The Lady Day Riots
The fifteenth of August, Lady Day is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven, informally known as The Assumption, an event which according to the belief of Christians of the Roman Catholic Church, was the bodily taking up of the Virgin Mary into Heaven at the end of her life. The 15th August has become synonymous with parades and political gatherings in Ireland especially in Ulster.
Parades have been a feature of Irish society for at least five hundred years. A description of a procession and pageant held by the Merchant Guilds through Dublin to mark Corpus Christi in 1498 suggests that this was a custom of some standing since the event was already governed by 'an olde law'.
By the late eighteenth century numerous other bodies had taken up and extended the practice of holding parades to mark significant religious, military and political anniversaries, to display their strength and loyalty, to assert their political demands and to lay claims to territory. Throughout the century parades were held to commemorate the Williamite wars and numerous other royal anniversaries.
Following the formation of the Grand Lodge in 1725, the Freemasons held regular processions on St John's Day (24 June) in Dublin, Coleraine and Cork, similarly numerous journeymen and artisans associations followed the customs of their masters in the Guilds and paraded on their patron saints day.
Roman Catholics were restricted by the Penal Laws, introduced after the Williamite victories, from publicly asserting their political ideals, although supporters of the Jacobite pretender caused a flurry of concern when they paraded in Dublin on a number of occasions during the 1720s. Instead saints days, fairs and sporting occasions were opportunities to gather together in a manner that could still act as a show of force and solidarity. However from the 1760s agrarian groups such as the Whiteboy bands and later the Defenders, began to organise to defend local and sectarian interests. They could rarely display their numbers freely in public by processing on anniversary days but instead funeral processions could be, and often were, used as a show of strength and to offer discrete warnings to those in power.
The 1770s and 1780s saw the extension and consolidation of Freemasonry in Ireland and in particular across southern Ulster. From the 1770s to the 1830s Freemasonry was a significant social force in Ulster and while it is now seen as a socially exclusive and Protestant organisation, during this period it was also a popular and non-sectarian body. Some lodges were exclusive and Protestant, others largely Catholic, but many were mixed both by class and by faith.
The opportunity to parade was something that had to be fought for however, and all to often, it was literally fought for. While Orangemen claimed the right to honour the victory at the Boyne they readily challenged Ribbon parades for St Patrick. But in their turn the Ribbonmen responded by confronting Orangemen when the opportunity arose.
Throughout the 1820s and 1830s clashes occurred at parades across the north, firearms were widely used and fatalities were far from rare, although the most serious injuries were usually sustained by the Catholic body. The fatalities themselves then fed into the cycle of contentious parades as the Ribbon lodges (and Orange and Masonic lodges) took the occasion of a funeral to mount large processions of supporters.
From 1872 Our Lady's Day (15 August) was also incorporated into the political calendar with St Patrick's Day. It soon became the more significant date and by the early 1900s 'the Fifteenth' was treated by the Irish News as comparable to 'the Twelfth'. But this comparison was never quite as reliable as it might have seemed. Parading, although a significant feature of the nationalist culture, was never taken up with the same purpose as it was by the Orangemen, it was always more clearly linked to a broader political agenda, rather than developing a dynamic of its own. But, just when the momentum seemed to be building up with bigger and bigger parades each year, the main anniversaries were virtually ignored in 1913 and 1914 as more overt political concerns took priority.
St Patrick's Day 1872 had been marked by commemorations of the Manchester Martyrs and demonstrations in support of Fenian prisoners in Cork, Drogheda and Dublin. There were no demonstrations in the north although shamrocks were widely worn. However a number of events in support of Home Rule and the Fenians were announced for Our Lady's Day. Parades were planned in Belfast, Castlewellan, Cookstown, Derry, Dundrum, Gilford, Lurgan, Lisburn, Newcastle, Newry, Portadown, Portglenone and Warrenpoint. Some of these attracted large numbers of supporters, others were only local parades, prior to moving on to a larger demonstration. Editorials in the Northern Whig (14.8.1872) and the News Letter (15.8.1872) noted that the Orangemen had been allowed to hold their demonstrations in July without any interruptions and therefore Protestants should allow Roman Catholics to do likewise. It was further noted that the
demand for Home Rule was a constitutional objective and demonstrations in support of such a demand should be allowed.
The most extreme response to the idea of a nationalist demonstration was in Belfast. The organisers planned to assemble their supporters in Hercules Place and then parade to Carlisle Circus and from there to Hannahstown. The decision to hold the parade on Lady's Day, (or the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin), meant that the nationalist aspiration for Home Rule was identified in many minds as an exclusively, and essentially, Roman Catholic desire. Furthermore as there had not been a nationalist parade in Belfast since before the United Irishmen rising of 1798 it was easy to mobilise Protestant opinion against the planned demonstration. Although the editor of the News Letter seemed somewhat perplexed that nationalists should want to parade 'through the midst of a Protestant community in colours associated with disloyalty' and on a day which otherwise had no political overtones. He nevertheless urged that Protestants 'be slow to take offence, even if offence should be directly offered to them' (BNL 15.8.1872). Unfortunately some of the Protestant community did not heed his advice.
When the procession approached the assembly point at Carlisle Circus they found it blocked by a crowd of between five and ten thousand people. These had gathered to defend St Enoch's Church after the minister, the Revd. Hugh Hanna, had warned that it would almost certainly be attacked. The Home Rule supporters were forced to walk back through the town centre and from there to the Falls. Near Divis Street, on the lower Falls, the procession was attacked by Protestants from the Shankill area, but once the police had regained control the marchers were able to continue to Hannahstown, where eventually some thirty thousand people assembled for the rally.
Violence broke out again later in the day when shipyard workers from Queen's Island clashed with police in High Street as they attempted to confront the returning marchers. As a result the parade was prevented from re-entering the town and forced to break up and disperse early. Although this happened peacefully, people began to gather on the streets after work, barricades were soon erected between the Falls and the Shankill Roads and fighting broke out between mobs from Sandy Row and the Pound. Rioting continued through the evening as mobs clashed throughout the town. Many people were forced to flee from their homes. The violence died down overnight, but began again early the next day and despite the efforts of the police, the mayor and the military it continued over the next week. It was not until torrential rainfall on Wednesday 21 August kept people from the streets that the fighting was brought to a halt. At least four people died during this period, several more were seriously wound, two hundred and forty seven houses were destroyed, and over eight hundred families forced to leave their homes.
One clear aim of the violent protests from the Protestant community was to demonstrate that they would not tolerate nationalist parades in the heart of their city. In this they were largely successful. While nationalist bands continued to parade in their parts of the town and arches were regularly erected in Smithfield and on the streets off the Falls Road, more extensive displays and demonstrations of support for the Home Rule movement were not attempted again until the 1890s. If Belfast Catholics wanted to join in with the nationalist demonstrations they were forced to leave the city and travel elsewhere to a town where such displays were accepted.
While a number of parades in the south Down area passed off peacefully, there was trouble at several events in the 'linen triangle' area of east Tyrone, Armagh and west Down. In Lisburn, local Orangemen were called out to ensure no demonstration took place, in Cookstown a proposed monster demonstration in support of Home Rule brought an announcement that local Orangemen intended to hold an open air meeting at the same time. As a result the military were sent in to ensure that order was maintained.
Magistrates were also concerned that a parade planned for Gilford would provoke a hostile response from local Orangemen. They banned the assembly and ordered that all pubs in the village, as well as those in Laurencetown, Point, Civil Town, Scarva and Loughbrickland should remain closed from the eve of the 14th until the 16th.
Furthermore extra police and a troop of Dragoons were drafted into both Gilford and Scarva. The main assembly was relocated to the nearby village of Point, but a tenuous compromise seems to have been reached to allow residents of both sides of the mixed community of Gilford to display their faith.
At about 4.30 in the morning an Orange drumming party paraded through the village, nationalists were then allowed to hold their parade along the main street between seven and eight o'clock on condition that they would not parade that way on return. Once they had left, the Orangemen once
again paraded the street to reassert control.
More serious problems occurred at Scarva where the nationalist procession was confronted by a crowd of Protestants who stoned them as the tried to cross the railwaybridge. The Riot Act was read before the police were able to restore order. Nevertheless, a stand-off occurred at the bridge as more Protestants arrived to ensure the parade was not forced through the village. Tension increased when a train full of Home Rule supporters from Lurgan and Portadown arrived but they were prevented from leaving the platform and forced to return to their native towns (BNL 16.8.1872; NW 16.8.1872). The disturbances in Scarva eventually petered out but trouble spread to both Lurgan and Portadown. In Portadown nationalists were attacked when they arrived back at the town, while the Lurgan contingent were prevented from holding their planned return parade by a crowd of Protestants. Trouble continued in Lurgan over the next two days. On Friday 16th the police were forced to intervene as a crowd of Catholics gathered to try to stop children from the Wesleyan Methodist School from going to their school fete, apparently in response to the events of the day before. Later that afternoon the police had to stop the returning children and 'their friends' from
parading through the Catholic Pound area of the town. More trouble flared over the weekend: an 'Orange mob', parading the town on Friday evening, was fired upon by a Catholic spirit-grocer, a man named Donnelly. The mob responded by rioting and wrecking four houses. The following night the Catholic mob rioted in their turn, by Monday however things had quietened down again and order had been restored (NW 17.8, 19.8.1872). Unfortunately such disturbances were to become virtually an annual event in the town.