Death and destruction on the famous 12th

Approaching the Twelfth of July and the memory of the Battle of the Boyne in which William of Orange defeated King James, has for years caused tension and tempers to reach boiling point in Ulster and across the border. The routes have been changed on numerous occasions to avoid flash points and keep the peace. Today we think of the Garvahey Road, Derry's Walls and other places in Northern Ireland, but one of the first parades to see death and destruction was at Dolly's Brae on July 12, 1849.

The fact that members of the County Down Orange Order had stated their intention to march from Rathfriland to the Earl of Roden's Estate at Tollymoore Park, County Down on the Twelfth had greatly alarmed government authorities. The proposed route of the parade would pass through the almost total Catholic townland of Magheramayo,. This, it was feared, would provoke the Catholic Ribbonmen. In order to make sure that things stayed quiet, a body of troops and police and two magistrates was sent to the area. Early on the morning of July 12, 1849, the soldiers took up their positions at Dolly's Brae near Castlewellan, where there had been trouble the previous year. Shortly after, a force of several hundred Ribbonmen arrived and finding the pass occupied, they waited nearby.

The parade of over one thousand Orange Men "all armed to the teeth" left Rathfriland led by a number of bands and a company of dragoons. Meanwhile, the numbers of Ribbonmen at Dolly's Brae had grown to over a thousand, all armed with pitchforks, pikes and muskets. They appeared to enjoy themselves with shooting practice but no breach of the peace occurred.

At about five o'clock that evening the Orange parade approached Dolly's Brae instead of returning to Rathfriland by the same route as they had come. The Ribbonmen had by this stage moved from Dolly's Brae to a hill which overlooked the pass. A man at the head of the Orange parade is reported to have given the order "Now, my boys, not a shot to be fired". Then, as they marched along there came the sound of a shot from the head of the parade. Who fired first is not known (some say that it was a firework that was hurled into the ranks). A succession of shots from each side followed this. As shots flew among the police and troops, they charged the Ribbonmen, firing as they went. When the Ribbonmen took to their heels, the order to stop firing was given but several of the Orange section of the parade continued firing.

After the battle, the police found six dead bodies, eighteen pitchforks, seven pikes and ten muskets. Not one Orange man was wounded and only one policeman was hurt when he was accidentally bayoneted in the arm by one of his companions. A government inquiry later found that at least thirty Ribbonmen were killed and its report led the government to re-introduce the Party Processions Act, forbidding sectarian parades. The underlying tensions are believed to have been fuelled by the anti-Catholicism that pervaded the popular evangelical feeling of the time and the resultant resurgence of the Ribbonmen. However, it gave the Orangemen the knowledge that they were able to deal with such matters in an effective manner.

Dolly's Brae happened 157 years ago - how much have things changed since? Many efforts have been made by different people on both sides to ease the tensions and cool the anger which boils at times such as the Twelfth of July parade.

Perhaps the first big break came in 1993 with the Downing Street Declaration. For a brief moment, let us go back to the lead up to this declaration.

In 1991, Margaret Thatcher was succeeded as British Prime Minister by John Major and Albert Reynolds became Taoiseach when Charles Haughey resigned over allegations that he knew of the tapping of journalists' phones in 1992. Reynolds then announced that his two top priorities were to achieve peace in Northern Ireland and prosperity in the Republic. He had become friendly with Major when they both held the Finance portfolio of their respective governments over the previous years and shortly afterwards, Reynolds started talks with his friend about Northern Ireland. After some tough negotiations, the two leaders signed the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993. It declared that Britain had "no selfish, strategic or economic interest" in Northern Ireland and that it was "for the people of the island of Ireland alone" to decide their future. The Irish side agreed that unity would only come with the consent of the majority and that clauses in the Irish Constitution that claimed sovereignty over the whole island would be talked about. There were some who claimed that Major had sold Ulster to please the Republicans. It was almost a year later when a ceasefire was declared by the IRA and six weeks later, a similar action was taken by the Loyalists paramilitaries. This may not have been the end of the trouble in the North, but it was a big step in the right direction.

Courtesy of Willie White and the Carlow Nationalist