Saturday, 27 November 2010

William the Womble

As regular readers of Scottish GENES may know, I was born in Northern Ireland, though within a few days of my birth I had moved to Scotland and then later onto England, not returning to Ulster until my parents separated when I was 8. This meant that despite being Irish I was very much raised with a mainland perspective, and it was not until I returned that I first came across the cult of King Billy. This is a cult which bemuses me to this day, largely because of an incident that happened in my home town of Carrickfergus some twenty years ago...

For those not acquainted with Northern Irish protestant culture, heavily based on the Presbyterian tradition from Scotland, you'll easily appreciate the irony of the fact that despite the Reformation doctrine of pulling down 'idols' i.e. statues and busts of those being worshipped 'falsely' instead of the one alleged God, the country today is quite literally full of them - whether that be a statue of Carson at Stormont or the various dignitaries embodied in statues outside Belfast's City Hall. But for many embedded within the Orange culture of Ulster, there is one image, one idol, that you don't mess with - King Billy. So what happens when you do in fact mess it up?!

In 1990, Northern Ireland decided to celebrate the tercentenary of the Battle of the Boyne, the event at which William of Orange, granted the British throne with his wife Mary, fought the deposed king James VII (II of England, also William's father-in-law and uncle: don't ask!) for the one and only time just outside of Drogheda in County Louth. James lost the battle, though not before William was almost assassinated by a Jacobite sniper at the river side, prompting news to be sent to Paris that the king had been killed and Jacobitism had prevailed - prematurely as it turned out. The Battle of the Boyne was actually not the turning point of the campaign at all, and the Williamites had to fight further to secure the new succession, and almost lost at Aughrim a few months later. But to Orange culture it is this clash of kings that has become important, more so following the invention of 'Orangeism' in the 18th century, with 'King Billy' representing the so called 'triumph' of Protestantism over the 'tyranny' of Catholicism.

William was of the House of Orange; if you go to Holland today on Queen's Day, and you see a sea of orange ballons and bunting everywhere, you are celebrating the same royal dynasty. Prior to the invention of Orangeism, and indeed well into the 19th century, the traditional image of William was often depicted in statues as a Roman emperor like figure on top of a noble steed, as is well illustrated in the middle of Bristol's Queen Square today (see right), or Glasgow's High Street. But in time the symbol that came to be used more and more was that of the king in traditional 17th century attire, on a white horse, crossing the Boyne, and in some Belfast wall murals, with a wounded Jacobite at his feet.

Well here's the rub! In 1990, Carrickfergus Borough Council decided to commemorate the fact that William landed at the town's harbour before making his way promptly to meet with the rest of the fleet that had accompanied him, prior to moving south to engage James. The decision was made to controversially create a statue of the king depicting him as he really was - a small figure, who was asthmatic and had a stooped posture (see below) - though many locals believed it was because the council could not afford to create a bigger statue with the horse! 

I lived in the town when this happened, and at university in Bristol a couple of years later decided to take a look back at the events. My degree was a media course that used anthropology as its main research discipline, and I was fascinated to look at what had happened to such a powerful symbol, and why it had gone down like a lead balloon. Throughout the research I came across some extraordinary tales. I met with the sculptor, who told me that his first design was rejected, because he had given the king a hook nose, which made him look particularly ugly, so he was instructed to correct that. The original brief was that the statue should be mounted on a small plinth, so that people could engage with it almost eye to eye to get a sense of who the king really was. When it was unveiled, it had been put it on a six foot tall plinth, making the statue tower over the viewer. When mounted in the harbour car park, it was placed on a line of sight south towards the Boyne. It was also said that the statue was cast from bronze, because if it had been cast in copper it would have oxidised to a green colour (in Ireland orange and green have a hard time mixing!). There was also only one bronze foundry capable of doing it - in Dublin - so when it was sent to the south to be cast, the workers were apparently told it was a dignitary called Lord Carrickfergus - if his true identity had been revealed, he may not have made the journey back north!

Today the statue is just another image that exists, but at the time it was heavily criticised in a furious backlash in the press and in the local elections following, being labelled William the Womble by many in the community that as a symbol his image had come to represent. The fact it is still standing is probably more down to the workmanship of the sculptor and the mason than anything else!

Symbols have a great deal of power behind them, and you mess with them at your peril! Personally I think it is a great wee statue, rather neutral in tone despite apparent attempts to perhaps make it triumphalist again by situating it in the stratosphere (on a big plinth!). But I have often wondered what the reaction might have been if a Ceasar Augustus type figure had been unveiled in its place, as in Bristol? :)


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