I indicated recently that I would post some general observations on the issues I had raised in my letter to the trustees of the Ulster Museum and this is the first of them.
Back in 1988 the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum had a magnificent exhibition entitled Brotherhoods in Ireland. It told the story of the many fraternal organisations that have been such a feature of life in Ulster for hundreds of years.
They included monastic and medieval organisations such as the Knights Templar, the Knights of St John and merchant, craft and religious guilds. There were also the 'charitable and convivial brotherhoods' such as the Freemasons and the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes.
Friendly Societies were a significant feature of life in the 18th and 19th centuries as a 'poor man's life assurance'. These included the Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Ancient Order of Foresters, the Irish National Foresters, and the British Order of Ancient Free Gardeners. In the long run, however, National Insurance and competition from insurance companies led to their decline and today only the Irish National Foresters survive as an organisation. There were also temperance brotherhoods such as the Independent Order of Rechabites and the International Order of Good Templars.
Finally we have the Orange Order, the Royal Arch Purple Chapter, the Royal Black Institution, the Independent Orange Order and the Knights of Malta, as well as the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Knights of St Columbanus.
The 1988 exhibition was comprehensive and informative and showed that many of these organisations had much in common, with their lodges, passwords, degrees, regalia, banners and processions. This was a high quality exhibition that was truly a credit to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. It showed what can be done.
Of course this was a special exhibition but even a general exhibition on the history of Ulster must take account of and give adequate, appropriate and proportionate representation to the main fraternal organisations, especially the Orange Order and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, both of which have played a signficant role in the political history of Ulster. The Orange Order has always been associated with Unionism and the AOH was for many years the power base of Joe Devlin and the Nationalists. Devlin was president of the AOH from 1905 until his death in 1934. We cannot understand the history of Unionism without acknowledging the role of the Orange Order and we cannot understand the history of Nationalism without appreciating the role of the AOH.
Moreover, do these organisations not lend themselves very naturally to incorporation and representation in a museum? It is the artefacts in a museum that make it special for the visitor. The interpretation is important but without artefacts there is no museum and both the Orange Order and other fraternal organisations have plenty of artefacts, with their regalia, banners, symbols and warrants etc.
I have seen such artefacts in museums in Scotland, England and the Irish Republic and is it unreasonable to expect similar representation here in Northern Ireland, the place where both the Orange Order and the AOH were founded?
As we seek to build a shared and better future in Northern Ireland we need to increase our understanding of each other and of our cultures, our histories and our traditions. Our museums and other cultural institutions have an important role to play in that process of mutual understanding and we must do all we can to encourage them in that role.