Bonfire Bonanza!

Yeah! For the pyromaniacs of Belfast we have had not one but two nights of bonfires this year. Due to the fact that the 12th fell on a Sunday, and therefore the Twelfth Parades are actually on the 13th, complete confusion reigned among loyalist communities (nothing new there though) as to what night the traditional bonfires should be lit. And so in our own area we had the children's bonfire on Saturday night and the big one the following night just after midnight. But talking to people about this over the past few weeks has shown just how far the traditions of the Twelfth have drifted from the Orange Order's professed Christian origins.

The bonfires have never been an official part of the Orange Celebrations, indeed they are simply an adoption of a widely held tradition here in Ireland going back to pagan times, that whenever you want to mark a celebration you pile up whatever you can grab and burn it! The name reputedly comes from "Bone-fire" - the fire in the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain when animal bones were burned to ward off evil spirits... It was a word later applied to the fires used to burn witches in the middle ages and martyrs from all religious traditions in the reformation... So I suppose since the political and cultural tensions in Northern Ireland could be argued to be the last vestiges of the reformation wrangles over religious affiliation, they are as good a way to mark one of the most divisive festivals of the year!

The exact relation of the bonfires to the Twelfth is a bit vague... Some tie them to the beacon fires lit to announce the breaking of the boom in the siege of Derry, or another set used to announce the landing of King William in Carrickfergus, but essentially they are the marker that the day of celebrations of the Twelfth are beginning. Hence it was always previously the case that where the parade was happening on the Thirteenth they were lit just after midnight on the Twelfth/Thirteenth. As a child everyone I knew understood that. But that was a long time ago now... And even in the few years since the 12th last fell on a Sunday the religious ground has changed in Northern Ireland.

Many people I've been talking to cannot understand why the parades aren't happening on a Sunday, never mind why the 11th night bonfires would effectively be lit at 12.01am on the 13th.

"First you won't let us have the bonfires on the 11th... Now you want us to wait until after the Sunday is over... It's like living with the Taliban!" "What's the church got to do with with it anyway?" said one person to me. "Why won't the church let us have the Twelfth on the Twelfth? They're destroying our traditions!"

But then again, that is in a community where a child of 9 asked me a few weeks ago whether church would be on on Sunday? There is little understanding of church culture, never mind how that in turn intersects with Orange culture... Most people gathered around bonfires, either on Saturday or Sunday will have nothing to do with the Orange Order, and many of those marching tomorrow will have little to do with any church no matter what the "Duties of an Orangeman" says.

I have to take my hat off to those who have managed the local bonfire this year... They have done almost everything by the book, working hard with the local community to reduce inconvenience and anxiety, and have avoided the "tradition" of burning tyres (where, o where else in the world would poisoning your own community be seen as a tradition to uphold!). They haven't quite gone as far as the more eco-friendly "beacons" being piloted in some areas of Belfast, but at least they have discouraged dumping (as on sign so eloquently put it "Wood Only! No Crap!) and encouraged local residents to report illegal fly-tipping. One friend suggested that communities shouldn't be allowed to burn a forest until they have planted one, and while as an environmentally-minded chap I am singing off the same hymn-sheet, I'm prepared to take my victories where I can, and move on one challenge at a time.

A few years ago a colleague who had brought a group to visit the local bonfire in Sandy Row where I was then working, commented afterwards that he thought that he and I should engage in a little bit of social entrepreneurship, planning 11th night bonfires for local communities; arranging more environmentally friendly fires, hiring entertainers and caterers, organising foreign cultural tours and even staging the once ubiquitous "shows of force". On that memorable occasion in Sandy Row the latter was more of a show of farce - being unable to read their prepared statement because the lighting wasn't good enough, the guns being unable to fire, and being unable to start their getaway car, and having to push it into the fire before plunging into the crowds, where, despite their balaclava concealing their identities, local wags shouted "Great show Davy! That'll put the fear of God into the republicans!"

I hope that with the loyalist decommissioning announced earlier this month there will be fewere such shows of force, or farce. But I still think there's a business opportunity going a begging there...

So by the time this post is scheduled to go online I'll have done my usual tour of the local fires... Probably the only person over 12 without a can of beer in my hand. I didn't bother on Saturday night... it was too wet and I was still preparing for my Sunday services, so that I would be ready for those hoards of Orangemen who would be attending their local church before parading to celebrate Biblical Protestantism...

ps. Credit to Stu on xetera for the photo... not of our local fire (note the tyres)... I tried to take a photo, but my memory was full...


Anonymous said…
I often think that there is something Tower of Babel-ish about bonfires... although 35 yrs on I still find them strangely fascinating.
Absolutely... You're about the third or fourth person to say that this year. I particularly noticed that in the building of a few local bonfires... they looked like the old lithographs of the building of the Tower of Babel... High towers aimed at making a name for themselves, but ultimately divisive... Methinks I feel another blog coming on next year... So watch this space...

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