‘Billy Boy’ — life lessons through the belief in bonfires

‘Billy Boy’ — life lessons through the belief in bonfires
4 August 2022

Rosemary Jenkinson’s play Billy Boy details the tribulations of Aaron, an East Belfast resident and unofficial bonfire maintainer. As part of the EastSide Arts Festival, the play runs for 60 minutes without break and is entirely acted solely by John Travers, who not only plays Aaron but does the voices for all subsequent characters as well. Bill Boy centres around Travers’ character, who gets wrung up with the threat of legal trouble after he is nearly caught on camera by a police van, and decides to temporarily flee to Amsterdam the morning following the night of the bonfires. 

The play starts and ends with monologues of King William of Orange in the hours preceding the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The initial tone was set when the initial Williamite dialogue involving a strong Dutch accent was immediately followed up by a 21st-century East Belfast former social worker, with a hangover and whose other drunken friends are responsible for commemorating William’s grand victory. Aaron and his peers are continuously annoyed by the actions of local youths taking up activities, such as sectarian graffiti and planting petrol bombs within the bonfire pallet stacks. 

Aaron’s subsequent trip to Amsterdam lands him in a relationship with Dutch woman Yolanda — a Catholic who dabbles in Dutch history and schools Aaron on less-flashy aspects of King William’s timeline. Upon returning to East Belfast in time for the next year’s bonfire night, a bizarre turn of events sees Yolanda not only accepted into Aaron’s cohort but also personally defends the bonfires from council contractor vans.

The play by and large pokes fun at the machismo culture of the bonfire construction and protection gaggles, as well as the “siege mentality” of hardline loyalist groups. This is evident, as throughout the play the only enemies of Aaron and his cohort are the council contractor vans as well as the PSNI (which is, in jest, referred to as standing for “Protecting Sensitive Nationalist Interests”). The main character Aaron does not go through much development, nor is there any suggestion that his views are changed despite his time abroad and with Yolanda (there is however a twist at the end of the play in that regard). Travers’ performance is obviously a standout here, although the overall message that Jenkinson is trying to convey takes some time to be worked out.

It appears that Aaron is not redeemed by the social constructs that he grew up around, nor is he redeemed by his heroism with the bonfire or those who he associates himself with beside it. Rather, he is redeemed by the one person in his life who loves him unconditionally, and he defends the bonfire not because of what it stands for, but because Aaron himself believes in it. In the end, there is a message that the culture surrounding the night of the 11th is antiquated and that the wrong messages are being portrayed by the bonfires. The play is not inherently anti-loyalist, nor is it pro-nationalist. Rather, it conveys that there is a beauty in humanity, regardless of how ugly the physical world is in which it finds itself. 

Image source: Publishing Women

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