Tuesday, March 17, 2015

St. Patrick's Day - Nana and the Orangmen

Growing up with my Irish grandmother only about a mile away on my bicycle, I used to ride over there to see her. She used to tell me stories about how she met my grandfather; who I never met, he died before I was born; and about growing up. But, I was always confused about her stance concerning St. Patrick’s Day. Moreover there seemed to be something going on about “orange men” that confused me even further.

Of course, at the time I had no idea about the religious and political differences which divided Ireland over a thousand years ago. And, even now; at 60 years of age; it is still something I am trying to understand.

First off, that’s Nana above. Born Mary Burke, she was the daughter of my great great grandparents Thomas and Ellen Burke, who moved from Ireland to Brooklyn in the 1850’s. He was a blacksmith and a wheelwright. She stayed home and idid what women did back then; had kids; one of whom was my grandmother “Nana.”

Even my Dad used to joke about not wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day and that orange would drive the average Irishman to drink. Later on I got the joke, but as  a kid I couldn’t understand the thing at all. And then when the Irish-Protestant Troubles kicked up again when I was about 13, I gave up trying to figure it out. I mean if these guys; who both worshiped the same God as far as I could see; were going to kill one another who was I to interfere. As for the orange men; well they sort of faded away into a fairy tale; more of a family joke type of thing.

But this year I resolved to find the answer to that ancient question which has tugged at me since I was a kid; what is an Orangeman and why does his mere existence drive the average Irishman to drink? So, with the help of Aunt Gloria; who is an expert on Orangemen; and the assistance of Wikipedia, this is what I have learned.

I figure that the Williams family didn’t want to be considered Irish; but then my Welsh great grandfather Isaac married an Irish woman, my Nana, pictured above. So, it probably started as a joke between them, but then that wouldn’t explain why Nana no longer wore the green after he passed away. Nor would it explain why my Dad especially used to deny being Irish; stressing the English part of the family tree instead. So, we turn to history.

There is an organization called the Orange Institution which holds hundreds of parades throughout Northern Ireland annually. The biggest one is held on July 12th, in honor of the Battle of the Boyne. Okay, so what was the Battle of the Boyne? Guessing it has something to do with the English and also the division between the Irish Catholic and the Anglican Church. There are also others throughout the year to commemorate the Battle of the Somme. Some of the parades are confrontational, depending on the routes they take.

There are different “neighborhoods” in Belfast where the sentiment runs strong as to whether or not you are an Orangeman; or a Nationalist or Republican. Many of these divisions go back earlier than the Troubles of 1916.

There are also many parades on St. Patrick's Day in Northern Ireland, not just Belfast. Mainly the parade commemorates the Patron Saint Patrick and his place as Patron Saint of Ireland. He is also recognized as the Patron Saint of both Unionists and Nationalists. So now I am totally confused over this Orangeman stuff and besides, Nana was Irish right down to the way she inserted r’s into words like “beirl” and “toirlet”. And if that ain’t Irish, then I’ll eat that hat.

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