The Orange Arch: Creating Tradition in Ulster

The Orange Arch: Creating Tradition in Ulster

Neil Jarman


Maintaining tradition is an important aspect of Protestant popular culture in Northern Ireland. However, in recent years, emphasis has been placed on the apparently unchanging nature of such practices rather than on the dynamic and contingent nature of their form and content. This article focuses on one of the lesser-known cultural traditions, that of erecting arches as part of the celebrations of the marching season. It traces the history of arch style and design from the early nineteenth century to the present, and situates the changes and developments within the broader political and cultural sphere.


When members of the Protestant community in Belfast’s Sandy Row erected their Orange arch across the main thoroughfare in July 1998, they were maintaining a local tradition which had first been documented over one hundred and fifty years earlier. The arch was a newly designed structure that was being erected for the first time and was sited in a different location from previous times. Nevertheless, this was still regarded as an example of the long-standing continuity of cultural practices that has become so important for many within the Ulster Protestant community. The arch is one facet of the wider cultural arena of commemoration and celebration of the Williamite wars of 1688-91, which are upheld both as traditional practices and as a vital expression of loyalist culture. Each year since 1796, commemorations of the key events are organised in Ireland by a range of Protestant loyal orders. [1] The largest of these is the Orange Order, who organise annual parades to commemorate the battle of the Boyne in 1690, when the armies of King William III [2] defeated those of his predecessor, James II, to assure the Protestant ascendancy in Britain and Ireland. Each year, tens of thousands of Orangemen take part in one of eighteen main parades, which are held in towns and villages across Northern Ireland on 12 July, the anniversary of the battle (known locally simply as “the Twelfth”). However, the Twelfth is only one of a number of dates when members of the loyal orders take to the streets with their banners and other regalia. The period from Easter to the end of August, when the vast majority of the three thousand parades held each year take place, is known locally as the “marching season.” The visual displays linked to the marching season are varied. Flags and bunting hang from buildings and across the streets; kerbstones, lamp-posts and other street furniture are painted in the national colours; elaborate, and often skilful, mural paintings are prominent in many working-class urban areas. Arches are rarely erected in Belfast, but in the small towns and rural areas of Ulster, they are still the dominant visual display; a wide variety of styles and designs can be seen each year in market squares and on main streets across the north. In times past, their presence has provoked rioting and other forms of violent conflict, but today, in spite of the heightened sensitivities to cultural displays, they attract little attention. They appear as little more than a quaint folk remnant of another time, which has little relevance for contemporary life in Northern Ireland.

The culture of parading has become a particularly potent arena of both symbolic and actual conflict in recent years as disputes over parades have emerged as a counterpoint to attempts to establish the structures that might form the basis of a new society in the north. Orangemen have vigorously defended customs and practices–such as the right to march along customary routes and to mount visual displays–which have been established, extended and consolidated alongside the Protestant community’s rise to political dominance in Northern Ireland. Their insistence that these practices are “traditional” rights is an assertion of the importance which many Protestants place upon them. Although Orangemen emphasise the longevity of many of these practices, they have paid little attention to the details of history that go to make up their “tradition.” It is enough for them that the origins are rooted in the historic past and that they continue to be observed in the present day. The inherent dynamism of cultural practices–the continual changes and adaptations in form, style, content and process–that ensure their survival as living traditions (Gailey 1988) are ignored. Instead, members of the loyal orders resist any attempt to enforce any changes on their customs; the parade routes, the flags that are carried, and the music that is played are all regarded as unchangeable, almost sacred. The significance and potency of the displays derive from their perceived immutability and continuity through time. The annual cycle of parades and visual displays provides a sense of stability and certainty in times of political fluidity, a reaffirmation that order is being maintained, both within the wider Protestant population and between Protestants and Catholics. Change, especially change imposed from without, implies a threat to the order that the events strive to affirm exists. So customary practices are defined as “Tradition” and tradition is defined in terms of temporality and immutability. Such an approach to the past of course ignores the inherent dynamics of traditional practices which allow them to adapt to changing context while appearing to stay the same, but it allows Orangemen to argue that the annual cycle of customary practices should be protected rather than questioned or challenged.

This attitude encourages an analysis which locates the practices of the marching season within the well-established theoretical framework of invented traditions (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). Invented traditions are cases where the historical origins of contemporary events and practices are assumed rather than documented, and where such assumptions in turn obscure both the dynamic nature of their early history and the reality of the constructed and/or mythic nature of their past. In many of the examples cited by Hobsbawm and Ranger, it is the institutionalisation of traditions, and the often necessary subsequent obscuring and tidying up of their history, that leads them to be reified as Tradition. Tracing the historical development of obscure or popular practices can be valuable in revealing their invented nature and the often complex historical trajectory they have followed. But it can also reveal the complex dynamics that are involved in determining which practices come to be consolidated as Tradition and which do not. It can thus illustrate how closely cultural and religious practices are related to wider social and political processes; it can reveal how the survival of seemingly innocent customs has been determined by inequalities in political power; and it can thereby help to unravel something of the passion that can be unleashed by apparently innocuous acts such as parading to church or flying a national flag.

This article, then, is an attempt to give a broad overview of the history of the Orange arch over the past two hundred years and to consider changes and developments in the form that have taken place over that time. By situating these within the wider culture of parading, I hope to illustrate how changes in the style, function and context of the Orange arch illustrate the complex and dynamic processes of popular culture. I will argue that, while the Orange Order emphasises both the longevity of its practices and their apparent unchanging nature, in reality the Order has only been able to retain its reliance on tradition by continually changing and adapting to the context of contemporary politics.

Protestant visual displays have often become more prominent and more elaborate at times when the Catholic or nationalist community has asserted its political demands. At such times, in both the early and late nineteenth century and more recently during the Troubles, Protestant groups have responded by reasserting and refocusing their own status and identity. This process continues through to the present day amid the uncertainty of the peace process. Events and artefacts which appear to be little more than anachronistic remnants of the past are, in contrast, revealed as an essential part of contemporary social and political life.

Triumphal and Fraternal Arches

The practice of erecting free-standing arch structures originated in ancient Rome, where triumphal arches were built as part of the public celebrations for returning military leaders, as a means of honouring the victorious warrior-hero and his army (Saxl and Wittkower 1948). Arches were introduced into England during the Renaissance, and through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they were used extensively, particularly in royal pageantry. Elaborate arches were erected across the main thoroughfares of provincial towns to mark royal visits or as part of the celebrations of important events such as coronations, where they served both to honour the royal visitor and to demonstrate loyalty and devotion to the monarch (Bergeron 1971). Such arches were temporary installations, but nevertheless were elaborately designed and often incorporated extensive floral displays to represent the virtues and qualities of the visitor. Throughout the nineteenth century, arches were utilised by friendly societies and other fraternal organisations to welcome members to important gatherings; they were also erected as part of wedding celebrations and for some religious occasions (Gosden 1961; Buckley and Anderson 1988). Arches have therefore been used for a variety of public expressions: to welcome dignitaries, to honour the hero, to celebrate military victories, to greet friends and colleagues, and to mark important events.

The earliest reference to a formal arch in Ireland dates from 1790 when the Bishop’s Gate in the Londonderry [3] city walls was rebuilt as a replica of a triumphal arch in honour of King William III. Between 1795 and 1810, two other entrances to the city, Ferryquay Gate and Butcher’s Gate, were also remodelled in a similar style (Miller 1989). This seems to have been one plausible route by which the arch became incorporated into the wider Orange culture of parading. If this were the case, it would also suggest that Orange arches were simply another facet of the triumphal celebration of the military victories over Catholics and an expression of the Protestant ascendancy. However, just as the arch has a wide range of public uses, so it also has a wide range of symbolic meanings and one should be cautious of seeing Orange arches, always and only, as expressions of superiority and triumphalism. As well as their use by the state in military ceremonials, arches have also long been incorporated into the symbolic repertoire of a range of brotherhoods and fraternal organisations such as the Freemasons, trade unions and friendly societies. Masonic and trade union banners and regalia often had an arch as one of the central or dominant symbols. However, in such cases, the arch served as a symbol of strength and unity or symbolised the protection of God and the fellowship of the brotherhood rather than an expression of martial virtues (Simpson 1924; Gorman 1986; Loftus 1994). It is within the frame of meaning of fraternal solidarity and strength through unity, rather than triumphalism, that the floral arches were erected by friendly societies for their parades in the nineteenth century.

One can suggest, therefore, that there are two clear but distinct categories of meaning that can be applied to the arch symbol. The triumphal arch is used to honour the victorious military leader, and the arch of brotherhood is used to symbolise unity, equality and protection. Both meanings, of course, can exist simultaneously, and may well do so; an object or symbol, therefore, may convey very differing sentiments to different people. Members of one community may see an arch as a sign of welcome and fraternal solidarity, while those of another may see it as a threat or as a sign of intimidation.

Early Orange Arches

The Orange Order was formed in 1795 to defend the Protestant interest in Ireland. It organised its first parades to mark the anniversary of the battle of the Boyne the following year. Decorative flags and other forms of visual displays were carried at the earliest parades, although it is unclear how quickly such displays were extended to the streets and buildings. The first description of street decorations dates from 1812 when Dr John Gamble witnessed the decorations in the County Armagh village of Tandragee. He considered the village as “a perfect orange grove” and wondered at the “lofty arch, which was thrown across the entire street” and in which “orange was gracefully blended with oak leaves, laurels and roses” and bits of “gilded paper” were interwoven with the flowers. He further notes that the doors and windows of many of the houses were also decorated with “garlands of the orange lily” (quoted in McClelland 1980). A similar scene was noted in 1822 by Dr Thomas Reid when he arrived in the village of Caledon in County Tyrone on the Twelfth of July.

The way was strewn with Orange lilies, and at particular places was thrown

over it triumphal arches, decorated with orange festoons, and garlands

innumerable. The scene was quite delightful, and reminded me of the fabled

stories of fairyland I had read at school (Reid 1823, 189).

The term “arch” may seem a little misleading for what was often no more than bunches of flowers, ribbons, coloured paper, and boughs of trees which were tied to a rope and suspended across a street. But, as Loftus (1994) notes, similar techniques for creating arches had been utilised in England since the sixteenth century. It is also clear from some descriptions that while many were quite simple affairs, floral arches were often elaborate, colourful and impressive constructions. The arch over the entrance gate of the Archdeaconry house in Hillsborough in 1830 was described as being “composed of the richest flowers of orange, purple and blue [4] fastened with ribands of the same colours” (Belfast News Letter [BNL] 20 July 1830). In smaller villages, a single arch would be erected on part of the parade route or over the entrance to the field, but in urban centres, several arches might be erected along the main thoroughfares. In 1848, it was reported that twelve arches were erected in Enniskillen and “eight or nine” appeared in Ballymena, while at least fifteen arches were erected in Coleraine in 1870. The Coleraine arches incorporated a wide a range of representations of King William, the Relief of Derry, the Boyne Obelisk, and “other emblems of the Revolution” (BNL 13 July 1848; 13 July 1870). It also seems that the quality and quantity of arches in any given area could depend on the state of the weather and the consequent number of lilies that were available rather than simply the enthusiasm of local people. In 1874, it was reported that Ballymena had “not seen such a crop of Orange lilies for many a year, and consequently not so many arches”; as a result, there was “hardly a street in town without an arch” (BNL 16 July 1874). Floral displays remained an important component of the visual displays into the twentieth century, but over the years, the style and content of the arches became more elaborate. By the late 1840s, a number of distinctive and noteworthy arches were observed. In Lisburn, a triple arch spanned both the cartway and the footpaths on either side, and the structure included both a crown and a miniature equestrian King William made of alabaster as the centrepiece. A similarly elaborate arch appeared at Cavan, while the one in Moneymore was somewhat obscurely described as being “of a most rare description, in the Gothic order” (Northern Whig [NW] 14 July 1849). Clearly, within the constraints of local customs and the symbolic traditions of the Orange Order there was a considerable leeway for local initiative and imagination to be expressed in the visual displays.

Conflicts and Protests

Early commentators such as Gamble and Reid expressed their delight at the visual displays erected for the Twelfth of July parades, but their appearance is also an indication of the emergence of a visible sectarianisation of public space in the north of Ireland. To some, the descriptions may suggest scenes of Arcadian pleasure and of villages and towns gaily decorated with flowers and ribbons for a popular celebration, but the presence of triumphal arches also points to the darker background of conflict and a vanquished Catholic community. Throughout the nineteenth century, the celebrations of the Williamite victories were increasingly an extension of the public architecture, and the erstwhile neutral or shared space of towns and villages became marked as partisan as they were claimed by members of the local Protestant population. Although the displays were short-lived, they had a visible presence that the often contentious parades lacked and this became more apparent the more widely arches were imposed on a locality.

For Protestants, the parades and the visual displays were a demonstration of local solidarity and a celebration of their culture and history, but they were also an assertion of their local power and strength. For Catholics, on the other hand, the arches and flags, the music and the parades were a symbolic reminder of a military defeat, and an annual physical demonstration of their subjection under civil society. The 1820s and 1830s were a period when Daniel O’Connell stirred the political ambitions of Catholic Ireland and a time of recurrent sectarian tensions over public political displays. Parades resulted in conflict so frequently that in 1832 the Party Processions Act was introduced banning such events. This law remained in force almost continuously for the next forty years and was relatively effective in restricting parades and reducing sectarian violence. However, its writ did not extend to the visual displays, and numerous Orange arches continued to be erected each summer.

Many saw the displays as a public affront and challenge to their sensitivities; consequently, visual displays frequently became the target for, and site of, violent confrontation. In 1838, the erection of an arch in Magherafelt “attached to a tree at the end of the police barracks” provoked clashes with Roman Catholics the next day. In 1829, at least two arches in Newry, decorated with orange ribbons and “surmounted with a likeness of King William on horseback” were taken down by the police in the face of protests, while at Maghera riots broke out as Catholics attempted to remove an arch (BNL 17 July 1829; NW 16 July 1838). Local officials and officers of the law more commonly accepted the displays and protected them from the complaints of Catholics than tried to remove them in the face of opposition from local Orangemen.

The problems that could arise in trying to remove Orange displays is illustrated by events in Sandy Row in 1835, when a dispute over the erection of an arch led to one of the first sectarian riots in Belfast. Although this is the earliest reference to an arch in Sandy Row, it was not the first arch to appear in Belfast. In 1824, the authorities had appeared only too aware of the potential for conflict over such displays and the Superintendent Magistrate had ordered a “Triumphal arch” in Gratton Street to be removed before any objections were raised or trouble occurred (BNL 13 July 1824). However, no such prompt action was taken when an Orange arch was erected in Sandy Row in July 1835, and tensions rose when what was described as a Green arch [5] was erected nearby in response. The Catholics agreed to remove their arch if the Orange arch was also removed, but local Protestants refused and, instead of removing their own displays, they tore down the Catholic arch. This led to extensive rioting between the two groups and the military were forced to intervene to restore order. However, the troops were repelled by the Orangemen when they tried to remove the Orange arch and several members of the military were severely injured. In the resulting clashes, a local woman, Ann Moore, was killed by a gunshot wound before calm was restored. The following year, lessons were learnt and the arch was quickly removed from Sandy Row before more trouble flared (BNL 14 July 1835; NW 13 July 1836; Barrow 1836, 34).

Green Arches

The culture of parading, and the related visual and symbolic displays, are often regarded as a uniquely Protestant practice; the parades and displays organised by Catholic groups such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians are seen as but pale imitations of their Orange counterparts. But while it is fair to say that by the nineteenth century the culture of parading was predominately a northern Irish tradition, such perspectives fail to acknowledge the complex interweaving of culture, religion and politics in the north of Ireland and they ignore the dynamic interrelationship between Protestant and Catholic popular culture in this region. Few aspects of popular culture are the exclusive preserve of one community; rather, they have developed over the years as a result of a constant interconnection and interaction between the two communities and a regular and recurrent, if often unacknowledged, sharing and borrowing of ideas and innovations. Orangemen used parades and visual displays to display their collective strength and to assert their claims over public space, but they resented Catholics making similar claims, whether symbolic or otherwise, and readily confronted and challenged such attempts if they were made. Nevertheless, as part of their strategy of mobilising support for their political campaigns and asserting their claims to territory and public space, Catholics and nationalists drew on the same repertoire of symbolic practices as Orangemen.

However, it was not until parades were legalised, and the Home Rule movement began to generate momentum in the 1870s, that arches became a more widely used feature of nationalist displays. From this time onwards, they began to appear regularly on St Patrick’s Day, in March, and on Our Lady’s Day, in August. Many of these were clearly substantial displays and were used to proclaim religious, political and national allegiances. The arch erected in Pinkerton’s Row in Belfast in August 1875 had a green flag in the centre and bore the likenesses of the Pope and Daniel O’Connell. Several of the arches erected in Derry in March 1878 contained portraits of historical figures such as Robert Emmet, Edward Fitzgerald, and the Manchester Martyrs, and were topped with both the green Irish flag and the French tricolour. Similarly, several arches in Monaghan in August 1884 were decorated with crownless harps and portraits of Robert Emmet and Daniel O’Connell (BNL 17 August 1875 and 16 August 1884; Doak 1978, 159). Thereafter, on nationalist anniversaries, arches were noted regularly in Derry and towns such as Lurgan and Downpatrick.

Two features are worth noting at this point. First, Irish nationalist displays were from the outset explicitly political and connected to the demands for Home Rule, whereas Orange arches remained limited to Williamite and Orange symbols until near the end of the century. Second, all arches were likely to be seen as political by members of the “other” side, regardless of the symbolic content of the displays. As already noted, Orange arches were widely viewed by Catholics as political artefacts and as assertions of local power, while attempts by Catholics to make similar displays often provoked a violent reaction from Protestants. Although Orangemen felt that they had a right to erect their arches where they chose, it was clear that they felt that this right did not extend to Catholics. Green arches were regularly contested and removed even after nationalist parades had become an accepted part of the public sphere. For example, in March 1878, the nationalist arches in Derry were pulled down by the police and in August the following year, a crowd of angry Protestants gathered to prevent a Green arch from being erected in Downpatrick in the position traditionally occupied by an Orange arch each July (BNL 19 March 1878 and 16 August 1879). As the campaign for Home Rule generated more momentum, demonstrations of support in Catholic areas became more prominent and an uneasy truce was sometimes reached over visual displays. For instance, in Derry, it was agreed that each side would have its own parades and erect its displays in its own areas and would tolerate those of the other side (Doak 1978). As a result, during the final decades of the century, a nationalist culture of parading comparable to the Orange tradition began to emerge.

However, nationalist displays were still able to provoke a violent reaction from Protestants, and some displays even appeared to have been deliberately provocative. Perhaps the most controversial nationalist arch was one erected in Winetavern Street in Belfast in August 1900. This display declared support for the Boers in their fight against Britain and carried the mottoes “Remember Spion Kop” and “Bravo De Wet” alongside portraits of the Boer general and the slogan “Let England not forget there’s a day of Reckoning yet.” The Belfast News Letter described the slogans as “exceptionally objectionable” and a few days later, the police were called to the scene as a group of Protestant youths destroyed the structure (BNL 16 July 1900; NW 19 August 1900). After this time, references to Green arches become increasingly scarce, although, as noted earlier, Catholics in Derry erected a number of arches as part of the celebrations for the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932 (International Eucharistic Congress Pictorial Record 1932). In this case, the displays were of a purely religious nature and did not generate any hostile reaction.

Visual Elaboration

The political campaign for Home Rule was the impetus for more elaborate nationalist visual displays and a more widespread use of Green arches in public areas. At the same time, the mobilisation of opposition to Home Rule among unionists had a similar effect on Protestant popular culture. Once the Party Processions Act was repealed in 1872, the culture of parading began a period of expansion and transformation which continued until the First World War (Jarman 1997). There were two prominent factors that spurred these developments.

First, during this time the Orange Order underwent something of a renaissance. The parades became less aggressive and confrontational occasions, and one consequence was that the Order came to be seen as more respectable by the middle classes and by the political elite. The widening of the political franchise in 1884 meant that the working-class vote was of greater significance and the Orange Order was steadily incorporated into the wider unionist political movement. Senior politicians regularly attended the annual parades, and they used the gathering at the field as an opportunity to make speeches against Home Rule and in defence of the Union. It was also during this period that the Ulster Protestant identity began to be redefined and refocused and a clearer emphasis was given to its British components rather than its Irish elements. The elaboration of the British unionist identity was most explicit during the summer months through the visual displays of the marching season.

The second factor that helped to transform this broad area of popular culture was the adaptation and exploitation of a range of technical innovations and industrial developments. Members of the Protestant urban working class began to utilise their craft and technical skills to elaborate on their affirmations of loyalty to the Crown, to profess their faith and to assert their national identity. The banners carried at the parades became standardised in form, more professionally produced, and more diverse in their range of images (Jarman 1998; 1999a). Similarly, the Orange arches became larger, more technically complex and more elaborate, particularly in Belfast. Although suspended arches remained common in many areas, on the main thoroughfares these were increasingly replaced by more substantial, solid, pillared structures, which could remain in place for a longer time and which could be reused year after year. The Belfast News Letter noted the significance of these local developments in 1882 and, after describing the range and variety of arches that appeared in Belfast, the reporter felt proud and confident enough to exclaim:

The time of stringing flowers on a cord and calling this, when stretched

out like a clothes line, “an arch” has gone. Beautiful pictures and

appropriate symbols and mottoes met the eye all through the town (BNL 13

July 1882).

The complexity of one such newly designed arch on York Street was described in some detail in the paper two years later.

[It is] formed of iron rods, over which is carefully stretched wire netting

and its form is an embattled bridge with six arches between, separated by

five Martello towers each being surmounted by a handsome flag. The design

… is surmounted by the Bible and Crown … [and] a large well executed

oil painting of King William … each of the towers bears a heraldic shield

on each side. [It] is surmounted by a line of bannerets, the Royal Standard

and the Irish ensign being most prominent … [it] has never been

paralleled in Belfast (BNL 12 July 1884).

Arch makers also began to exploit a wide range of locally available raw materials and cast-offs and combined them in novel ways to make ever more elaborate displays. Remnants and off-cuts were appropriated from the linen mills; wood-shavings were salvaged from timber mills and dyed appropriate colours; industrial paints were used once they became readily available in the shipyards.

One example of the willingness to exploit new resources was the use of electricity to illuminate the arch in Bridge End in East Belfast in the evenings in July 1898 (BNL 13 July 1898). But such innovations were also restricted and constrained by other facets of urban industrialisation. In particular, the construction of tramlines meant that the arches were often forced away from the major thoroughfares, and the side streets increasingly became the focus of displays. This in turn seems to have generated a degree of friendly competition both between and within Protestant areas, as neighbouring streets tried to outdo each other in the scale and sophistication of their displays. The competition seems to have encouraged further technical elaboration and experimentation. Arches still incorporated floral decorations in their displays, although in Belfast these seem to have increasingly used paper and fabric rather than real flowers. But many arches were made up of images and symbols, painted or sewn on to squares of cloth, which were then hung across the road. To increase the scale of such displays, layers were hung above layers. Some early press photographs show arches with designs four or five rows deep.

The pre-war years were therefore marked by two, often conflicting, trends. On the one hand, as technical skills improved, larger, more complex and elaborate structures could be built over the main thoroughfares. On the other, the continued expansion of the urban fabric meant that, as the main streets became more important for traffic, many of the visual displays were forced into residential side streets. The smaller communities had less capacity to build elaborate structures, and the local arches continued to draw on old styles whilst exploiting the availability of industrial materials.

At the same time as arches began to become more technically complex and stylistically diverse, so they became more varied in their symbolic content and the range of visual representations. In the past, most such displays had been restricted to representations of King William III and symbols of the Orange Order and, although on occasion more overt political sentiments were noted, this practice only really developed towards the end of the century as the Protestant community mobilised around support for the Union. The visual repertoire began to expand around the time of the bicentenary of the Siege of Derry in 1888. From this time onwards, representations of the walls and gates of Londonderry became one of the most consistently prominent symbols to appear on arches as the example of the resistance during the siege was adopted as an appropriate contemporary symbol by the unionist working class as part of the opposition to Home Rule. During this period, other individuals began to be portrayed on the streets alongside “King Billy.” Popular heroes such as firebrand preachers Henry Cooke and Thomas Drew, from the early part of the century, appeared on arch designs as early as the 1870s and contemporary politicians soon began to form a prominent part of the displays (BNL 14 July 1877 and 14 July 1879). In 1891, an arch in East Belfast had a portrait of a local politician, J. Henderson, and the motto “Our future MP for East Belfast” (BNL 12 July 1891). In 1894, Lord Salisbury, the Conservative Prime Minister, and Lord Randolph Churchill, who had coined the phrase, “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right,” were widely depicted in Belfast; Salisbury, Arthur Balfour and Joseph Chamberlain appeared on arches in Ballymena (BNL 13 July 1894). Again and again, one sees British politicians and other supporters of the Union hailed on the arches across the streets of Belfast and other towns.

In an atmosphere in which political loyalties and local rivalry were being extended and elaborated, one dimension of the visual displays that had not been explored was the temporal. Most arches were still short-lived constructions. They were erected a day or so before the Twelfth and were taken down a few days afterwards. However, the availability of industrial paints and of skilled painters at a time when many arches were being forced to be relocated and new styles of visual display were being explored led to a completely new form of representation being developed. The symbols hitherto painted on fabric and suspended from an arch began to be made directly on to the gable walls of the terraced houses. By painting directly onto solid walls rather than onto the ephemeral structure of an arch, the displays of faith and loyalty could remain in place all year round. The painting of a mural would not necessarily stop an arch being erected, but it would be a permanent reminder to neighbours and others that this street was not just occupied by fair weather loyalists. The earliest recorded mural dates from 1911.

The usual arch at Albertbridge Road, on Malcolm Street, has been replaced

by a large painting of King William on the side of a house at the corner of

Malcolm Street. The painting has been draped with purple, garlanded with

evergreen and surmounted by loyal and patriotic mottoes, Union Jacks,

portraits of the King and Queen and Orange leaders, and, above all, the

inscription “God Save the King.” A somewhat similar idea has been

effectively carried out on the gable of a house on Beersbridge Road near

Clara Street (Belfast Telegraph [BT] 12 July 1911).

This report makes it quite clear that mural painting, which has now become the dominant form of visual display in Belfast (Rolston 1991), was a direct development of the arch-building tradition. The description of the image further confirms its origins. The extensive range of images and slogans within a single form was typical of the increasing complexity of arches in the pre-war period, while the inclusion of an evergreen garland is a direct reference to the long-standing, and still widespread, practice of basing arch designs on floral devices. The opposition to Home Rule was therefore marked out by a growing range of visual displays; each summer Protestant areas of Belfast were bedecked with flags and bunting, with numerous arches and in some parts of the city by mural paintings. Other towns and villages were similarly decorated and, although murals became prominent in Belfast, elsewhere the arch was still the dominant expression of local allegiance.

Stormont Arches

The visual displays were largely put on hold during the First World War but after Ireland was partitioned into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State in 1921 and the sectarian violence that followed had died down, loyalist commemorations flourished. During the early years of the Stormont administration, the Orange parades became an annual celebration of the newly secured identity. In contrast, nationalist commemorations were restricted to the margins of society. Orange parades grew to enormous size. Mural painting grew in popularity and importance, but arches remained the dominant visual display and street decorations and arch designs became ever more extravagant. In Sandy Row, a triple arch in a decorated trellis structure spanned the width of the road and the pavements on either side (a design which still appears on the banner of a local Orange lodge), while not far away, the entrance to Ormeau Street was filled with a replica of the turreted and battlemented walls of Derry, with metal gates that were locked shut at night (BT 12 July 1923 and 13 July 1925). The elaboration of the arch-building tradition continued through the inter-war years and reached a climax in 1939 when a riot of extravagant designs was depicted in the local press. In Berlin Street, Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son in the centre of a floral suspension arch. In Malvern Way, the Mountjoy appeared as the centrepiece. In Brown Square, the fabric suspension arch, six sections deep, was dominated by portraits of the King and Queen. In Scott Street, a mock brick structure was erected and in Cable Street, the triple spanned arch took an ultra modernist, industrial style, while retaining a representation of “King Billy” on the top (BT 13 July 1939).

Orange arches continued to be erected after the Second World War, but no new stylistic developments appeared and the decorations never matched the profusion of styles and inventiveness of the inter-war years. Newspaper photographs often showed the same streets and the same designs year after year. In 1963, an official of the Orange Order claimed that at least one new arch had appeared every year since the War and they were now more numerous than ever, but the following year the Belfast News Letter noted that only one arch had been erected in the largely Protestant east of the city (BNL 9 July 1963 and 10 July 1964). Post-war austerity has been cited as one reason for the decline in the street decorations. The newer styles of arches were no longer the simple home-made affairs that the suspension arches had been. New arches often required skilled manufacturing techniques, and although they would be expected to last for a number of years, the consequent costs meant that they were a major communal investment. The arch that was erected on the Shankill Road in 1959, the first one to span the road itself since 1901, cost 300 [pounds sterling], while the new arch erected on Sandy Row in 1964, which had a span of forty feet, cost 1000 [pounds sterling] (Orange Order 1970). Raising the money for these structures required substantial planning and organisation. But this was a time when post-war urban renewal and redevelopment programmes had begun to break up long-established, tight-knit working-class communities which had kept these traditions vibrant. As people were encouraged to move out of the inner-city areas to satellite estates and towns, there were fewer individuals around who were willing and able to do the work necessary to erect the displays. At the beginning of the Troubles, the long-established local traditions appeared to be in a seemingly inexorable decline (Johnston 1970).

However, Protestant popular culture had been a dynamic process for nearly two hundred years and during that time had redefined itself on a number of occasions. It had adopted and developed a variety of visual forms to represent its current ideological position, and its demise had been predicted numerous times before. Protestant cultural expression flowered most strongly in periods and places of most tension and uncertainty, such as County Armagh in the early nineteenth century and in Belfast a hundred years later. It had also lain dormant and declined in the past only to revive at the next crisis. While it is clear that, in Belfast, both mural painting and arch building went into a serious decline after the War, arch building did not suffer the same fate outside of Belfast. On the contrary, newspapers suggest that in the towns and villages of Ulster the Orange arch was still an important part of the summer displays. Furthermore, those arches that remained in Belfast became bigger and more solid and were erected for longer periods of time. A similar pattern seems to have been replicated in the rest of the province. Some aspects of loyalist exuberance expended on commemorating the past had clearly stagnated and lost their dynamism after the 1930s, but this can only really be argued for some forms of visual displays in some of the urban areas. The parades remained vibrant affairs, and in the smaller towns and villages, the local arch continued to be erected each year.

Contemporary Arches

Throughout the Troubles, arches have remained the dominant form of decoration in towns and villages across the north which have a predominantly Protestant population. In the unionist heartlands of South Antrim, North Down, Armagh and East Tyrone, numerous arches are erected each year for the month of July. There has been little apparent change in the form, style or structure of these decorations in recent years. Wherever possible, the arches are placed across the main thoroughfare or in the centre of the town or village. Each community aims to display its unionist credentials and to proclaim the area as Protestant territory, both to its neighbours and to those passing through. In some of the larger towns, such as Portadown and Larne, a number of arches are still erected; usually there is a prominent structure near the centre of the town, while others are erected in residential areas and housing estates. In Cookstown, a pair of matching arches is located on the crest of the hill at both the northern and southern extremes of the main street. They can be seen not only from any point in the town centre but also from some distance away. In a number of places–Banbridge, Dromore, Lisburn and Richhill–the arch is erected at the very centre of the town; in both Dromore and Richhill the arch is located next to the War Memorial. But as one moves west and closer to the border, where populations are more mixed and balance of numbers more equal, arches become rarer; even in staunch loyalist areas in County Fermanagh, the displays are muted and arches are few in number.

The arches remain the most conservative of the visual displays. With a few exceptions, they depict only the main symbols and icons of Orangeism. They exhibit none of the political slogans or images that flourished at the end of the last century or the paramilitary references that dominate the murals. The most common arch form is constructed of steel uprights supported in concrete-filled oil drums, with a trellised head spanning the road. Images and symbols are often mounted on the trellis or hung between the poles in a manner derived from the earlier suspension arches (see Figure 1). In the villages around Ballymena many of the arches are covered in crimped fabric, which suggests an allusion to the past use of floral displays. Some arches, such as those in Dromore, Lurgan and Loughgall (see Figure 2), are more elaborate structures with substantial square columns forming the uprights. The arch in Coagh has three columns with two main arches over the road and two smaller arches over each pavement, while Lisburn displays a massive triple arch in the town centre (similar in style to the arch recorded in 1849). All make visual and verbal references to the major battles of the Williamite campaign, Boyne, Aughrim, Enniskillen and Derry. The gates of the city of Derry are frequently portrayed, firmly closed, in the centre of the span and Roaring Meg, the canon used in the defence of the city during the siege, is also often included.


Arches also incorporate a range of emblems and symbols which belong to either the Orange Order or its related institutions, the Royal Arch Purple Chapter and the Royal Black Institution (Buckley and Kenney 1995). Some, such as Noah’s ark and the three-runged ladder, are symbols which relate to the internal rituals of the Order; others such as the Crown and Bible are more widely used expressions of loyalty. Many arches make more specific reference to the royal family, either by carrying portraits of the Queen and Prince Philip or bearing the slogan “God Save the Queen” (see Figure 3), and are further decorated with Union flags and the Northern Irish flag. Arches are frequently sited on a route that is used for a parade; in such cases, signs bearing the slogans “Welcome Brethren” and “Safe Home” will sometimes be attached before the parade. Thus, although there is a certain conservatism in the elements of the arch construction, no two arches are the same. There are many localised styles, many varieties of design and a range of symbols. The arch-building tradition is, therefore, not so much a singular practice as a multifaceted and vari-local complex of practices, which represents a series of localised responses to the intertwined relationship between past, present and future.


The finest range of contemporary arches is to be found in Portadown, where at least five are erected each year in a variety of different styles. The triple arch on Bridge Street, which spans the main road into town from Lurgan and Gilford, is similar to one photographed in the same place in 1933 (BNL 12 July 1933). Its red, white and blue uprights support a span depicting Derry’s gates with a battlemented head topped by a crown (see Figure 4). A black “marbled” triple arch ceremoniously marks the entrance to Mourneview Street, bearing the slogans “No Surrender” and “In Glorious Memory” in orange letters eighteen inches high. Decorated with models of the Mountjoy (the sailing ship which lifted the siege in 1689) and Roaring Meg, it is surmounted by another small arch covering a mounted “King Billy” figure and topped by a crown. In contrast, the arch at the town end of the Garvaghy Road is a simple pole and trellis structure. In July 1992, a new arch was erected in the Edgarstown estate. This was unusual in that it is dedicated to the memory of the battle of the Somme in 1916 and carries no overt reference to Orangeism. However, one must be aware of the importance of the Somme for Ulster Protestants, many of whom regard it as the blood sacrifice that most vividly illustrates their loyalty to Britain (Jarman 1999b). The arch bears the simple motto “In Memory of the 36th Ulster Division” and lists the names of the major battles fought by the division during the First World War above two model cannons and a Red Hand of Ulster symbol. Commemorations of the Somme, both in the form of visual displays, mural paintings and parades, have become increasingly prominent in Northern Ireland and it is, I think, significant that arches are also being used as part of this process.


In recent years, Portadown has witnessed a protracted dispute over attempts by residents to have Orange parades from Drumcree Church rerouted so they do not pass along the predominately nationalist Garvaghy Road area (Bryan 1997; 2000). The parade disputes have resulted in violence on a number of occasions: they have threatened to undermine attempts to consolidate the peace process and they have served to widen the already existing gulf between the two communities. As I have indicated, erecting an arch can have many functions and many meanings depending on one’s social position, political allegiance and ethno-national background. It can indicate support for the public celebrations, it can serve to honour and welcome friendly visitors, and it can be a means of displaying political allegiance and religious faith. It can also be seen as sectarian, threatening and intimidating, and as an expression of triumphalism. The visual displays of the marching season have long been one of the most prominent means of asserting claims to territory and demonstrating the local balance of political power. The presence of these Orange arches forces Catholics, nationalists and others to acknowledge, “this place is and will remain Protestant.” It is therefore not surprising that it is in Portadown, one of the locations in which Orange parades have come under sustained opposition and where sectarian antagonisms remained most impassioned, that the arch-building tradition remains most vibrant. It is perhaps also unsurprising that in July 1999, the erection of an arch at the town end of the Garvaghy Road, in the days before the Drumcree church parade was due to be held, led to violent clashes of a kind rarely witnessed since the nineteenth century (Irish News 2 July 1999). If nothing else, it proves that customary forms of display still have a symbolic power and retain the capacity to provoke hostile reactions.

Maintaining Traditions

The decline in the number of arches in Belfast that was noted in the 1960s has continued, and in recent years, only the arch on Sandy Row has regularly been erected for the marching season. This might appear surprising given the importance that members of the loyal orders give to maintaining traditions. Traditional practices, such as walking particular routes and displaying specific forms of regalia, are treated as something above criticism or challenge; sometimes even as something which verges upon the sacrosanct. As I noted earlier, the significance of a tradition is usually related to the continuity of practice over some considerable time, but there is no specific length of time which designates a practice as “traditional.” Although traditions are important for the Orange Order, it is not always clear what is regarded as a tradition and what is not. It remains a vague and elastic concept and is usually only invoked when something is under threat or is challenged in some way.

Many customary parade routes have been quietly abandoned over the past generation, and other Orange practices, such as arch building, have been allowed to decline. These decisions have been made from choice or from lack of support among the wider community, not because changes were forced on the Order. In contrast, in the past five years, there have been numerous parades and parade routes that the loyal orders have claimed as “traditional” in response to the opposition that has been mobilised against them from within the nationalist community. By defining them as “traditional,” the Order is insisting that these practices have a special status and that they should therefore not be changed.

However, the history of parades and other popular practices related to the marching season has been poorly recorded and documented; so, though the Orange Order claims that these practices are of long standing, the continuity is often illusory. For example, the Drumcree church parade in Portadown, which has achieved such prominence in recent years, has obtained much of its symbolic power from the fact that it was first recorded in 1807. But there are no records to prove a continuity of practice from then to the present day. Rather, saying that it is a “tradition” is an act of faith that provides the bridge between 1807 and the late twentieth century. For Orangemen, the Drumcree church parade must be defended, both because it is a tradition and because it has come under attack. Furthermore, they argue that it should not be changed in any way because any compromise would undermine its essence as a tradition.

If one delves a little more deeply into the history of Orange customs, however, their fragmentary history and discontinuity of practice is revealed. Orange culture has remained important in Northern Ireland, not simply because of its perceived longevity but because it has been a dynamic culture, which at key times of political transformation has contrived to look both forward and backwards. It has adapted old styles, forms and techniques to new times, and allowed them to change while appearing to stay the same.

Attempting to tease out the tradition of arch building on Sandy Row illustrates the often fragmentary documentary basis for a history of popular culture, but at the same time it can illustrate how traditions are best considered as ongoing processes rather than reified and formalised events or objects. The custom of erecting an Orange arch in Sandy Row can be dated back to 1835 and has continued into the 1990s. However, it is difficult to trace the history with any degree of certainty, because the ephemera of the marching season tend only to be reported in the media as a result of a dispute or because of changes in structure or design. Other forms of record such as minute books, individual memory and oral traditions are partial and often elusive.

The earliest reference to an arch in the Sandy Row area was in response to the conflict it generated, rather than its symbolic, decorative or innovative importance (and there is no certainty that this was the first time an arch was erected). References that appear in the newspapers in the inter-war years place emphasis on the scale and quality of the structure and design, and offer a visual comparison with other Belfast arches. It is only more recently that a clearer picture of changes and developments has emerged. A new arch was erected in 1964, another new design appeared in 1980, while the present one appeared in 1998. The steel and aluminium structure, first used in 1980, was erected outside the Orange Hall at the assembly point for all Orange parades in the district. Its blue pillars stood twenty-two feet high and the orange span was decorated with a range of Orange symbols and had a small representation of King William on the top. The arch was not erected in 1997 and the following year a new structure was erected in a new position on Sandy Row, although still on the parade route. It was opened prior to the mini-Twelfth parade on 1 July and remained in place throughout the marching season. The new arch is a similar size and scale to the old one, but differs in style, colour and design. However, both arches displayed the standard range of loyal order symbols–the red cross, the arch, three-runged ladder and others–and both were draped with bunting and carried a variety of flags. The Sandy Row arch therefore nicely represents the disjunctive continuity that in practice has come to make up an Orange tradition. It is no contradiction to say, therefore, that arch building remains one of the most important facets of Orange culture and tradition even when it appears to be in terminal decline in Belfast.


I suggested at the beginning of this article that nowadays arches attract little attention and are seen as somewhat anachronistic displays indicative of the outmoded nature of the loyal orders. However, as I have also noted, the erection of one of the arches in Portadown has recently led to violent clashes between nationalists and the police. In many ways, this was not surprising given the persistently tense atmosphere and recurrent violence in the town related to the continuing dispute over the Drumcree church parade. But in the same week, a Sinn Fein representative, Martin Meehan, raised concerns about the arch erected in Glengormley on the northern boundary of Belfast. Glengormley is an area with a growing Catholic community, and Meehan argued, “many people find it deeply offensive … that Orangemen persist in erecting an arch across the main road.” He continued by claiming that the arch was nothing more than a means of asserting a sense of dominance over the local Catholic community (North Belfast News 3 July 1999). These two cases are reminiscent of events in the earlier nineteenth century when arches regularly generated protests from Catholics. If nationalist opposition to such displays increases, there may well be a resurgence of interest in arch building within working-class Protestant areas as loyalists reassert their right to express their cultural identity and to maintain their traditions.


[1] The two largest communities in Ireland are Roman Catholics and Protestants. Although these names signify religious faiths, they also refer broadly to political allegiance. Most Catholics consider themselves Irish and are also known locally by the term “nationalist.” More radical nationalists (such as Sinn Fein supporters) are known as “Republicans.” Most Protestants consider themselves British and are known locally as “unionists,” because of their support for the union of Great Britain and Ireland. Radical unionists are known as “Loyalists.” Most Protestant parades and commemorations are organised by one of the loyal orders: the Orange Order, the Royal Black Institution and the Apprentice Boys of Derry. Their loyalty is to the British monarchy, “the Crown,” rather than the British state.

[2] The Orange Order takes its name from the Dutchman William of Orange, who was crowned King William III of England in 1688. The colour orange is used widely on the Order’s regalia and the term “Orangey” is one of the more polite slang names for a Protestant.

[3] The city of Derry was renamed “Londonderry” as part of the colonisation of Ireland in the seventeenth century. Today, the name one chooses to call the second city of Northern Ireland is an indication of one’s background. Protestants call it Londonderry while Catholics refer to it as Derry. Some (academics and others) have begun to resort to the politically neutral, but clumsy, Derry/Londonderry.

[4] Orange lilies have been used for symbolic display in Ireland since the mid-eighteenth century. Purple and blue flowers have also long been used in this fashion. Both colours symbolise royalty and have come to have particular significance for Orange regalia.

[5] The colour green has long been used to symbolise Ireland and an Irish identity. Catholic groups wore green regalia in the same way as their Protestant counterparts wore orange. A Green arch was therefore one erected by Catholic or nationalist groups.

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Biographical Note

Neil Jarman has studied the popular culture in Northern Ireland since 1990. He has published two larger studies of the visual and material culture of commemorations, Material Conflicts: Parades and Visual Displays in Northern Ireland, which won the Folklore Society’s Katharine Briggs Award in 1997, and Displaying Faith: Orange, Green and Trade Union Banners in the North of Ireland, published in 1999. He currently works at the Community Development Centre in North Belfast, researching political violence and policing.

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