Can Orange mix with Green? St Patrick's Day and the Irish Protestant tradition
The 17th March, St Patrick's Day, is recognised as a celebration of Irishness around the world. Yet somehow, even though there are almost a million Protestants living on the island of Ireland, Irishness is often equated with Catholicism in many people's minds.
The truth is not so simple. This article is the story of how Irish Protestants have engaged with St Patrick's Day in the past, and how the peace process in Northern Ireland is once again changing how they relate to 17th March.
As Irish Protestants rediscover their relationship with the island's patron saint, St Patrick's Day poses the question: can Orange mix with Green?
St Patrick was captured as a young man by Irish pirates and taken from his home in Britain to the north of Ireland where he was sold into slavery. His own letters record that it was during this bleak time that he found God. Although he escaped to France after a couple of years, Patrick later chose to return to Ireland and work to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. He is credited with establishing Christianity on the island, as well as a wealth of miracles and legendary stories such as banishing the snakes out of Ireland.
St Patrick has often been portrayed as bringing Catholicism to Ireland, but at this time there was no such religious distinction. Patrick lived one thousand years before the Reformation and five hundred years before the split between the Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholicism. In fact the Christian Church structure established by Patrick evolved quite separately from the control of the Papacy, so much so that in the twelfth century Pope Adrian wrote to King Henry II of England and asked him to invade Ireland so that the Irish could be 'civilized'. At the time Henry refused - Ireland wasn't worth the trouble!
Irish Protestants and dual belonging
British settlers 'planted' to Ireland in the 17th century were very different to the native Irish - they spoke English or Scots rather than Gaelic, they lived and farmed differently, they were loyal subjects of the British Crown and they were Protestant rather than Catholic. They were the British-in-Ireland and that sense of dual-belonging continues among the Irish Protestant community to this day.
The majority of Protestant Irish are descended from these 17th century settlers. Although a few native Irish converted to Protestantism, whether out of conviction or an attempt to rise up the socio-economic ladder, the vast majority of the native Irish population remained Catholic.
A society grew up where the members of different religious denominations lived separate lives, rarely inter-married, and where each kept group its own separate identity. Protestants in Ireland generally saw themselves as British citizens, equal to English or Scottish. They were Irish by birth but belonged to the British political and cultural world.This has led to them having a unique and complex sense of identity.
Scots-Irish and the beginnings of St Patrick's Day in America
In the eighteenth century up to a quarter of a million Protestants living in the north of Ireland immigrated to the United States. These were mainly Ulster-Scots or Scots-Irish people. Although St Patrick's Day is a religious holiday in the Catholic calendar, it may come as a surprise to realize that the first Irish Americans to organize public celebrations for St Patrick's Day were from the Protestant Ulster-scots tradition.
The first St Patrick's Day parade ever recorded in the world took place in Boston on 18th March 1737. However at this time, Boston had no significant Catholic Irish community. The parade was organized by the Irish Society of Boston, a group of merchants and tradesmen who had emigrated from Ulster, the northern province of Ireland. The vast majority of them were members of the Protestant tradition.
In 1780 George Washington allowed his Irish troops to have a holiday from the War of Independence on 17th March. These troops were, again, almost universally of Scots-Irish stock. Obviously they saw Saint Patrick's Day as an important part of their cultural heritage, rather than an exclusively-Catholic holiday.
Protestants and St Patricks Day in Ireland
In the 18th century, St Patrick was seen as a figure that Irish people of all backgrounds could celebrate. Church of Ireland buildings from this time are often named St Patrick's.
However by the twentieth century a new idea of Catholic Irishness, independent from Britain, was being firmly promoted in Ireland. At the same time Protestants on the island fought hard to maintain their political links with Britain, and they became more reluctant to think of themselves as Irish.
In the fight for what 'Irish' meant, St Patrick was claimed for the Catholics. Protestants retreated into celebrating their 'differentness' from the Catholic Irish on Orange Day, 12th July. This led to two very separate identities based around green and orange as symbols for the two Irish traditions. Mixing was not encouraged and could get very complicated as shown by the song 'The Orange and the Green':
"Oh, it is the biggest mix-up that you have ever seen.
My father, he was Orange and me mother, she was green."
Nowhere was this more evident than in Northern Ireland. This small state was set up in 1921 and had a majority Protestant population, but also a substantial Catholic population. The lines of tribal belonging and demarcation run deep and were deepened by the sustained violence of 'the Troubles' which lasted from 1969 to 1998.
Yet the peace process which has evolved since the Belfast Agreement in 1998 is having a remarkable effect on the Northern Irish Protestant sense of identity. They are beginning to engage once again, with the history and heritage of the island on which they live, as well as with the unique contribution which their ancestors have brought to Ireland.
Saint Patrick is once again coming to be seen as a shared figure. Even the traditional bastions of Northern Irish Protestantism are opening up to hold St Patrick's Day celebrations. A local Orange Hall near where I live is opening its doors on the evening of 17th March for a night of festivities, including Ulster-Scots music and traditional Irish dancing. This would have been unthinkable a decade or two ago, and is a remarkable sign of change in Northern Irish society.
St Patrick as a shared figure
St Patrick's place in Irish Catholicism is assured, but is heartening to see Irish Protestants re-engage with the island's patron saint.
Since as early as 2004 the Orange Order in Ireland has been moving to reclaim St Patrick with celebrations on 17th March. As reported in the Irish News, a spokesman said St Patrick was "one of those rare people whose importance to our island is recognized equally by both main traditions. According to legend St Patrick began his Christian ministry in Ireland over 1,500 years ago here in Co Antrim. As the Order is the province's largest cultural/religious group, St Patrick has a particularly special significance for local Orangemen,".
It is an important point that St Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, not any particular denomination. There is a strong Evangelical tradition among Northern Irish Protestants and this further helps them to engage with St Patrick, as a man who spoke out boldly for his faith.
Also, Patrick was never actually officially canonized as a saint by the Vatican. Like all early Christian saints, his sainthood was conferred on him by popular tradition - in that sense he belongs to all of Christianity, not just the later Roman Catholic church.
What's more, it is often forgotten that St Patrick was born in Britain, and that he came to Ireland on a mission to change the Irish way of life forever. In this sense he has a very real connection with the ancestors of Northern Irish Protestant who came to Ireland from Britain bringing new farming techniques, building roads and towns and schools.
Can Orange mix with Green?
So far, I haven't heard of a joint Green-Orange celebration of St Patricks Day in Ireland. The two traditions seem to be keeping separate for the moment in how they mark the 17th March. In 2005 there was almost aSt Patrick's Day Orange Order parade in Cork, by invitation of this city bastion of Irish nationalism. However it was called off at the last minute, due to controversy in the media.
With all the movement forward into a more peaceful and mutually-respectful society, I would very much hope that it won't be too long before the people of both traditions in Ireland begin to celebrate St Patrick's Day together. What a wonderful legacy that would be for our patron saint - to gring together the Orange and the Green....