Just a few years after the formation of the Order in 1798, County Wicklow had already 3 established Orange Lodges. While the fledgling movement came to the county via the ranks of the Yeomanry, there is no doubt that it had a resonance and attraction to the very large Wicklow Protestant community.
The events of the short lived Rebellion of that year saw Wicklow a hotbed of activity, and Loyalists in the County including Orangemen were active in combating the insurrection. In Carnew, Dunlavin and Newtownmountkennedy energetic Loyalism pursued the rebel’s with vigour and success; and perhaps related to the activity Carnew, Dunlavin and Newtownmountkennedy would continue to have a strong Orange presence for the next century.
In the early 1820’s there was a growth in the Order, and on the 5th May 1824 a special meeting was called by the Shillelagh Loyal Orange Association in the Tinahely Assembly Rooms (in the deep south of the county). That day 11 Orange Lodges formed a County Grand Lodge and elected officers, including General Saunders as County Grand Master; then formed districts, and elected district officers.
The July 1835 Parliamentary report into the Orange institution identified that there were at least 19 lodges operational (however given some glaring mistakes in the report, and the reluctance of some areas to co-operate with it, it is highly likely several more lodges were in operation). These were based within 4 defined District areas: Shilelagh (South Wicklow), Ovoca (or ‘Avoca’, East Wicklow including Arklow), Talbotstown (West Wicklow) and Newtownmountkennedy (North Wicklow including Wicklow Town). By this stage William Jones Westby Esquire of High Park Baltinglass was County Grand Master.
Meeting places of the lodges recorded in 1835 included Tinahely, Coolkenno, Kilpipe, Carnew, Rathdrum, Arklow, Newbridge, Donard, Kiltegan, Imail, Enniskerry and Wicklow Town; while their number also included a Lodge working at Tullow in County Carlow that was active well into the 19th Century (and not the only active Carlow Orange centre).
By 1856 the District system in the County would appear to have fell into abeyance, but the County was still operation, and under William Mason of Newtown Park Blackrock, had increased to 21 lodges. In 1861 the Orangemen of West Wicklow celebrated the 12th July via a Church Service, after which 104 Brethren sat down for a prepared dinner.
Carnew and Tinahely based lodges were among the most active in Wicklow throughout the 19th Century, possibly a legacy from both areas having strong Loyalist ‘anti-rebellion’ communities during 1798. Often the member’s activities were the focus for attack from Irish Nationalism. In 1872 the traditional erection of an Orange flag on the 5th November within the grounds of Carnew Church of Ireland, resulted in riot when the local Parish Priest demanded of the R.I.C. that they remove it, and when that did not happen an angry crowd gathered. A young man named Rickerby climbed the tree the flag was placed on to protect it, further angering the crowd. The flag was eventually taken down by a church member and thirteen charges of affray to members of the crowd were later found not guilty.
A gradual decline in the Order in South East Ireland had already began by this time, and resulted in the amalgamation of Wicklow and Wexford County Grand Lodges into one body; but the emergence of the Home Rule campaign saw resurgence. By 1886 there were 8 strong lodges, with one only formed a few years previously having over 100 members. That same year the Wicklow Town Lodge renewed an appeal for funds to build a hall. They had already collected £100 but needed a further £150 to procure a suitable site or building. They eventually achieved their goal and Wicklow Town Orange Hall was established in the late 1800’s. The Bridge Street building was opposite the Bridge Tavern owned by prominent Orangeman Robert Halpin, who ran for election on several occasions as an anti- Home Rule candidate.
A very strong Orange presence also existed in the very North of the County in Bray and Greystones, although their location meant they tended to work under the jurisdiction of Dublin County and with the lodges in Dublin City. By the turn of the Century the Orange family had declined further outside Ulster, and the County Grand Lodge of Dublin City was merged with the County Grand Lodge of Dublin County. This new Dublin Grand Lodge then eventually merged with Wicklow resulting in a Dublin and Wicklow combine Grand Lodge. As late as the 1930’s newspapers were still reporting that a Wicklow based Lodge was participating in the Belfast 12th regularly.
In 1970 a local newspaper briefly mentioned that the Wicklow town Orange Hall that had been derelict for many years, and in the ownership of the ‘state’, was to be sold. Local information however suggests that it was still in use right up until that time, until the numerical strength of local Orange sympathisers and financial pressures meant it had to be given up. Wicklow Town Orange Hall can still be seen today in Bridge Street, where it houses a financial services company. It is a sad fact that probably only a handful of residents in the town know its ‘colourful’ history.