New Stabs at Old Wounds

By Elesha Coffman, associate editor of CHRISTIAN HISTORY

As a historical journalist, I feel I ought to know things like why July 12 marks a flash point in Northern Ireland, or, for that matter, why Protestant-Catholic relations there have been so bad for so long. When I realized that much of what I know about Irish politics comes from U2 songs, I went looking for a rough outline of the conflict. I learned that it's tough to outline a situation where only the blurriest of boundaries separate religion and politics, England and the continent, history and the present.

This week's showdown centers on a planned march by Protestant hard-liners through a predominantly Catholic neighborhood near Belfast. The Protestant group, members of the Orange Order, has marched this route since 1807, but the event first triggered widespread violence in 1996, when police moved to block, then decided to permit, the parade. This year, police, politicians, and more moderate Irish Protestants are calling for the cancellation of the march, which commemorates the Protestant victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Jumping back to the 1600s, we land in a particularly tumultuous time in British history (if any period can be singled out for such a label). From 1534, when Henry VIII declared himself head of the English Church, to 1689, when James II was forced from the throne, the monarchy flip-flopped between Protestant and Catholic four times, not including the brief Puritan rule. Each switch resulted in persecutions and deaths, for, as CBC newswriter Gary Katz puts it, "Countries don't change their religion as easily as, say, their sales tax rate."

James's ouster was directly related to the Battle of the Boyne. James II, brother of Protestant King Charles II, was raised a Protestant but converted to Roman Catholicism in 1668 or 1669. Even so, he was popular with Parliament when he ascended to the throne in 1685. During his reign, however, he attempted to raise the status of British Catholics—first to relative equality with Anglicans and then, seemingly, to preeminence. His timing couldn't have been worse, for in France, Louis XIV was busy revoking the Edict of Nantes (which ensured tolerance for non-Catholics) and repressing French Protestants (Huguenots). English Protestants sympathized with the Huguenots and feared their king was plotting a similar repression. To make matters worse, James's Catholic second wife, Mary of Modena, became pregnant, threatening to provide a Catholic heir to the British throne.

So, in 1688, the Protestant-controlled Parliament took a most unusual step: it effectively invited a Dutch prince, William of Orange (hence "Orangemen"), to invade England. The invasion worked; James, whose mental health was somewhat in question, unexpectedly fled to France, and William and his wife, Mary, were installed as co-regents. However, the British throne proved more difficult for William to keep than to get. In 1690 James, backed by Catholic France and Ireland, brought an army to Ireland and inflicted heavy Protestant losses. William himself led 35,000 men (including Dutch guards, two regiments of Huguenots, and assorted mercenaries from the continent) to the River Boyne, north of Dublin, where James was routed and forced to flee again. Though this victory actually took place July 11, it is celebrated by Irish Protestants annually on July 12.

Even this episode is just one in a long line of Irish-English, Catholic-Protestant clashes stretching back at least to the twelfth century, when in 1156 history's only English pope, Adrian (or Hadrian) IV, gave Ireland to England's King Henry II in an attempt to get cozy with the powerful Normans. The twentieth century was no picnic, either, for although Ireland was granted "Home Rule" in 1920, to this day people can't agree what that means or should mean. In brief (and I know this is an oversimplification), Protestant Unionists would rather stay associated with Protestant England than get lumped in with the rest of their overwhelmingly Catholic island; Catholic nationalists want Ireland—including the six Protestant counties that formerly constituted Northern Ireland—to be unified, Catholic, and free from English control. Ireland's fledgling Protestant-Catholic administration must somehow serve both of these groups, as well as all of the people holding positions between the extremes.

To Americans, who think of parades primarily as processions of fire trucks and high school bands, the importance attached to July 12 marches in Ireland makes little sense. Academics Neil Jarman and Dominic Bryan, who have published a report on "parade culture," put it this way: "Each parade which is challenged is a symbolic threat to Protestant security and the Unionist position. Each parade that passes through a nationalist area is a restatement of the dominance of the Protestant community and the inferiority of nationalist rights." Thus, to participants and protesters, today is not just today—it's 1920, 1690, 1156, and a day to redraw the battle lines for yet another year.

* For more in-depth analyses of Irish history, see:

Elesha can be reached at