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The Orange Pole

Laois Local Studies > Articles > The Orange Pole

As the 12th of July approaches each year, those of us living in the Republic of Ireland primarily view the events associated with it remotely through the media. Orangemen, Orange Parades, the Marching Season and the ensuing social tensions have, generally speaking, been confined in living memory to Northern Ireland. In broad terms, the 12th of July is something we are certainly aware of “down here” but what they have to deal with “up there.”

However, two hundred years ago as Mountmellick entered the 1820s the issue of the 12th of July was a genuine concern for the town and one which confronted the townspeople on their very own doorstep.

Less than a quarter of a century beforehand there had been the Rebellion of 1798 which divided the country along Loyalist and Nationalist – Protestant and Catholic – lines. Today on Wolfe Tone Street in Mountmellick stands a monument to the eleven local United Irishmen who were executed by the authorities for taking part in this uprising. This Nationalist monument was erected in 1898; a century after the Rebellion had taken place.

Conversely, there was a Loyalist symbol in Mountmellick which took on an enhanced significance and functioned as a de facto monument following the uprising. With the wounds inflicted during the 1798 Rebellion not yet healed, its memories still vivid and emotions still raw among the town’s inhabitants, this particular memorial would become the focal point of immense bitterness and acrimony in Mountmellick for nigh on thirty years, particularly on the 12th of July when the town was gripped in a highly incendiary and toxic atmosphere.

The Orange Pole in Mountmellick became the Loyalist testament to the suppression of the Nationalist Insurgents in 1798. It was located upon the Market House which was once situated in the centre of the Market Square, which we now know as O’Connell Square. It was actually inside the Market House where the army stationed two nine-pounder cannon during the 1798 Rebellion in their attempts to retain law and order in the town. When the Rebellion was quashed the Orange Pole was erected “with a flag floating from it in the breeze of heaven, at an altitude of some 52 feet.”[1]

The Orange Lodge in Mountmellick (Orange Lodge No.500) took immense pride in their symbol of victory and apart from the Orange and Williamite flags which were raised on the pole such as the Union Jack and the Boyne Standard, they would lavishly decorate it for the 12th of July with ribbons, flowers, garlands and what we would nowadays call bunting. On top of the Orange Pole was a double-sided tin plate which had the equestrian figures of William of Orange on one side and King George on the other.

The Orange Pole was the centrepiece of the formalities surrounding the marches, or processions, which took place on the day and these were complete with fifes, drums, banners, sashes, gunshot salutes and songs, including Croppies Lie Down:

Oh, croppies ye’d better be quiet and still,

Ye shan’t have your liberty, do what ye will,

As long as salt water is formed in the deep,

A foot on the necks of the croppy we’ll keep,

And drink, as in bumpers past troubles we’ll drown,

A health to the lads that made croppies lie down,

Down, down, croppies lie down.

Mountmellick had by the start of the 1820s acquired a reputation nationally, along with other towns such as Bandon in county Cork, as being a hotbed of Orangeism due to the annual reports carried in the country’s newspapers detailing the riotous behaviour, fuelled by alcohol, between Catholics and Protestants which occurred in the town on the 12th of July, which was in no small part due to the large influx of persons into Mountmellick on the day who hailed from areas outside of the town’s immediate environs.

These reports were damaging to Mountmellick’s national standing which, crucially, was primarily based at the time on the town’s industrial might. So much so that in July 1821 Mr. Richard Warburton from nearby Garryhinch wrote a letter to one newspaper[2] in his capacity as a Magistrate seeking to play down their report of the events in Mountmellick on that year’s 12th of July.

Protestants from Mountmellick also wrote to newspapers at the time in an attempt to assign blame for these controversial events on a small, unruly and wholly insignificant rabble of Orangemen whose actions were unrepresentative of the Protestant community in the town as a whole. Some also wrote seeking to provide a balance to the reports by claiming a continuous harassment of the Protestant community by the Catholics of Mountmellick. Regardless of the exact nature and scale of these occurrences, there was no denying that the 12th of July was a perpetual source of rancour and division in the town.

Unfortunately for Mr. Warburton and the other Magistrates in the locality, this particular type of bad press for the town was not just confined to the month of July. Reports were carried nationwide during February 1823[3] about the effigy of a lawyer named William Conyngham Plunkett being dragged by a donkey and a person dressed up as a hangman through the streets of Mountmellick from the Orange Lodge to the Orange Pole, all the while accompanied by an unruly chorus of cheers and jeers from a drunken group of Orangemen. This procession was led by a man dressed up as a sheriff. A gallows was erected at the Orange Pole and the effigy was first hung before being set on fire following a mock trial.

1825 was the year when the disorder in the town of Mountmellick on the 12th of July reached a point where it could no longer be tolerated by the Catholic populace nor ignored by the government, despite their public utterances and proclamations condemning the disorder and threatening repercussions and ramifications for those involved in it.

In the lead up to the day itself, the by now yearly forecasts detailing scenes of riot, tumult, discord and insult that the town had become accustomed to seeing were being made. Not only did the events of day itself fail to betray these predictions, they in fact exceeded them.

Such alleged instances included the firing of powder into the face of a Catholic Priest and a procession to the Catholic Church[4] with the firing of blank cartridges at it in triumph.  Shots were also reported to have been fired into the houses of prominent Catholics. This was on top of accounts describing the typical panorama of licentious behaviour and the routine intimidation of Catholics in the town.

The Catholic townspeople sought the intervention of the local Magistrate, Mr. Robert Kenny, on this day but no meaningful assistance was forthcoming. This was allied to frequent complaints of policemen not only failing to intervene on the behalf of Catholics, but actually siding with and aiding the Orangemen in confrontations.

This led to a communication being sent to the Lord Lieutenant pleading for his intercession. Featured prominently in this communication was a reference to the Orange Pole and its principal purpose as a beacon of antagonism by the Orangemen of the town. The Lord Lieutenant ordered a meeting of the Magistrates in Mountmellick, which took place in September 1825. The local Parish Priest, Rev. Anthony Duane, played a vital role in presenting the case for the Catholic community in the town and in providing evidence of the disdainful treatment of Catholics by the Orangemen on the 12th of July. Consequently, the following resolution was passed by the Magistrates as a result of this meeting:

Mountmellick, September 3rd 1825

At a meeting of Magistrates, assembled this day, to take into consideration the disturbed state of this town and its vicinity, resolved that in consequence of the evidence taken before us, it appears that the processions which take place in this town are productive of great and perpetual irritation; that they operate banefully on a sensitive minded people – that they are subversive of good order, and have tended, by their effects, to injure the trade and prosperity of this town – that they afford no advantage to any party, but are destructive of that harmony and good will which ought to prevail among all denominations of fellow-countrymen and Christians. That we feel it our duty, as Magistrates, to use all of our influence to induce the Protestant inhabitants of Mountmellick to avoid those practices which are considered objectionable by their Roman Catholic countrymen. We appeal to their feelings that they give offence to several who have deserved no injury, and wound the feelings of many respectable individuals. We inform them, as Magistrates, that these proceedings are illegal; and that we are determined to use every means in our power to prevent all processions (tending to a breach of the peace) from taking place in this town; and hereby caution all persons from assembling or carrying arms, contrary to law.

Signed:      Henry Smyth, Chairman, Portarlington,

John Baldwin,               W.P. Borrowes,                     

John C. Chetwood,       Richard Clarke,            

James Dunne,               Thomas Pigott,  

J. Sabbatier,                  Charles Sandes,                    

John Tibeaudo,            September, 1825.[5]

The passing of this resolution alone was not enough for the Catholics of Mountmellick. They demanded that the Orange Pole be permanently removed from the Market House. For as long as it remained there it served in their eyes as a visible reminder that the government of the country explicitly condoned the behaviour of the Orangemen towards Catholics in the town. 

As alluded to in the resolution passed by the Mountmellick Magistrates, the Catholic community had commenced a campaign of deliberately setting out to damage the town’s trade through the adoption of a non-consumption policy of certain locally produced goods in an attempt to force the hand of the influential businessmen and respected figures in Mountmellick whom the Catholics believed not only could, but should, do more to curb the behaviour of the Orangemen, particularly as many were in their employment. In other words, “they would grope their way to a sense of justice in John Bull’s heart through the medium of his breeches pocket.”[6] This type of campaign was a forerunner to what would later become known as Boycotting.

The businesses of two men in particular were singled out for special attention as part of this campaign. They were Mr. Robert Kenny (1779 – 1830) and Mr. Anthony Pim (1773 – 1842). Both men owned breweries in Mountmellick and the Catholics in the area pledged not to drink a drop of the beer – “Orange Beer” as it became known – produced by their respective breweries for as long as the Orange Pole stood in the town. This impacted significantly upon their trade, not least because breweries at this time relied upon the local consumption of their beer as there was neither the infrastructure to transport it long distances nor the advancement in brewing techniques that could preserve the product for extended periods of time.

Why were these two men singled out?

In Anthony Pim’s case it was because the Orange Pole was located on top of his premises, the Market House, which according to a map of Mountmellick[7] circa 1820s, was situated across from his home on Market Street (now Parnell Street).

In Robert Kenny’s case it was because he, as mentioned already, was a Magistrate with a sworn duty to maintain law and order in the town. He also had the power to seek the lawful removal of the Orange Pole if necessary in order to keep the peace in Mountmellick. His perceived unwillingness to adequately deal with the behaviour of the Orangemen and with the issue of the Orange Pole itself drew the ire of Catholics.

In the interests of fairness to both men, there is no direct evidence to suggest that they were fervent Orangemen at heart, even if they may have had, on some level, Loyalist leanings. Anthony Pim, for example, was from a respected and long-standing Quaker family in Mountmellick. They were to some extent caught in the middle and it is true to say that no matter what they did they were never going to appease both sides.

Had they acquiesced to the Catholics’ pleas to remove the Orange Pole they risked alienating the Protestant community at large whom they relied upon to provide labour in their breweries and with whom they traded as fellow businessmen. It is reasonable to assume that both men would have received threats of violence from the Orangemen had each personally sought to have the Orange Pole removed.

However, it was becoming increasingly clear to those in positions of power – locally and nationally – that the disruption which this Williamite ensign was causing to the town of Mountmellick was proving to be far more trouble than it was really worth. Aside from the havoc and carnage which manifested around it in the town on the 12th of July, the campaign initiated by local Catholics to hurt the trade of Mountmellick businesses deemed sympathetic to the Orangemen was having the desired effect.

Early 1826 offered little hope that there would be any significant cessation in hostilities in the lead up to the 12th of July that year. In February it was reported[8] that the Orange Pole had been defaced with paint by enraged Catholics, an act which only served to fan the flames of animosity.

In the months that followed, the local Magistrates submitted a request to the government for assistance and support in removing the Orange Pole, but with the 12th of July looming, any directives given to have it removed were either delayed or just simply ignored, as was the case with an order issued to a Major named Powell who disregarded a command to remove the offending emblem.

However, one day in early June 1826 a combination of police and soldiers numbered to the region of 150 cavalry and infantry were led by six Magistrates into Mountmellick and assembled at the Market House, where they were confronted by a group of Orangemen:

The crowd now gathering in the streets, as group after group poured on through the various roads and avenues leading into the place, gradually swelled into thousands. Every town, village and country side for miles around contributed its quota – Maryborough, Shinrone, Portarlington, Monasterevan, Kildare, Mountrath, Castletown, Abbeyleix, etc etc. There were brine oges from Ballyfin, colleens from Dunamaise, gossoons from Rosenallis, jackeens from Ballyragget, rockites from the Slieve Bloom Mountains, white boys and blackfeet, Orangemen and Ribbonmen. A long line of red-coated soldiers in heavy marching order, a few troops of light cavalry from a distant garrison, and small detachments of peelers guard houses, wherever they could be spared.[9]

The Magistrates issued the order for the removal of the Orange Pole, although a number of officers laid down their arms in protest at the order. A fracas followed, but a few of the troops had already made their way into the Market House and towards the Orange Pole where it was struck with an axe. The Orange Pole, the Orange flags and the double-sided tin plate depicting the images of King William and King George, all of which had looked out over the town of Mountmellick for almost thirty years, came crashing to the ground accompanied by howls of rage from the Orangemen and exultant cheers from the Catholics. The incandescent Orangemen attacked the government forces with missiles and vicious fighting erupted, but due to their numerical disadvantage the Orangemen were overcome and the crowds were dispersed from the Market House.[10]

The procession by the Orangemen in Mountmellick on the 12th of July that year had been cancelled by the local Magistrate Mr. Robert Kenny in the interests of public order and safety. Aware of the particular sensitivity in the town in light of the Orange Pole’s removal the previous month, Dublin Castle sent protection to Mountmellick in the form of a party from the 7th Dragoons who arrived from Newbridge.

Unsurprisingly, the 12th of July 1826 did not pass peacefully due to the heightened tensions and there was a repeat of the skirmishes that had blighted the town in previous years, but this time there would be repercussions for the instigators of the violence as in October of that year the Maryborough (Portlaoise) Sessions was the scene for the trial of Orangemen charged with causing a riot in Mountmellick on this day along with other indictments of assault.

Mr. Phelan, legal representative for the Orangemen, proposed that if the charges were dropped against his clients then they gave their word that they would in the future and forever abstain from displaying their colours in the town and would dispose themselves to live in peace with their Catholic neighbours. The Magistrates, along with Rev. Anthony Duane, spoke of their willingness to accept the Orangemen’s proposal if it genuinely meant an end to the 12th of July hostilities which had devastated Mountmellick for far too long. All parties prioritised the need to make a fresh start for the good of the town. The proceedings concluded with a rapturous round of applause in which all parties present in Maryborough that day joined in: Catholics, Protestants, Magistrates and Grand Jury.[11]

The removal of the Orange Pole initiated a sea-change in the attitude towards the Orange processions of the 12th of July in Mountmellick which saw a tangible easing of the religious strain in the town in the years that followed. On the 12th of July 1827, Mountmellick, with a strong police presence in the town, witnessed neither the processions nor any of the fanfare that had come to be associated with the Orangemen. The day passed without a disturbance of any significant note being reported.[12]

Seventeen years after the felling of the Orange Pole, Daniel O’Connell led a Repeal procession in August 1843 from Mountmellick to Maryborough in which numerous members from the town’s Protestant community marched shoulder to shoulder alongside their Catholic neighbours with any demonstrations of objection by the local Orangemen on the day being relegated to that of a mere sideshow.[13]

Although maybe an over-simplification when taken purely and squarely within the context of the basic question of Irish independence, the following declaration by the Mountmellick Orangemen of Orange Lodge No.500 from 4th February 1800, where they stated their opposition to the Act of Union because they viewed it as the beginning of the end for the Irish nation, suggests they had more in common with their Catholic counterparts than they perhaps cared, or even dared, to realise:

We invite our brother Orangemen to elect without delay a Grand Lodge which shall be composed of men of tried integrity, who shall be unplaced, unpensioned, unbought, and who shall avow as their best qualification for such a station, that they will support the independence of Ireland and the Constitution of 1782.

Signed: Henry Deery, Master;

John Robinson, Deputy Master;

Abraham Hyland, Secretary.[14]

Twenty years later, in the early 1860s, a new convent was built by the Presentation Sisters on Bridge Street (now Sarsfield Street) upon which a statue of the Immaculate Conception was placed at its highest point and this was believed to have been a cause of great offence to a section of the local non-Catholic population. For those alive at the time who were old enough to remember the town’s Orange Pole, the thought must surely have crossed their minds that this was a case of the shoe now firmly being on the other foot.

Messrs. Kenny and Pim failed to escape the indignation of the Orangemen of Mountmellick once they sensed a wavering in both men’s stance on the issue of the Orange Pole’s removal. The following are two verses from a song which they composed in order to succinctly express their opinion of the two brewers:

It’s of Mountmellick town you quickly shall hear,

A comical ditty about Kenny’s beer,

Not a drop can be sold throughout country or town,

‘Till Will in the market place he is pulled down,

Sing Bubbero diddero Anthony Pim,

Put your specs on your nose and at Will you may grin,

All your barking and biting you may as well stop,

For we’ll keep him up there if you ne’er sold a drop.

One morning when Kenny and Pim did arise,

They looked at King William with spite in their eyes,

‘We’ll take thee down softly as sure as we’re here,

For whilst thou art there we can ne’er sell our beer,

Sing Bubbero diddero Anthony Pim,

Put your specs on your nose and at Will you may grin,

All your barking and biting you may as well stop,

For we’ll keep him up there if you ne’er sold a drop.[15]

The story of the Orange Pole itself did not end on that June day after it had been felled from above the Market House to lie broken and splintered along with its torn and tattered flags in the dust and dirt of the ground below.

The Orangemen rescued their battered, but still revered, totem from the ground outside the Market House and erected what was left of it straight away upon a water pump at another location in the town of Mountmellick. The Orangemen rallied around the pole at its new location and defended it heartily once again with all their might against the government forces but inevitably were overcome due to their numerical disadvantage, and the Orange Pole was forcibly removed from its temporary abode.

This time the Orange Pole was gathered up by Mr. John Fitzgerald, whose house was reported to been situated opposite the water pump, and he erected what remained of it and its adornments in his back garden. Mr. Fitzgerald then proceeded to place a placard outside his home warning potential trespassers:

Take notice that anyone who enters these premises shall be shot ACCORDING TO LAW![16]

Griffith’s Valuation – the first full-scale valuation of property in Ireland which was compiled in the mid-1800s – records a man named John Fitzgerald (if we assume this to be the same person) as living on Forge Street (now Emmet Street) in a house just across from what is now the former Central Garage. Reminiscing some seventy years after this event, C.L. Hutchings[17] recalled that not only was the Orange Pole erected in the back garden of John Fitzgerald’s house but that the local Orange Lodge held its meeting there for many years. He gave the location of this house as being on Forge Street and that in 1896 it was occupied by Mr. John Quigley.

Five years later, in the 1901 Census of Ireland, there is indeed a John Quigley recorded as living on Forge Street. Maps from the nineteenth century and photographs of this part of the town taken circa 1900 show a water pump as being located on Forge Street, which no doubt had many incarnations over the decades it was in use, at the point where the present O’Moore Street meets Emmet Street. Locally this particular part of Mountmellick would become known as Mac’s Corner, after the businessman William McEvoy whose premises was located there. On Form B.1 (House and Building Return) for the residents of Forge Street recorded in the 1901 Census of Ireland, John Quigley’s house is listed very close to William McEvoy’s premises. Regardless of the exact location of John Fitzgerald’s house in June 1826, the evidence all points to the reported activity surrounding the Orange Pole as haven taken place at this end of what we know today as Emmet Street.

Sadly, this would not be the only time that Forge Street in Mountmellick would make the news due to a sectarian incident. In December 1865 an elderly Protestant shoemaker named John Morton was murdered in what was believed to be a religiously motivated attack.[18]

The Orange Pole became part of the town’s folklore even if, as the following passage demonstrates, that in all examples of folklore the facts generally tend to get interweaved with a healthy dose of inaccuracy and conjecture. It would be quite something, though, if the Orange Pole was still operating as a beam in someone’s shed in Mountmellick!

The Orange Pole

About the year 1800, there was a pole at McEvoy’s Corner, Mountmellick, Laoighis, called the “Orange Pole.” Mr. Lyons and Mr. Chambers, both from Mountmellick, were in charge of it. The Catholic people of the town were obliged to raise their hats while passing the pole. One night an R.I.C. man cut down the pole, and after a short time he was dismissed. It was not put up again, and it now serves as a beam in a shed, owned by Mr. Chambers, a descendant of one of the men who owned it. There are descendants of Mr. Lyons in Mountmellick also.[19]

Many years after the Orange Pole had been removed from the Market House, a recount of the deep religious tensions which had existed in the town during the early nineteenth century mistakenly referred to it as an Orange Tree that had been once situated in the town’s Market Square and which would be abundantly decorated by the Orangemen for the 12th of July.

However, this error would turn out to be quite prophetic because in the exact same spot where the Orange Pole once stood now stands, and at virtually the same height, the magnificent and well-renowned Christmas Tree of Mountmellick. Whereas once upon a time Mountmellick was for a period famed for the Orange Pole which became a recognised symbol of hate and bigotry, now each year our celebrated Christmas Tree invites everyone who visits the town to spread its message of Peace To All.

©2020 Enda McEvoy (Laois County Library Service)


[1] The State of the Queen’s County

The Protestant Watchman and Lurgan Gazette, 9th December 1865

[2] The Orangemen of Mountmellick

Dublin Evening Post, 21st July 1821

[3] Mr. Plunkett

Westmeath Journal, 20th February 1823

[4] To the Editor of the D.E. Post

Dublin Evening Post, 17th November 1825

[5] Queen’s County     

Dublin Evening Post, 8th October 1825

[6] A Reminiscence of Mountmellick        

Leinster Independent, 11th November 1871

[7] A Plan Showing Sheets and Properties in the Town of Mountmellick          

National Library of Ireland,  MS 21F.42(13)

[8] Oppressions of the Protestants at Mountmellick    

Dublin Morning Register, 21st  February 1826

[9] The Orange Pole and the Papist White Boy – a Wonderful Retribution       

Erinensis, 1871

[10] Mountmellick Orangemen Dispersed at the Point of the Bayonet                 

The Morning Register, 14th June 1826

[11] Conciliation – Maryborough Sessions Oct. 17 

Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier, 24th October 1826

[12] Orangemen in Mountmellick

Dublin Morning Register, 19th July 1827

[13] Loyal National Repeal Association 

Freeman’s Journal, 15th August 1843

[14] To All Brother Orangemen

Dublin Weekly Nation, 6th  September 1884            

[15] A Reminiscence of Mountmellick               

Leinster Independent, 11th November 1871

[16] Mountmellick Orangemen                                  

Dublin Morning Register, 14th June 1826                     

[17] Some Reminiscences of Mountmellick              

C.L. Hutchings, January 1896

[18]  Murder in the Queen’s County

The Taunton Courier, 3rd January 1866

[19] The Schools’ Collection Vol.0823, P.473                

National Folklore Collection, UCD