribbonmen, and from the authorities, in the form of mass banning of marching and societies. But still, the marching continued, as it continues to this day.
1849 was a flashpoint year, thanks to events in County Down, and a hill called Dolly’s Brae that lies between the towns of Rathfriland and Castlewellan. Sometime in the early 19th century, a young Catholic man had been killed there in a sectariannally motivated act, an event that generated colourful Catholic myth of a grieving mother demanding that the Orangemen never be allowed to use the pass through the Brae again. For many years since the incident, it was all rather academic, as the Orange Order simply diverted their usual route.
In 1848, that changed, partially in response to legislation banning marches, and partially in response to the growing nationalist fervour that would result in the Young Irelander Rebellion. That year, the local lodge attempted to march on the road that led through the Brae, which coincided with an almost entirely Catholic village called Maghheramayo. Local authorities stepped in and managed to persuade the Order to take a circuitous route, but the response of local Catholics, who jeered the lodge for supposed cowardice, meant that the inevitable clash was merely put off for a year.
In 1849, they were prepared to try again, and force the issue. The local Orange Order branch there, that summer, declared their intention to march in force from the town of Rathfriland to the estate of Robert Jocelyn, the Earl of Roden, who was serving as the Orange Order’s deputy grandmaster at the time. That route went right through Maghheramayo, and right through Dolly’s Brae.
I often find, in reporting of historical events, and even today, an unwillingness to state bluntly the reasoning behind these marches. That is, the real reason, which goes beyond a commemoration of the Boyne, a battle whose result has been largely exaggerated and aggrandised in Protestant folk memory. You can commemorate a battle many ways, and if its in the form of a march, it doesn’t have to go through a Catholic area. No, a large part of the purpose of these marches, then, now and as long as they continue, is to antagonise, disrespect and otherwise intimidate Catholic communities, as can be seen in the repeated choice of marching routes, which routinely, in history and the modern day, go out of their way to pass through largely Catholic and nationalist areas. It was the same in 1849, and it’s the same now, and I find it rather childish to pretend that this is not the case. It’s always my opinion that if you bait someone enough, you take some responsibility for their eventually violent actions in response.
That July morning, a body of assembled regular troops and local constabulary, in a bid to head off any violent encounter, occupied Dolly’s Brae. It was a prescient move, as local Catholics, identified since as Ribbonmen, were indeed planning an ambush, but stepped aside and waited nearby when they realised the pass was occupied. They were a mixed lot of men, women and even children from throughout the surrounding area, some with guns but most with scythes and pikes. Local priests attempted to interfere and get the coming strike called off, but without success.
The Orangemen, who might have numbered over a thousand and were well armed, marched through the village, and then through the Brae, without notable incident. Roden and others gave them addresses at his estate, and there is no indication that an attempt to curb the coming violence was attempted, such as, say, by advising the Order to march home by a different route.
That evening, the marchers turned for home, aiming straight through the Brae again. Once more, the authorities tried to intercede and ward off any confrontation, but this time their efforts were spoiled. As is typical, we will never know exactly what happened, who fired the first shot, and which side was responsible. Both accuse the other in sources, and its perfectly possible that both are incorrect. Whatever happened, a shot, or at least a sound similar to a shot, occurred, and then fighting began in earnest.
What transpired was essentially a small, disorganised skirmish, as both sides, those armed with guns anyway, fired at each other indiscriminately and without order. The constabulary forces found themselves under fire too, and rushed Ribbonmen positions on high ground, dispersing the Catholics. It was neither the first nor the last time that local police would all but side with the Orange Order in disputes with Catholics, but then again, in such a moment, it must have been hard to differentiate between who was firing at you and who wasn’t. Regardless, the Orange Order took advantage of the Catholics being driven back, setting several houses in the nearby village alight and continuing their fire, before a more general dispersal took place.
Maybe around 30 people were killed at the “Battle of Dolly’s Brae”, all of them Catholics. One member of the police was wounded. The Orange Order apparently suffered no casualties. In the aftermath, Roden was stripped of his magisterial powers, and more legislation was brought in to curb marches. But the events of Dolly’s Brae resonated beyond that year, passing into loyalist folk memory through a popular ballad, and cemented still further the sectarian animosity that was dominating Irish social, cultural and political life. The Orange Order and the Ribbonmen would clash again.
It was animosity of a similar kind that was producing the latest drama of the Irish military diaspora around the same time, across the Atlantic in Mexico, and that will be the focus of the next entry.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.