A Donegal tourist website, listing some of the events and attractions in the county, draws special mention to the annual Rossnowlagh Orange Order Parade, held every year before the 12th July commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne: ‘It is a moment of high weirdness, once very year – orangemen and -women descend upon the sleepy seaside town of Rossnowlagh to parade from the church to the beach. What has the trappings of an outing to the seaside (complete with ice cream vendors, food stands and tacky souvenir stalls) is in fact the only parade of the Orange Order in the republic of Ireland. Peaceful and a family affair. And colourful, though blue, white and red are the pre-dominant shades. 
The idea of an Orange Order parade in the South will likely seem odd to some, especially given the violence that occurred when Willie Frazer and Love Ulster marched in Dublin some years back. Many would also be surprised to know that there are, in fact, some 44 Orange Lodges in Cavan, Donegal, Leitrim, Monaghan, Donegal and Wicklow. The Rossnowlagh Parade represents the most important event in the calendar of Southern Unionism and has, with the notable exception of a gap in the 1970s, taken place annually on the Saturday before the 12th of July with little fuss for more than a hundred years. This post will examine the history of this curious annual event.
Unionism in Donegal
The Orange Order has its origins in the intense sectarian violence that plagued mid-Ulster in the 1790s, evolving from anti-Catholic, agrarian secret societies that were active in the affected areas. The organisation’s stated aim was to promote and defend Protestantism in a country where Catholics formed a significant majority. The organisation was highly active in the early nineteenth century in opposition to Daniel O’Connell’s repeal agitation and was involved in many acts of sectarian violence. By the late nineteenth century, the movement was in decline. However, William Gladstone’s attempts to introduce Home Rule for Ireland saw the Order re-emerge stronger than ever before. In the Unionist state that emerged after the turmoil of the revolution, the Orange Order became the most significant organisation in the six counties. Indeed, between 1921 and 1969, every prime minister of Northern Ireland, and all but three cabinet members, were members. Unsurprisingly, the organisation didn’t fare as well in the Southern State. The annual twelfth of July parades, celebrating the protestant William of Orange’s victory at the battle of the Boyne, is the movement’s most important and widely celebrated tradition.
That the Orange Order was active in Donegal is not surprising. The county has historically possessed a significant Protestant population. In 1861, for example, nearly a quarter of the County’s total population came under the category of ‘other religions’, of which Church of Ireland adherents and Presbyterians formed the great majority. By 1926 relative numbers had declined, though less dramatically than in other parts of the country, and they remained a significant minority, compromising 18% of the population of Donegal. Indeed, of the twenty-six counties that formed the Saorstát, Donegal had the third largest non-Catholic minority, edged out only by County Dublin (excluding the city) and Monaghan. Even today there are a number of Orange lodges in the county, though the Rossnowlagh lodge itself has long been inactive.
The Rossnowlagh parade appears to have merited little mention in the pre-revolutionary period, being just one of dozens of Orange parades held in the South at a time when the idea of ‘Northern Ireland’ had yet to come into existence. One of the few times the Rossnowlagh parade attracted attention was in 1906 when the Raphoe bands were returning home from the march. On reaching the town, the Orangemen paraded through the streets ‘though the hour was late.’ A Catholic navvy got caught up in the procession before being beaten badly. A ‘scene of wild violence’ then occurred between local Catholics and the Order with the marchers using bayonets and deacon poles as weapons, resulting in several Catholics being ‘seriously wounded’ by bayonet and sword thrusts. The fact that this one outbreak of violence merited mention indicates that the parade was, otherwise, just a regular part of life in Donegal.
Rossnowlagh only became notable after the revolution. After partition, Orangeism became a more or less purely Ulster phenomenon, while Southern Unionism adjusted to the reality of minority status in an independent Irish State. While the Orange Order managed to maintain its structures reasonably well in the border counties of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal, the Rossnowlagh march quickly became the only major Boyne commemoration in the Free State, though some smaller events did continue to be held in other parts of the country. A newspaper report of the 1936 Rossnowlagh parade described an event greatly similar to the contemporary parade, with the day passing off ‘without a single unpleasant incident’, no political meetings being held and the crowd ‘contenting themselves with the usual features of a seaside outing.’ Other pre-1969 parades followed a similar pattern.
With the outbreak of the troubles in 1969, the future of the Rossnowlagh commemoration was called into question. With the conflict less than a year old, there were well-grounded fears that the marching season would represent a sectarian flash-point. It was in this context that Fianna Fáil senator and Donegal native Bernard McGlinchey warned that there would be trouble were the parade to take place. There was an undeniable sectarian tinge to McGinchey’s comments, made at a meeting of Donegal County Council, accusing Donegal Protestants of ‘separating themselves from the community’ and ‘paying lip-service to Dublin.’ When confronted over his statements, the senator was unapologetic, claiming that Donegal Unionists had crossed into Northern Ireland ‘to help the B-specials in their foul work’ and accused them of aiding the UVF in the blowing up of an RTE mast near Raphoe.
The Donegal News reported that McGlinchey’s comments were not well received in the County and represented a view that was ‘alien to normal attitudes in Donegal, where all sections of the people live in reasonable harmony, respect and friendship.’ Support came from unexpected quarters. The Ancient Order of Hibernians condemned McGlinchey’s ‘deplorable’ threats while Sinn Féin encouraged the Orange Order to continue with the parade regardless and suggested that they seek Garda protection from ‘sectarian bully gangs.’ In spite of this, the Orange Order decided to call off the parade in the interests of maintaining the peace. It was not until 1978 that the parade was again revived.
One of the most striking features of the parade from the mid-1980s onwards was its spectacular growth. In the period before the troubles, the numbers attending the parade rarely rose above 1,000 while, after the restoration of the event in 1978, they tended to be a fairly humble affair. This is not surprising, given the context of the continued tensions that existed across the border. The 1981 parade, for example, saw just 500 or so Orangemen parade through Rossnowlagh ‘amid . . . black flags and walls daubed with H-block slogans.’ However, the popularity of the event was growing steadily and, by 1987, numbers had risen to 800. Interestingly, one of the participants that year was Gordon Graham, secretary of the Dublin and Wicklow lodge, who proudly boasted of being ‘the only Connaught-born man in the Orange Order.’
‘A Family Day Out’
It was the nineties that the parade truly came into its own. The 1993 parade saw an unprecedented attendance of 10,000, twenty times the number that had marched on the revival of the event in 1978. By 1997, the estimated attendance was 15,000, including Orangemen from as far afield as Canada and New Zealand. These figures may not be entirely accurate. The Donegal Orange Order’s deputy grand master, for example, felt that the small size of the village may have led to overestimates of crowd size. However, the fact that a significant increase in attendance took place cannot be questioned. That the explosion in popularity of the parade coincided with the peace process is not surprising. Indeed, the scale of the celebrations has tended to ebb and flow with the degree of tensions on the other side of the border.
Eric Kaufman writes of the Rossnowlagh commemoration that the nature of the parade in ‘this depoliticised setting demonstrates that Orange marches are about culture as well as power.’ To say that the Rossnowlagh marches were always apolitical is not strictly true. At the 1960 march for example the southern government were criticised for not doing enough to prevent IRA raids during the border campaign, while in 1980 the crowd were warned against ‘misleading and divisive ecumenism.’ However, in general, these were the exception rather than the rule. The parade in recent times has tended to be more of a ‘family day out’, with all the features of a seaside festival, including tacky souvenirs and chip-vans. In 2000, a local Garda, who had policed the gathering for over a decade, commented that the parade was ‘very much a family affair . . . there is never any hassle.’ The order itself appears to have taken care to ensure that the parade remains so. For example, the Sash is always played though more overtly political songs are not, while Ulster flags, rather than Union Jacks, are typically carried by the marchers.
So, why has the parade tended to remain so free from tension? A significant factor must be the healthy community relations that have prevailed there. In 2001, a poll of Donegal Protestants found that 86% identified with ‘Irishness’ and the Irish state, demonstrating pride in national achievements, while 96% mixed socially with the Catholic community. The fields where the parades are held, for example, are Catholic-owned while one local Orangemen commented that they and the local lodges of the Ancient Order of Hibernians ‘co-operated closely’, often loaning each other instruments for their respective parades.
The other reason for the trouble-free nature of the parade is their political setting. The Orange Order in the north was indelibly associated with the overtly sectarian Stormont state that emerged from partition. The order was seen to be (and usually was) tightly bound up with institutions like the B-specials and the Northern state itself. Thus, Boyne commemorations there had an entirely different meaning, being an expression of power and control, often of overt sectarianism, as well as a cultural event. In the republic however, the state, though dominated by the ethos and corporeal power of the Catholic church, was not an overt tool of sectarian repression. Thus, Orange marches held in the south were neither an expression of resistance nor of domination, and lacked the potency of meaning that they generated in the North.
In the context of the southern state and an area that has traditionally boasted healthy community relations, the Rossnowlagh commemoration perhaps represents another side of Orangeism, an expression of a more benign Unionist identity, stripped of the sectarianism and triumphalism that is so often characteristic of Orange parades in Northern Ireland. The geographical distance between Drumcree and Rossnowlagh is not large, but the political, historic and cultural gulf between those two places is immense.
 Report of the 1926 Census (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1929), Vol.3, Table 9.
 Donegal News, 21 July 1906.
 Donegal News, 18 July 1936.
 Donegal News, 4 July 1970.
 Irish Press, 11 July 1970.
 Donegal News, 11 July 1970
 Donegal News, 18 July 1981.
 Irish Times, 13 July 1987.
 Irish Times, 12 July 1993.
 Irish Times, 7 July 1997.
 Irish Times, 26 May 2000.
 Eric Kaufman, The Orange Order: A Contemporary Northern Irish History (Oxford, 2007), 237.
 Donegal News, 23 July 1960 and 19 July 1980.
 Irish Times, 26 May 2000.
 Irish Times, 14 August 2001.