Rossnowlagh is, at first glance, nothing really special. A seaside village in County Donegal, with some hotels, and a few caravan parks, popular with holiday-makers from the northern part of Ireland. But every year it hosts one of the most extraordinary events in the Republic of Ireland—a parade by the Orange Order, championing Protestantism and Unionism, complete with sashes, pipes, and drums.
Orange Order Parades: What Are They About?
The Orange Institution, known as the Orange Order or "the Orangemen" in popular parlance, is a Protestant fraternal organization. Often called a "secret society," but public parades don't sit well with that image. It is based in the northern part of Ireland and propagates unionism, the union between the six counties and the English crown.
Founded in 1796, its name was chosen in remembrance of the Dutch-born Protestant King of England, Ireland, and Scotland William of Orange—who defeated the Catholic King of England, Ireland, and Scotland James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
The Institution also has a large presence in Scotland and lodges can be found throughout the Commonwealth and even in the United States. Strangely enough, at least if you have Irish history in mind, there are also lodges in nine counties in the Republic of Ireland. Mentioning lodges, the Orange Institution is not connected to Freemasonry, though the outward appearance and regalia may well suggest a connection.
The most public events the Orange Order is involved in are the parades—which are generally a march of lodge members in regalia, accompanied by marching bands, and unionist tunes. Celebrating Protestantism, King Billy and, above all, the victory at the Boyne. Most are held on or around July 12.
Rossnowlagh, an Irish Anomaly
Most of the Irish Orange Lodges do not parade but the Ulster brethren do. In Ulster, namely in Rossnowlagh. Supported by lodges in the area, you will usually see Orangemen from Cavan, Donegal, Monaghan, and even Dublin marching under their banners.
The march takes place on the Saturday before July 12 and starts just after midday. All participants assemble on a field near St. John's Church, a fair bit outside Rossnowlagh proper. Then they march for two kilometers or so through the countryside, past a caravan park, and into the village of Rossnowlagh. A religious service is held in the dunes and there is what can only be described as a small Unionist fair in the car park.
Overall the event is peaceful and has a family atmosphere. Despite the presence of armed gardai (who are keeping a low profile) and a bit of traffic chaos.
How Do They Manage to Pull It Off?
Shouldn't Orange Order Parades be outlawed in Ireland? Well, they might have a sectarian undercurrent and not really promote a modern society but at the end of the day, there is nothing unconstitutional or dangerous about them. It is just a bunch of (mostly) old men (and a few women) marching to show their defiance and their continued adherence to principles others might find outdated. Oh, well, let them march.
Rossnowlagh is, after all, the ideal place to do so by marching through nature most of the time, avoiding any "conflict areas," and generally keeping themselves to themselves the Orangemen have avoided (or evaded) confrontation. To be blunt, there is nobody taking a strong exception to their Protestant-Unionist antics. And they have, for another year, reasserted their right of free assembly and so forth.
Going to Rossnowlagh
Yes, one should—it is a colorful spectacle and maybe the most non-threatening Orange Order Parade you will be able to witness. It may not have the glamour of the big parades in Ireland, but then it does not have an opposing crowd, riot shields, and the occasional flying bottles either.
Come early: the access roads start to clog up by 11 a.m. with coaches spilling their passengers in the middle of nowhere (actually near the assembly field) or near the village center, camper-vans jostling for the best spaces, and individual cars looking for parking. Just follow the signs, to be led into a field near St. John's Church and pay a modest fee (and with access controlled by both gardai and Orangemen it felt quite safe).
If you want to take photos of the Rossnowlagh parade, find a good vantage spot—follow the parade route out of the village and set up camp where you have the undulating countryside as a background, gives you a bit of green behind all those orange sashes as well.