The Pope and King Billy versus King James

Jul 13th, 2012 | By | Category: Ireland

In former times, when living in Northern Ireland, the 13th July was a strange day to someone trying to come to terms with the place.

It was a public holiday, but not a bank holiday – I never remember which. It was as confusing as Easter where Good Friday was a bank holiday, but not a public one, and Easter Tuesday was a public holiday, but not a bank one.

I never understood why either Easter Tuesday or 13th July were holidays of any sort. Some of the followers of Orange affairs would go off to Scarva for the ‘sham fight’. An amateur re-enactment of the Boyne battle between William and James, which seemed rather dull any time it appeared on television, particularly when compared to the huge re-enactments staged by groups like the Sealed Knot in England.

There was always the temptation to say to the supporters of the Williamite cause heading off for the day that they of course realized that the Pope supported the Prince of Orange because he was seen as a bulwark against the growing power of Louis XIV of France. The temptation was easily resisted, the facts of history were never allowed to get in the way of a good story.

The facts of history were depicted in Pieter van der Muelen’s painting, The Entry of King William into Ireland, which was  hung in the House of Commons at Stormont when it opened. Pope Innocent XI is shown, seated in the clouds, pronouncing a blessing as he looks down on William.

When Stormont parliamentarians realized what the picture showed, some were outraged. John W. Nixon, an independent Unionist was foremost among the objectors, his protest at the papal presence is said to have elicited prime minister Craig’s declaration, ‘I am an Orangeman first and a Protestant and a member of parliament afterwards  . . . All I boast is that we have a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’.

There were Protestants of more violent inclination visiting Stormont in 1933, Charles Forester and Mary Ratcliffe of the Scottish Protestant League visited the parliament building with the intention of destroying the painting. Forester threw red paint over the image of the pope and Ratcliffe slashed the canvas with a knife. The pair were fined £65 at Downpatrick court and the painting was restored at the cost of £32 10 Shillings. The painting then disappeared into storage for more than fifty years.

A real recalling of the significance of the battle would have a papal figure applauding the man on the white horse.  The facts would, however, spoil the story.

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  1. You have me foxed here.

    Has it changed from the Twalfth?

  2. The Sham Fight at Scarva was always the day after the Twelfth – otherwise everyone who might attend would be somewhere else marching.

  3. I wonder would that be an interesting small volume – a list of brief lives of those on the “wrong side”.
    Casement, Tone, Childers, Ronnie Bunting v Gorman & the Pope.
    Redmond – could go on either side I suppose.

  4. Irish history has been written to show that those who died in the Great War were on the ‘wrong’ side – a version of history that has only been challenged in the past decade.

  5. Thanks, Iain.

    The Pope, like the Lord, has been on everyone’s side at some stage. 🙂

  6. Sorry to have misspelt your name above. Was thinking in Irish. 🙂

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