Saturday, May 28, 2011

Book Review: The Orange Order

This is a book that has been sitting on my bookshelf for quite a while, and I never got round to reading. Now I have, and I'm glad I did, to help gain a better understanding of an important organisation in the life of Northern Ireland and beyond.

Mervyn Jess, a BBC journalist and son of an Orangeman, had been covering the Drumcree dispute for years, and decided he wanted to understand more about the Order, so he embarked on this book, which came out in 2007. Through the several chapters, he discusses the order's origins, presents a broad sweep of its first two hundred years, probes the ritual, structures and membership, thinks about Drumcree, looks across the globe at the influence of orangeism, before presenting some excellent and insightful chapters centred on interview with an ordinary orangeman, Gerry Kelly (a Sinn Fein MLA), and Drew Nelson (Grand Secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland). He even includes a chapter on the Independent Orange Order!

There's no doubt that his research has been impeccable; his contacts are good, both in terms of those interviews already mentioned, but also including sizeable chunks from other leading Orangemen, such as Jonathan Mattison and David Hume. A better understanding of what the Orange is all about comes through the book, as well as an insight into the discussions and debates about the future - between those who see it as a purely religious organisation and those who are pressing for it to be a cultural group and the Twelfth turned into the Belfast version of the Mardi Gras or Notting Hill festivals.

That being said, at times the book can seem to be a little repetitive. There were occasions when the history chapter and the influence chapter seemed to be rehashing the same material. There were also few surprises - although perhaps that was more because of my roots in Orangeism and my working knowledge of Irish history.

All in all, it's an interesting book, and one that will help people understand what the motives and drive of the Orange Order is, and it's a useful exploration of recent Irish history from a unionist perspective.

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