Northern Ireland

What is the Twelfth of July?

Bandsmen accompany Orange Order members during Twelfth parades across the north.
Bandsmen accompany Orange Order members during Twelfth parades across the north. Bandsmen accompany Orange Order members during Twelfth parades across the north.

THE Twelfth of July is the most important date in the calendar for members of the Orange Order and many from the Protestant, unionist and loyalist communities, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to participate in, and observe, parades all across Northern Ireland.

But what is the significance of this particular date and why does it hold a special place for the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland?

The Twelfth of July is the most significant date in the Orange Order's calendar
The Twelfth of July is the most significant date in the Orange Order's calendar The Twelfth of July is the most significant date in the Orange Order's calendar

History of the Twelfth of July celebrations

Surprisingly, July 12 is not considered to be the date on which the Battle of the Boyne took place in 1690, when Protestant Dutchman King William of Orange defeated the forces of the Catholic King James II in Co Meath in the Republic of Ireland.

Originally, that date marked the defeat of James’ Irish Jacobite army by Williamite forces at the Battle of Aughrim on July 12 1691 under the old-style Julian calendar.

The Battle of Aughrim as depicted in a painting by John Mulvany
The Battle of Aughrim as depicted in a painting by John Mulvany The Battle of Aughrim as depicted in a painting by John Mulvany

Under the new Gregorian calendar, the Battle of Aughrim took place on July 22, while the previous year’s clash on the banks of the Boyne – on July 1 under the old dating system – occurred on July 11.

The Twelfth became a date on which to celebrate both decisive battles, along with the Glorious Revolution as a whole, in which William III claimed the British throne.

The date is now synonymous with Protestantism in Ireland and further afield, and is considered by many of those who mark it as a religious celebration.

Outside of Ireland, smaller Twelfth parades are held in locations where Orange lodges have been established, including England, Canada and even Australia.

An Orange Order parade in Canada. Picture from the Grand Orange Lodge of Canada
An Orange Order parade in Canada. Picture from the Grand Orange Lodge of Canada An Orange Order parade in Canada. Picture from the Grand Orange Lodge of Canada

Orange Order

Read more: What is the Orange Order?

Central to the Twelfth is the Grand Orange Lodge, a fraternity founded to maintain the Protestant Ascendency in Ireland and to celebrate the island’s links with Great Britain and the throne.

Today, the order is most prominent in Northern Ireland, where it is often seen as the bedrock of unionism and maintains strong links to unionist political parties. Catholics cannot join the Orange Order and do not participate in the Twelfth of July.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson marching as a member of Ballinran Orange Lodge through Kilkeel, Co Down, to mark the Twelfth of July in 2021
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson marching as a member of Ballinran Orange Lodge through Kilkeel, Co Down, to mark the Twelfth of July in 2021 DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson marching as a member of Ballinran Orange Lodge through Kilkeel, Co Down, to mark the Twelfth of July in 2021

However, there remain active lodges in parts of the Republic of Ireland, including Co Donegal, where the state’s largest Orange parade is held annually at the beginning of July in Rossnowlagh, where thousands gather to observe and participate in a march.

Marchers taking part in the annual Orange parade in Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal. Picture by Jonathan Porter/Presseye
Marchers taking part in the annual Orange parade in Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal. Picture by Jonathan Porter/Presseye Marchers taking part in the annual Orange parade in Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal. Picture by Jonathan Porter/Presseye

Back across the border in Northern Ireland, the Orange Order and other loyal orders enjoy a full ‘marching season’, with most parades taking place between April and August.

The Twelfth is the peak of the season, and the day on which the biggest parades are held in front of the largest crowds, following the burning of eleventh night bonfires the previous evening. 

Read more: What are eleventh night bonfires?

Other dates also see large crowds gather to watch parades, including the ‘mini-Twelfth’ held at the start of July. 

A 'mini-Twelfth' parade in Belfast.
A 'mini-Twelfth' parade in Belfast. A 'mini-Twelfth' parade in Belfast.

Orangemen on parade

Dressed in Orange sashes, white shirts, gloves and traditionally bowler hats (a less-common sight today), Orangemen – and members of women’s lodges - march from local lodges along feeder parade routes in cities and towns across Northern Ireland on the Twelfth of July, joining main parades on their way to a local ‘field’, where lodge members and supporters gather to hold a celebration that involves speeches from senior members and others.

Orangemen and a dog taking part in a field gathering in 2015. Picture by Cliff Donaldson
Orangemen and a dog taking part in a field gathering in 2015. Picture by Cliff Donaldson Orangemen and a dog taking part in a field gathering in 2015. Picture by Cliff Donaldson

Orations at these gatherings often include speeches relating to the state of unionism, leading to critics seeing some of these events as more political in scope than religious.

Following this, marchers embark on return parades back along the routes.

Although parades take place right across Northern Ireland on the Twelfth, only Belfast and Ballymena host a fixed annual parade on the day, with other towns taking turns in hosting main county marches each year.

As expected, the Belfast Twelfth parade is among the biggest, with the longest parade route of all marches, from the city centre to the field at Barnetts Demesne on the outskirts of south Belfast.

A Twelfth parade in Belfast's Shaftesbury Square in the early 1920s.
A Twelfth parade in Belfast's Shaftesbury Square in the early 1920s. A Twelfth parade in Belfast's Shaftesbury Square in the early 1920s.

Previous generations of Belfast Orangemen would have marched to the field at Finaghy.

The Parades Commission

Loyal order parades have been at the centre of major community disputes over the decades, including

Drumcree

in Co Armagh, where a ban in the 1990s on marchers walking on the mainly nationalist Garvaghy Road in Portadown remains a contentious issue to this day.

Orangemen at Drumcree in 2022 protesting the ban on marching along Portadown's mainly nationalist Garvaghy Road. Picture by Arthur Allison
Orangemen at Drumcree in 2022 protesting the ban on marching along Portadown's mainly nationalist Garvaghy Road. Picture by Arthur Allison Orangemen at Drumcree in 2022 protesting the ban on marching along Portadown's mainly nationalist Garvaghy Road. Picture by Arthur Allison

On the Twelfth itself, the main march that had been the focus of past tensions was a return parade passing the mainly nationalist Ardoyne area in north Belfast.

A Parades Commission determination banning the evening return march along a stretch of the Crumlin Road led to Twelfth riots in the early 2010s, with marchers and supporters attacking police, and loyalists erecting a protest camp to maintain a year-round presence in the area.

Read more:Understand Ardoyne, you understand the Troubles

Orangemen and supporters protesting in north Belfast in 2013 over a Twelfth parade ban at Ardoyne. Picture by Charles McQuillan
Orangemen and supporters protesting in north Belfast in 2013 over a Twelfth parade ban at Ardoyne. Picture by Charles McQuillan Orangemen and supporters protesting in north Belfast in 2013 over a Twelfth parade ban at Ardoyne. Picture by Charles McQuillan

In previous years, nationalists also sparked disorder and rioting over the parade being allowed to take place past the Ardoyne shops.

Read more: Newton Emerson - Orange Order could learn from how football tackled sectarianism (Premium)

A sign opposing Twelfth parades in north Belfast's Ardoyne area in the years before a local agreement between residents and Orange lodges.
A sign opposing Twelfth parades in north Belfast's Ardoyne area in the years before a local agreement between residents and Orange lodges. A sign opposing Twelfth parades in north Belfast's Ardoyne area in the years before a local agreement between residents and Orange lodges.

A hard-won agreement between Ardoyne residents and local Orange lodges was struck in 2016, meaning the Twelfth morning parade would take place unopposed, with a moratorium on return parades.

This year, controversy erupted when an application for the return parade past Ardoyne was made before being rejected by the Parades Commission.

Bands and music

Along with Orangemen and women, Twelfth marches are known for their accompanying bands.

Often, the parades feature the traditional Lambeg drum – the instrument most associated with the Orange Order and one of the loudest acoustic instruments in the world.

The Lambeg drum is the instrument most associated with Orange parades and the Twelfth of July.
The Lambeg drum is the instrument most associated with Orange parades and the Twelfth of July. The Lambeg drum is the instrument most associated with Orange parades and the Twelfth of July.

Brass and accordian bands also provide the soundtrack to the day’s marching, with members dressed in their finery as they play hymns and other traditional tunes along the routes.

Commonly heard throughout the Twelfth is the tune most associated with the date and the Orange Order itself, The Sash my Father Wore – known as simply The Sash.

The lyrics, referencing the Boyne and Aughrim, were added to an Irish melody dating back to the early 19th century, but The Sash is now one of Ulster’s best-known folk songs, and has been recorded by traditional Irish artists including Liam Clancy, and even the modern trad band most associated with Irish republicanism, the Wolfe Tones.

Loyalist flute bands feature in many Twelfth parades, including ones that would once have been nicknamed ‘Kick the Pope’ bands, but are today often described as ‘blood and thunder’ bands for their often staunch attitudes or association with loyalist paramilitary group members.

Some bands have faced criticism for playing tunes associated with sectarianism, or carrying banners linked to members of paramilitary organisations such as the UVF and UDA.

Read more:Who are the UVF?