The ‘Orange oarsman’ - Alan Campbell on life in the Order

Alan celebrating his bronze medal win at the Olympics last summer
Alan celebrating his bronze medal win at the Olympics last summer

AS an Olympic medallist rower and bona fide Ulster sporting hero, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s nigh on impossible to catch up with Coleraine man Alan Campbell when he returns to his beloved Co Londonderry home town.

But if it’s the first Friday of the month, you can almost guarantee that if the 29-year-old oarsman is on Northern Ireland soil, you’ll locate him with at the monthly meeting of Grove LOL 648, alongside his proud dad and fellow Lodge member William, talking shop, catching up with brethren, and just, well, being an Orangeman.

The down-to-earth local man endeared himself to millions of sports fans across the world last year when he secured an emotional bronze medal in the final of the men’s single sculls race at the Olympics in London.

He currently lives in Richmond, west London, with wife Juliette, and is training for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, something which, not surprisingly, takes up practically 100 per cent of his time.

He says his parents William and Jenny vist as often as they can, and enjoy coming to see him race, but on the rare occasion that he gets home himself, Alan likes to make time for one side to his life that some people don’t even know about - his role as an Orangeman.

“I walked my first Twelfth when I was four!” laughs the LOL 648 member, who joined his local lodge as a youngster, maintaining a long family tradition in doing so.

His paternal grandfather – a former member of the Air Forces – had joined the Institution in Canada before joining his local lodge after settling in Garvagh.

Alan was delighted to continue to follow in his grandfather’s and father’s footsteps - “the sash my father wore and all that!” he jokes, in an accent which still has a definite Coleraine twang.

His parents attend Main Street Garvagh Presbyterian Church, and dad William is “very active” in the Order, and is a Lecturer, which involves instructing the newly initiated candidates - in fact, he instructed Alan when he made the decision to become a fully signed-up member.

“As a child, the Twelfth was an adventure, almost - it’s actually a fantastic day,” says Alan, recounting how he was drawn to Orange life in Ulster when he was young.

“And the Black Saturday and going down to Scavagh - it’s just great meeting up with people, and I liked the bands and always loved to play the drums.

“The pageantry of it, I think that’s what attracted me as a young kid.”

However as he got older, Alan realised there was a serious side to the aims and beliefs of the Order - and found that he could strongly identify with them.

He had initially “a career lined up as an army officer” before sport became such a prominent feature of his life, and so “the significance of Remembrance Day and November 11 became important to me”, he admits, adding: “I realised that this was something that was recognised and celebrated by the Orange Order, and it was something I do identify with, and something I could support.”

He enjoys getting to meetings when he can, and jokes that when he attends, he “lowers the average age” of his local lodge “by a good 20 years!”

But he confesses that he often feels saddened and disappointed by the perception other people often have of the Orange Order and what they represent.

“Ive met people who seem to think that the Orange Order is like some sort of paramilitary group,” he reveals.

“I tell them it is very much the opposite - it’s about religious liberty and religious freedom, and we actually support the right to be able to celebrate religion.

“When I was a kid I had Catholic friends and they would go and watch it because it was a national holiday, and I think the lines got blurred, and it all got the way it is.

“People might hear of one of trouble at one of the 30 parades that go on and think that is always what happens.

“That is the only thing I feel disappointed in, and I think we do need to work on the image (of the Order) and help to change people’s perceptions. The thing is, people don’t maybe realise how much charity work is done, for example.”

Alan says there is also “a need to make people realise tthat he members are not fanatical - there is nothing sinister that goes on.”

He continues: “What with the closed meetings and all that, people seem to think there is something dodgy going on but there is not. It’s fathers and sons, mothers and daughters as well, farmers and businessman, and people from all walks of life, and they are not religious fanatics.”

Perhaps Alan, as a high achieving, confident, sporty young man, could be something of an ambassador for the Order, I suggest?

Ever modest, the Coleraine man says he feels he is not involved enough in the grassroots work of the organisation, because of his sporting commitments, for such a title to be bestowed upon him.

“When I got the Grand Master’s Award (at the Orange Community Awards) this year I was quite surprised, touched and chuffed.

“I’m a fairly normal guy and I’ve got a job where I do work on Sundays and I’m not able to go to church, but I’m still able to recognise that the Order (has values) which are worthwhile - and if that makes a difference to somebody else then so be it.

“It’s not something I push on people,and I’m sure a lot of the guys here don’t necessarily know I’m an Orangeman.

“But I can relate to people who have the same views and opinions, yet I respect completely those who have the opposite - it’s a case of, if we all thought the same, how boring would that be?

“But it’s disappointing and a bit shocking when people seem to think there’s a sinister side and there really isn’t at all. Loads of guys get together and go to football matches - we happen to group together and go to celebrate something that is worth celebrating, and that is at one time of the year.”