July 12th is a huge day in Northern Ireland and, seeing as I'm from there, I thought I'd explain it.
It all goes back to 1690. Yes that's right--1690! Tomorrow, July 12th 1690 becomes very much alive to some people in that part of the world. On that day, the Catholic King James (by the way, he was English and not at all fond of the Irish; in fact despised us) had crossed over to Ireland and the Protestants were decidedly unhappy because he was Catholic and they could not accept his rule. For months in the City of Londonderry (Derry to Catholics) the Protestants had been under siege by the King James' troops--the ancient city walls are three feet thick--and they were being starved into submission, were in fact eating their horses, cats and even rats.
On July 12th 1690--this was the day on the old Julian Calendar--the Protestant King William of Orange (a member of the same House that reigns in the Netherlands today, and who'd arrived in Ireland to assist the Protestants) crossed the River Boyne--a very famous river in Ireland--and a battle commenced between him and King James. King James lost the battle, though the siege of Derry and the Protestants liberation did not end for a further four weeks. (That day of liberation is celebrated separately in August by the Protestant Apprentice Boys and it's another day where the threat of violence lurks.)
From that ancient July 12th date till the present day, the Protestant majority--who formed the Orange Order throughout the Northern Irish province to honor King William --have celebrated the win by marching in the streets. Moreover, the Orange Order became synonymous with Protestant rule in Northern Ireland (and with overt discrimination against the Catholic minority) and all Prime Minsters up until the last one have been fervent members of the Order.
Even today, notwithstanding there is a sort of peace in Northern Ireland, there are many members of the Orange Order who insist it is their right to march through Catholic areas on July 12th. They refuse to change their march route and claim it is an ancient custom, a Protestant birthright, though nowadays the British government is much more impartial and has ordered the Police Service not to allow them to march in Catholic areas. (This, of course, disgruntles many police officers who are members of the Orange Order, but they must obey.) Official policy is that the Orangemen are entitled to celebrate their day but are not entitled to antagonize Catholics and, as a result, the police form a barrier between any Catholic areas on the official parade route and the marchers. Sometimes violence does ensue as either side shout insults at one another.
Many Catholics think it quite funny to watch the Orangemen strutting--accompanied by fife and drum bands--with black umbrellas, bowler hats and orange sashes identifying their lodge behind huge banners of King William on a white charger. Of note, no Protestant women are allowed to become members of these Orange Order lodges. It's a male only club even in 2005. Women may help raise funds and serve tea and sandwiches to their fathers, husbands, uncles and sons, but they may not aspire to membership.
Aside from the chauvenism (which many of the women don't object to, I might add,) I believe the entire "celebration" is archaic and utterly ridiculous. It's time to move on and let 1690 die forever. It's time for the Orangemen to accept they share part of an island with Catholics who have as much right to rule as they do. But then any of them reading my post would say, "He's a Catholic and a Fenian, so what does he know about anything?; let's march through their territory and humiliate them in the name of King Billy. God Save the Queen."
[technorati: Orangemen, Northern Ireland, Ulster, King William of Orange]