Bonfire construction. Portaferry Road, Newtownards, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Anna Poloni, in an article written for Etnofoor, claims that the bonfire acts as nothing more than a middle ground between conflicting and contested discourses surrounding “Belfast’s present, past, and future”. Par for the course come the second week of July in Northern Ireland — the selected stacks of pallets have as many anecdotes shrouded in negativity as they do curators over the years. There categorically is, or isn’t problematic symbolism associated with them come every evening on the 11th of July.

A history of celebration

The eleventh night bonfire events are closely associated with the Twelfth of July celebrations of King William’s victorious forces in 1690. The bonfire event itself is seen as a tradition to mark the occasion of the hills of counties Antrim and Down “aglow with bonfires” for the arrival of William and his army at Carrickfergus. His battle with King James at the River Boyne took place on 1 July 1690, while the decisive Battle of Aughrim took place on 12 July 1691. Immediately there were annual celebrations on 1 and 12 July — “occasions for bonfires, fireworks, and firing of guns”.

There was arguably a class distinction from the start, with Williamite celebrations taking place among working-class people around bonfires “whilst the gentry retired to a banquet”. Also, while Dublin observed the Boyne (1 July) anniversary, the Orange Order (established in 1795) began to celebrate on 12 July (as the northern population adopted the Gregorian calendar, adding 11 days to make the 1 July as 12 July). From here, under the appropriation of the Orange Order (and not the Dublin government), Williamite celebrations would take on new meanings and interpretations.

Yet evidence shows that bonfires weren’t a notable part of Twelfth celebrations for much of the 19th century; bonfires were seldom reported. This could reflect the more historically elite nature of the Orange Order wanting to “marginalise the less reputable elements of the parades”. However, there was a reported change after the establishment of Northern Ireland in 1921 and the dominance of political unionism, with a “remarkable increase” in the number of Eleventh of July bonfires. Thus the occasion evolved from William as a champion of civil and religious democracy to a demonstration of the strength of the Orange Order and Ulster Protestantism in a new state.

Bonfire night events commonly took place as local street parties, with food and music and children attending; the bonfires themselves were relatively modest (“like a wigwam”). However, by 1970 bonfires became a marker of defiance to the civil rights campaign and coincided with the onset of the Troubles — and bonfires now included the burning of tyres and wooden pallets. At some bonfires, loyalist paramilitaries would appear and fire shots as a show of strength — underlining an association between bonfires and political loyalism.

New politics, new complexities

The complex relationship among the Northern Ireland state, police and security forces, and loyalists is typified in interventions with bonfire organisers. For example, loyalists were furious when the police (RUC) came in to remove bonfire material in advance at one place in 1986; the police cited concerns of safety and the potential for property damage. Loyalists could interpret such actions by state actors as an insult upon a demonstration of their core identity and/or as elite discrimination against their working-class status.

Other statutory agencies got involved in the bonfire discussion, including the Housing Executive (where it owns the land of the bonfire site), Northern Ireland Executive agencies for the environment (with concern for tyres and other pollutants in the bonfire), and the Fire Brigade (more to protect neighbouring property than to extinguish the bonfire).

Local government councils have attempted to coordinate statutory actions through “bonfire management programmes”, using their remit to encourage and develop “good relations” in their council area. Causeway Coast & Glens Borough Council, as an example, outlines the agencies that it sees as having responsibilities and contributing to the effort. Every council is responsible for its own bonfire management policy.

Bonfire management policies

Bonfire construction with Irish tricolour flag and Antifa (anti-fascist) flag. Posnett Street, Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Belfast City Council is consistently mired in proposals, requests, denials, and accusations of creating rising tensions yearly. In 2021, a proposal brought forward by Sinn Fein and backed by the SDLP would have put in regulations in which those wishing to build and operate bonfires would have required a thorough application. This was strongly opposed by Alderman Brian Kingston, DUP group leader in the council,  who branded it as “totally unrealistic.” Alliance Party councillor Nuala McAllister suggested that while she believes that bonfires should be regulated, the suggested proposals were not up to par with the council’s good community relations guidelines. Like other councils, Belfast City Council offers up to £1,750 in funding for bonfires that meet specific criteria, including not burning tyres and avoiding paramilitary or offensive displays. 

Ards & North Down Borough Council, for example, saw a survey in 2022 with relatively few responses (145 in total), with many being largely critical of the bonfires as a “source of division” and deeming 11 July as being nothing more than a haven for “drunks and druggies”. Councillor Tom Smith heavily criticised the survey as being misrepresentative of the community as a whole. The council’s 2021 Cultural Expression Agreement did not reference such problems that may arise from the Eleventh of July festivities.

Causeway Coast & Glens Borough Council’s bonfire framework report does acknowledge the “adverse effect” of anti-social behaviour associated with Eleventh of July bonfires, but as seen in other councils’ policies, calls on the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to “reduce” paramilitary and inappropriate displays of flags and effigies. 

Derry City & Strabane District Council has seen more progress than others in reducing sectarian imagery on bonfires, at least in writing. Controversy was rampant in 2021 when a bonfire was set up on Lecky Road near the Catholic-populated Bogside neighbourhood. This year, Unionist politicians have been irate with the continuing decision by bonfire organisers to use tyres along with palates. The tyre issue, deemed environmentally unfriendly and largely pointless, has been categorically ignored by bonfire organisers. This has led to the DUP boycotting the council’s bonfire programme.

Beacon bonfires

Source: Groundwork

An innovative response is the introduction of an eco-friendly beacon bonfire. The beacon is a reusable, two-part steel structure — five metres tall and pre-filled with carbon-neutral willow wood. It stands on a bed of sand, which protects the underlying surface, such as roads or car parks.

Beacons are presented as an environmentally friendly and cost-effective way to have a bonfire celebration. Compared to more contemporary bonfire constructions, its smaller size assures residents that their homes will not become scorched or enflamed. Some emphasise an improved, family-friendly experience.

The non-profit organisation, Groundwork, provides the beacons, which works in a consultative way with local communities and statutory agencies. The pilot beacon bonfire took place in the Woodvale area of Belfast in 2008; Groundwork has delivered over 100 beacons for both 11th of July and Halloween celebrations.

Source: Groundwork

We still want bonfires

“…the biggest majority, I would say 90 per cent of this community still want bonfires in their area. So, I dunno how you would deal with this long term” are the words of a youth worker interviewed by Poloni (p. 124). In effect, it is in the eye of the beholder whether the spaces occupied by the rows upon rows of pallets are instruments of sectarianism or simply annual expressions that ultimately amount to a pile of ash. Seeing the likes of the ISIS flag propped up next to the EU flag or Sinn Fein political signs would generally point one’s biases in a particular direction. Although the beacon programme instituted in 2008 had slowly been leading to a more constructive approach, in a literal and figurative sense, aggravations such as Brexit and the subsequent Northern Ireland Protocol have led to a “one step forwards, two steps back” scenario. The future of the bonfire symbolism remains up in the air. 

Bonfire remnant. Belfast, Northern Ireland. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

Further reading

Kettner, Karen Lynn. ‘What’s the news? Nothing but bonfires’: The Eleventh Night Bonfire: tradition and change. PhD thesis (2015).

Poloni, Anna. “Bonfire Time in Belfast: Temporalities of Waste in a Loyalist Neighbourhood.” Etnofoor 33, no. 2 (2021): 112–32.

All images © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster except “Groundwork beacon bonfire”

Research by Ben MARSHALL and Allan LEONARD.

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