Drumcree honours a republican

The church on the hill is synonymous with Orange Order defiance, but the Protestant community's most celebrated son turns out to have owed his loyalties to the other side, reports Henry McDonald
Northern Ireland: special report

Drumcree, the citadel of anti-Agreement loyalism, has now become a shrine for the Orange Order's republican enemies.

Republicans are set to pay homage at Drumcree parish church to one of the founding fathers of the Young Ireland movement, John Mitchel.

Under the noses of Orange protesters at Drumcree hill, several republicans from Newry visited the church last week to check parish records in order to confirm that Mitchel was married at the church.

Republicans organising an exhibition on his life travelled to Portadown last week. They learnt that Mitchel, who was transported from Ireland by the British for rebellion, was married in the church in 1837. His bride, 16-year-old Jane Verner, came from a prominent Orange Order family in Co Armagh.

The Rev John Pickering, the current rector at Drum cree, said the republicans who came to check the records were 'extremely courteous'. He added: 'They came to look at our records and the entry on John Mitchel and when he was married. They simply just wanted to see the book because they are planning an exhibition on Mitchel's life in Newry later this year.'

Pickering said he was glad to open the books to the republicans 'because our histories are entangled and I have an interest in history'.

He added that no one has yet approached him from the republican side over a future commemoration at the church in Mitchel's honour.

Mitchel, a Newry-based solicitor and son of a Presbyterian minister, was an outspoken republican involved in armed conspiracy to overthrow the British in Ireland. In 1848 he was sentenced to 14 years for treason and initially transported to Australia. However, he escaped to America and was only allowed to return to Ireland 40 years later, when he was given a hero's welcome.

Following his return, Mitchel was elected Westminster MP for Tipperary but died a short time later.

He married his child bride, whom he had tried to elope with a year before when she was just 15, at Drumcree because it was her home parish. Jane Verner came from a staunchly unionist, Orange, Church of Ireland Episcopalian family in the county, while Mitchel was a Unitarian.

Mitchel is buried in Newry's Protestant Unitarian graveyard where republicans hold an annual commemoration. There is also a statue of the 19th-century republican icon in the centre of the town of his birth.

Republicans in Newry said the marriage of Mitchel and Verner at Drumcree had reso nance for Ireland in the 21st century.

One republican said: 'Here are two people from a unionist background who held radical, republican beliefs and suffered for that. In fact, they symbolised the possibility of reaching out to the other side.'

Such is the sensitivity of the issue that the republicans involved will not disclose their names or say whether or not they are connected to Sinn Fein.

David Jones, the spokesman for the Orange Order in Portadown, said it was ironic that republicans could come to Drumcree church to check parish records but local Orangemen could not walk down the nearby, mainly nationalist, Garvaghy Road.

'I can't really object to someone coming to the church to check the records, Orangemen do that all the time in parishes across the province.

'Even during the day ordinary residents of the Garvaghy Road can walk their dogs past the church freely but if I tried to walk down the Garvaghy Road even without an Orange collarette on I would be taking my life in my hands.

'There is a rumour in the town that this republican group from Newry wants to march from Garvaghy Road to the church to commemorate Mitchel. All I can say is it's ironic if they're looking for a right to march while we can't parade in our home town.'

Jones added that Orangemen would be intensifying their protests at Drumcree over the next few weeks as the marching season begins. His members were determined to 'stay on the hill' despite the ban against the local lodge marching down Garvaghy Road.

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