"The Sash My Father Wore" Irish History and Significance

A divisive song, it recalls Protestant victories against Catholics

Sashes to sashes at Rossnowlagh in County Donegal
Bernd Biege

"The Sash My Father Wore," or simply "The Sash," is a well-known song hailing from the Irish province of Ulster and Scotland. "The Sash" might be one of Ireland’s most divisive songs, yet it is cherished by a large part of the population in Northern Ireland. However, it certainly is not universally loved, thanks to centuries of political connotations attached to it.

“The Sash” is steeped in Ulster lore and Irish history, and proudly tells the story of King William III's victories over King James II, during the wars these two English monarchs fought in Ireland from 1689 to 1691. It is a song that is also played in Scotland during events led by the Orange Order.

Mentioned in the lyrics are historic events of the so-called "Williamite War," which included the 1689 Siege of Derry, the 1689 Battle of Newtownbutler, the famed Battle of the Boyne in 1690, and the decisive Battle of Aughrim a year later.

Ultimately, the battles were fought between a king who was considered Protestant and a king who was Catholic. Therefore, "The Sash" is seen as an incredibly controversial song because it has become an anthem for sectarian (religion-based) political groups.

Why "The Sash" Is a Controversial Song

The lyrics of "The Sash" are considered offensive by some of the population, but to understand why it is first essential to know a bit more about Irish history. It is a complicated tale of two warring kings, but here is the breakdown: 

First of all, the Williamite War in Ireland (1688–1691) was a conflict between Jacobites (supporters of the Catholic King James II of England and Ireland, VII of Scotland) and Williamites (multinational supporters of the Dutch Protestant Prince William of Orange) over who should be monarch of the kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

James had been deposed as king of these three kingdoms in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the mostly Catholic Jacobites of Ireland supported his return to power, as did France. For this reason, the war became part of a wider European conflict known as the Nine Years' War.

The Protestant Williamites of Northern Ireland Favored Union With Britain

The mostly Protestant Williamites, who were concentrated in the north of Ireland, opposed James. William landed a multinational force in Ireland to put down Jacobite resistance. James left Ireland after defeats at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and the Battle of Aughrim in 1691. The Williamite victories of the Siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne are still celebrated in Ireland today, mainly by Ulster Protestant unionists.

There was intense anxiety in Holland about England under James, whom the Dutch suspected of favoring France, their archenemy after a war with France and earlier Anglo-French alliances had caused Holland great suffering. They wanted England’s support for an alliance against Louis XIV. William then invaded England in 1688 as a pre-emptive strike, and it worked.

James fled to France, joining the queen and the infant Prince of Wales there. It was decided that James had, de facto, abdicated. Since William was James’ nephew and closest legitimate male relative, and his wife, Mary, was James’ eldest daughter and heir apparent, William and Mary were jointly offered the throne, which they accepted. In the same way, they were also awarded the throne in Scotland.

William Defeated James and Irish Catholic Jacobitism in Ireland

William had defeated Jacobitism in Ireland, and subsequent Jacobite uprisings were confined to Scotland and England. In Ireland, Britain and Protestants ruled over the country for more than two centuries, effectively keeping Catholics from any positions of real power.

For more than a century after the war, Irish Catholics maintained a sentimental attachment to the Jacobite cause, portraying James and the Stuarts as the rightful monarchs who would have given a just settlement to Ireland, with self-government, restoration of confiscated lands, and tolerance for Catholicism.

As for "The Sash," the melody the lyrics are sung to has been known as far back as the late 18th century in the British Isles and all around Europe. The first lyrics, from 1787, seem to have been a lament about lovers who were forcibly parted that contains a chorus starting, “She was young and she was beautiful,” far from the political anthem it has become.

There seems to be no definitive version of this song, so we present here one popular set of lyrics and, below those, some well-known alternative lyrics.

Popular Lyrics

Sure it's old, but it is beautiful
And the colors they are fine
It was worn at Derry, Aughrim,
Enniskillen, and the Boyne.
Sure my father wore it when a youth
In the bygone days of yore,
And it's on the twelfth I love to wear
The sash my father wore.

Sure I'm an Ulster Orangeman
And from Erin's Isle I came
To see my lads go gravlin
Of honor and of fame.
And to tell them of my forefathers
Who fought in days of yore
All on the twelfth day of July
In the sash my father wore.

So here I am in Glasgow town
To find them girls to see
And I'm hoping, good old Orange Ulster,
That you all will welcome me.
A true blue blade has just arrived
From the dear old Ulster shore
All on the 12th day of July
In the sash my father wore.

Oh, when I'm going to leave you all
Oh, good luck to you I'll say
As I cross the raging sea, my boys,
Surely the Orange flute I'll play.
And returning to my native town
To old Belfast once more
To be welcomed by those Orangemen
In the sash my father wore.

Alternative Lyrics

So sure l'm an Ulster Orangeman, from Erin's isle I came,
To see my British brethren all of honor and of fame,
And to tell them of my forefathers who fought in days of yore,
That I might have the right to wear, the sash my father wore!

It is old but it is beautiful,
and its colors they are fine
It was worn at Derry, Aughrim,
Enniskillen and the Boyne.
My father wore it as a youth
in bygone days of yore,
And on the 12th I love to wear
the sash my father wore.

For those brave men who crossed the Boyne have not fought or died in vain,
Our Unity, Religion, Laws, and Freedom to maintain,
If the call should come, we'll follow the drum, and cross that river once more
That tomorrow's Ulsterman may wear the sash my father wore!

And when someday, across the sea to Antrim's shore you come,
We'll welcome you in royal style, to the sound of flute and drum
And Ulster's hills shall echo still, from Rathlin to Dromore
As we sing again the loyal strain of the sash my father wore!

The Sash and Football

Some supporters of the Glasgow Rangers soccer team are known for their unionist (sectarian) politics, and many fans use “The Sash” as a kind of anthem, just as the Irish supporters of Celtic Glasgow use republican songs. Even though both clubs try to steer their respective fans away from sectarianism, this re-visiting of old history is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

The song has also been used by supporters of Stockport County Football Club as “The Scarf My Father Wore” (referring to the typical soccer scarf). Supporters of Liverpool Football Club have also recycled the melody as “Poor Scouser Tommy.”

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