The Orange Sweater
By Peg Brown
It was an ugly, collarless, bulky cardigan, complete with large pearlized matching buttons that, in my high school years, strained to enclose my rather bulky form. More importantly, orange was never my color, as confirmed by the color experts in my adult years. But, every year, Mother would drag that sweater out and insist I wear it to school for the day.
The date each year? March 17th, which most of you may recognize as the day for “wearing of the green.”
I never really understood Mom’s purpose, but she insisted that we all sport that color every St. Patrick’s Day. Only much later I learned the reason.
Grandpa Wilson, a short, stocky suspender-wearing Scot immigrant to Canada and later to the United States was an “orange man.” Among the memorabilia he left behind was a tattered strip of orange satin with an enameled disc that Mom said he wore every year in the Orange Man’s parade (July 12)—and on St. Patrick’s Day. As what has become almost a national holiday approached this year, I decided to do some research on the origin of the Orange Men and how it could possibly related to being required to wear an unflattering garment on March 17th.
Those of you who don the green as a tribute to your Irish heritage, either by birth or by partner, hold on to your shamrocks—what I unearthed is definitely going to surprise you, if not send you to immediately add green food coloring to your next Guinness.
The orange order was actually founded in 1795 in County Armagh, as a—hold on—“Masonic style brotherhood sworn to maintain the Protestant Ascendency.” The label was actually adopted in Ireland at this time in tribute to William of Orange, who defeated the army of Catholic King James II in the late 1600s. The county contained about equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants and it was a very volatile decade as the two groups fought for support.
For almost two hundred years, the battle continued between the Catholic and Protestant sects of Ireland, with the Irish as much involved with the orange fraternity as they were with what the Catholics called “The Defenders.”
The Order of the Orange has waxed and rallied throughout those two centuries. However, when the 1920 act of home rule was passed creating Northern Ireland, every Prime Minister from 1921 to 1969 was-wait for it—an “orange man.”
The Orange Order continues to thrive—based on a devotion to “Biblical Protestantism, the principles of reformation, and the Fourth Commandment.” While Catholics were forbidden to join, that rule has changed. In fact, at its peak, “in 1965, the Order’s membership was about 70,000, or roughly one in five adult Ulster Protestant males were members.”
The Scottish branch of the orange men can also trace its roots back to the late 18th century, when Irish Protestants of the working class emigrated to the Scottish lowlands—“returning to the land of the forefathers,” and in the late 19th century to Upper Canada and the Maritime Provinces.
Thus the link to my grandfather and that orange sweater.
However, in doing this bit of research, I also found some fun and interesting facts about St. Patrick’s Day.
St. Patrick’s Day is thought to mark the death, the British born missionary who is credited with converting Ireland to Christianity.
The first St. Patrick’s Day celebration was in New York City in 1756.
Philadelphia held its first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1771.
In 1780, General George Washington, that dyed-in-the-wool Mason, declared March 17th a holiday for the continental army, honoring the commitment of those of Irish Heritage to the cause. It is reported that this is the first holiday the army had had in two years. This might qualify as the first St. Patrick’s Day in America.
Until recently, St. Patrick’s Day was no big deal in Ireland. In fact, up until the 1970s, the pubs were forbidden to open. That all changed in the 1990s, when Ireland saw a great opportunity to promote the day for tourists in the interest of commerce.
One of the most continuous St. Patrick’s Day parades occurs in each year in Montreal, Canada, where the city flag includes the shamrock as a symbol.
And, lest you think that St. Patrick’s Day has escaped the political correct movement—
LBGT groups were banned from marching in the NYC and Boston St. Patrick’s Day parades until a law suit was brought to the Supreme Court. The ban was lifted in NYC in 2014 and in Boston in 2015.
St. Patrick’s Day is also criticized for perpetuating the stereotypes associated with the Irish—and the costumes and general drinking associated with the holiday.
So, will it be orange for me this year? Do you think I’m crazy? After all, this is Rhode Island!