‘Bonefire of the vanities’…

ELEVENTH Night bonfires are always a hot potato for debate, and attract plenty of blazing criticism. Here, Claire McNeilly speaks to a number of loyalists involved in ‘bonefires’. Newton Emerson counters some of the republican criticism here. It isn’t all about about King Billy and bigotry, and I think both republicans and loyalists sometimes have misconceptions about what drives these sectarian displays of tribal community. So why do loyalists build bonfires? PS: Send us reports about the bonfire events in your area tonight!I think one of the main reasons for loyalist bonfires has to be for the sense of belonging they create in a world of macho loyalism constantly under attack, whether fairly and unfairly, both from republicans and middle-class unionists.

Let’s face it; Eleventh Night bonfires are the domain of working-class and ‘underclass’ men and boys. The long-suffering reader might refer to them as spides. Loyalist spides, like neds and chavs, are widely disliked by most other social groups. Working class loyalists think middle class unionists and republicans are sneering down their ‘cultured’ noses at them. And, since they largely are, the enmity is fairly mutual.

Being under constant cultural attack from both opponents and sympathisers might make loyalism change, but it is more likely not to. Since it knows from experience that the gut reaction from loyalism under fire is kneejerk antagonism, the Government is trying to wean it onto something else. Call it bribery, call it ‘community development’, the NIO is trying the old ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine’ routine. Again.

It’s possible that developers’ bulldozers are succeeding in permanently shifting more bonfires than any Government policy that provides an alternative to the annual outlet for blowing off sectarian steam. Having said that, the developers probably paid more than £100,000 for the pleasure.

However, there seems to be a growing recognition in loyalism that it needs to change how it celebrates the Eleventh Night. The Government, sensing an opportunity, is capitalising on a perceived willingness within loyalism to shift away from paramilitarism.

While nationalists often oppose the bonfires on ideological grounds, much of the other criticism would disappear if the fires didn’t impact on everyone else’s lives so much. Many bonfires fall into the category where the average disinterested punter can say: “Leave them alone and let them get on with it, sure they’re not harming anyone.” But too many don’t. In short, they’re pissing too many people off for the ranting to stop until something changes.

Bonfires are important to loyalists for a variety of reasons, as they fulfil a number of social functions in the communities they exist in. They provide a central community aim and focus for a sustained period, the ritual of collection and protection of the material coming to a primitive tribal climax of blazing euphoria. Like Christmas day for the kids, it creates an air of expectation. Of course, not everyone joins in, but who needs everybody? Sure, even the women don’t get to join in until the thing’s built(!)

For the men in these communities, the sense of achievement after building the fires must be huge, particularly in some areas where there might not be much else to take pride in. There’s also a sense of competition that can be detected, and disappointment if a neighbouring area has a better bonfire. With a successful bonfire, loyalists have proved can still get their cultural and traditional erections up – “Women of Ulster, be ye impressed by these tall, phallic objects, for yea, thou shalt be needing cupboards put up shortly, and ye are now witnessing the ultimate manifestation of our manly DIY skills.”

Loyalists like the structures to be photographed once they’re built, as at that point you can see there’s been a lot of work and substantial skill has gone into it. Architecturally, the larger ones demonstrate that the skills loyalists have for building large semi-permanent structures didn’t disappear with the Titanic.

But before the touchpaper is lit, the piles of fuel – furniture, pallets and tyres – can resemble a dirthy, rat-infested, temporary rubbish tip, strewn in (usually) a communal or public space. The needs and rights of others are casually disregarded by hard men. The open air landfill sites that many sites in housing estates resemble is one of the main reasons so many people hate bonfires. It’s a pretty damn good reason, espcially for those who have to quietly tolerate them and pay for the damage. Efforts to clean up will be judged on their merits.

If you’re going to dent loyalist pride by taking away their toy/culture, you’ll have a job convincing the self-righteous/proud loyal Ulsterman that something else will fill the vacuum equally well and fulfil the functions a bonfire does. Unlike republicans, weaned off internment bonfires with the West Belfast Festival, loyalism seems to want to move in a different direction. It’s too early to say what it is yet, but for the republican critics slamming the funding of activities that channel loyalist activity into something more acceptable, they should remember that republicanism inspired the idea.

Less facetiously, but maybe more embarrassingly for those concerned, bonfires are something that tend to bind the men in a particular community together. Men and boys build it together, there’s probably a few generations of families there, passing on local knowledge, staying out in huts protecting it, that kind of thing. Loyalists don’t like to talk about male bonding, even if they’ll be dancing round a 50ft tall burning phallus 20 hours from now, but it happens.

What, indeed, could be more tribal? The night itself brings hundreds of people together in the semi-darkness of July, to witness an impressive sight and listen to bad rave for different reasons, whether to chat and enjoy the spectacle in a community ritual, or to get totally plastered and violent.

Then there’s all the other usual great stuff you’d expect at any outdoor summer event; drinking, shouting, singing, drugs, fighting, pissing in alleyways, dancing and falling. This is all fairly normal weekend Belfast behaviour. However, where the Eleventh Night falls down is in its deliberate exclusion of and hostility towards cultural and social outsiders. Catholics specifically, but the event fails to attract – and often alienates – huge swathes of middle class unionists. Burning tyres could create more of a stink in North Down than West Belfast.

Without doubt, the celebration is overtly sectarian and as territorial as the surrounding flags, painted kerbstones and murals indicate. The climax of the night comes when the bonfire collapses in on itself, taking the papal effigy or Irish tricolour into the flames. At a few, paramilitaries hold ‘shows of strength’, and I think funding should be withheld from these until they can demonstrate terrorist groups will stay away.

Loyalists are trying to persuade us that they are changing, and the Government and some councils are providing the incentive. I guess we’ll be able to judge the situation better in a few hours time…

  • Aaron

    Nice post Gonzo.

    But I’m just not buying the revisionism that’s going on everywhere at the minute.

    For example.. in the Sunday Life article you linked to

    “Sylvia Gordon, assistant director for development at Groundwork, explains: “We are working hard to turn the Eleventh Night into a festival event for the whole community, devoid of sectarian trappings and altogether more environmentally friendly.”

    What crap. The sectarian trappings are the entire point of the event, are they not? All the other fringe benefits – the community, the father-son bonding, the petty crime and the under-age drinking – are wrapped up in being around the people who hate themmums as much as you do.

    Every time a group of loyalists cheer as an irish flag burns on the 11th night, the country, and the unionist community, take a giant leap backwards.

    I’m open to being convinced – but I see no positives to the bonfires whatsoever. (Whereas I can see how the 12th might just be a nice picnic in a field for some people)

  • Dec

    Burning tricolours and papal effigies, banners mocking suicide victims, paramilitary displays and regular beatings and stabbings. This is culture?

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Dec

    This is culture? Of course it is. Why would there be any doubt?

    Aaron

    I don’t think the article denies any of the sectarianism, but bonfires are more than that as well.

    I wonder how many bonfire critics have actually been at one?

  • Rory

    Many bonfires fall into the category where the average disinterested punter can say: “Leave them alone and let them get on with it, sure they’re not harming anyone.”

    Of all the great pieces of philosopical wisdom that I have encountered one of the most profound, I sometimes think, comes from an old English nursery rhyme, Little Bo Peep

    Leave them alone/and they will come home/wagging their tails behind them.

    But like Aaron above, I am not convinced such pious hope has true application here. Would that it had.

  • joeCanuck

    Gonzo

    I think we can all agree that the hatred expressed by some in both communities against themmuns has to have be learned. They weren’t born with it.
    I have only attended one 11th bonfire in my life and the hatred shouted towards Catholics was sickening, to say the least. There were hundreds of children there. I wonder what lasting impressions they took to bed that night.

  • Aaron

    I wonder how many bonfire critics have actually been at one?

    I grew up in the heart of Loyalist Lisburn, so you can’t use that one against me!

    Even as a child – before a kindly young girl explained to me a tender age about Taigs and Prods – I recall being very aware of the poison in the air in July.

    My point Gonzo is this – the idea that bonfires are about more than sectarianism is a fallacy. Take away the hatred, and the rest would fall away.

  • Westchick

    Gonzo,
    I’m a bonfire critic who has actually been at bonfires, albeit, under a false name and with a lot of friends for moral support. And I have to say that altho it looked like great fun for those who were involved it also looked terrifying as an outsider. I can’t see that bonfire night will ever be inclusive while paramilitary shows of strength are allowed to happen or the slogans such as KAT are plastered around. Burning the effigy of a pope kinda makes it feel a little bit uncomfortable for us Catholics who still practice and I’m sure for those who don’t.
    Maybe the Orange fest grant should have come with stricter guidelines (you know maybe not burning an irish flag or something like that!!!)
    I accept that there probably is more to bonfire night but Gonzo don’t forget that you are more accepted by those that attend than some of us, so don’t make us feel bad for not going, I would question how welcome we would be!

  • Dec

    Gonzo

    his is culture? Of course it is. Why would there be any doubt?
    Sorry but burning the flag of a sovereign nation is not culture in my book. Then again, I’m not an a member of the Alliance party.

    I wonder how many bonfire critics have actually been at one?
    Nationalist critics tend not to go to bonfires as most of us are adverse to violent deaths. Don’t confuse objections to naked sectarianism with objections to large fires once a year. Whatever the historical resonace of bonfires, its lost in the sheer hatred for Irish Catholicism and its adherents.

  • Allen R Butler

    Nationalist critics tend not to go to bonfires as most of us are adverse to violent deaths.

    Good line DEC.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I’m not a nationalist, but I have a libertarian perspective on things like this. I can’t reasonably object to people celebrating the 12th. While I find the burning of flags or religious symbols, or shouting “fuck the pope” to be deeply divisive actions, at the end of the day people do have the right to do those things, reprehensible that they are.

    My objections are mainly:

    – disorderly behaviour and disruption of traffic (I know of at least one bonfire right in the middle of a road)
    – rubbish and damage to the road surfaces, homes, and private property; no effort is made to clean this up afterwards
    – paramilitary shows of strength and displays
    – cost of providing fire service backup
    – the general atmosphere of two-fingers to law and order

    There’s no defence for the above, no matter who does it.

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Dec said: “Sorry but burning the flag of a sovereign nation is not culture in my book. Then again, I’m not an a member of the Alliance party.”

    Nor am I, but maybe you don’t know what ‘culture’ actually means…

    And why do I get the impression that people think I’m defending the indefensible parts of the celebration? The most cogent argument here is that if you remove the sectarianism, there’s nothing left.

    Admittedly, at the moment, there wouldn’t be much left, but since we’re stuck with the things and no-one is going to enforce change (least of all the Government and police), maybe it’s in all our interests to point out to loyalists how they could celebrate without rubbing everyone else’s nose in the embers…

    Didn’t nationalists dump absolutist arguments years ago anyway!?

  • Dread Cthulhu

    Belfast Gonzo: “And why do I get the impression that people think I’m defending the indefensible parts of the celebration? The most cogent argument here is that if you remove the sectarianism, there’s nothing left.”

    I don’t think you’re defending anything… I do think you’re trying to get us to look for the needle in the haystack.

    Belfast Gonzo: “maybe it’s in all our interests to point out to loyalists how they could celebrate without rubbing everyone else’s nose in the embers… ”

    Sure, and then, for our next trick, we could flap our arms and fly away. Gonzo, its not like they don’t understand. Its deliberate. Given the fact that removing offensive sectarian material is enough to get you chatted up by the locals thug-in-chief, as happened in with Belfast City hospital bonfire when the UFF flag was taken down, I’d think it’d best demand a better class of politician and copper from the state. That at least has a chance of working.

  • Stephen Copeland

    Belfast Gonzo,

    [Dec]”I’m not an a member of the Alliance party.’

    Nor am I …

    Interesting. Why did you leave them? You were, lets just say, pretty active in Alliance for a while, so why the parting of ways?

  • Aaron_Scullion

    maybe it’s in all our interests to point out to loyalists how they could celebrate without rubbing everyone else’s nose in the embers

    I think you’re definitely right about that.

    I’m trying not to say it can’t work..

    I will not be so cynical
    I will not be so cynical
    I will not be so cynical
    I will not be so cynical
    I will not be so cynical
    I will not be so cynical
    I will not be so cynical
    I will not be so cynical
    I will not be so cynical
    I will not be so cynical
    I will not be so cynical

    It’s a lot easier to do lines when you can copy and paste!

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Aaron – LOL!

    Stephen – I was bored to tears.

  • The Devil

    Did I hear someone say that this is “culture”?

    Bollocks. It’s the underclass doing what the underclass does best: hatred and destruction with drink and drugs thrown in. Calling it culture is falling for the relativistic lie. You’ll live to regret it.

  • Stephen Copeland

    Gonzo,

    I was bored to tears.

    LOL

    So it really is as bad on the inside as it seems from the outside? Its bad news for them when they start to lose the intelligent and the young. Ah well, they still have IJP …. don’t they?

  • ben

    Who cares what their motivations are? Let’s not get weepy about the self-actualisation and empowerment of these people. They’re vandalizing public property and creating an atmosphere of sectarian initimidation and violence. Who cares why they do it? Stop them from doing it.

  • aquifer

    The original bonfires were probably the hilltop beacons that announced the arrival of friends (or enemies) from abroad in a very isolated and frightened place.

    What the bonfires have become just underlines how isolated Unionists are.

    Would it be beyond the wit of the order to arrange for a ‘flame of freedom’ or such to be brought along Prince William’s route from Holland to Ireland via England? The English could do with a reminder of how much they owe the ‘Glorius Revolution’. The Bank of England and Empire for starters.

    Republicans and Socialists also owe a lot to the survival of european protestant rationalism, but I’d be surprised to hear a ‘thanks Billy’.

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Stephen

    Just to clarify, my frustration was with the fact that the entire political process was going nowhere.

  • Dread Cthulhu

    Belfast Gonzo: “Just to clarify, my frustration was with the fact that the entire political process was going nowhere. ”

    Maybe next time about, if the leaders are willing to, like, y’know, LEAD, maybe something will get done.

  • Stephen Copeland

    Gonzo,

    Drat, my wet dream of an Alliance Party meltdown might have beem premature ….

    So you’ve really just joined the mass of the ‘don’t know/don’t care/don’t vote/don’t get involved’ near-majority?

  • joeCanuck

    Fires seem to have some primitive appeal to people, presumably a cultural artifact from 100s of thousands of years of being given warmth and the ability to see at night and keep wild animals at bay.
    I live on a beach in Canada and every Saturday night I can see lots of fires up and down the beach to the far distance.
    So I have difficulty with an absolute ban on them.
    However, there does need to be some form of control, both from an environmental point of view and an end to sectarian hatred, no matter how hard that may be to do. Just shouting at one another won’t work.

  • joeCanuck

    I can understand your frustration Gonzo. When I lived in N.I. I voted Alliance. Eventually I couldn’t stand the inability/unwillingness of the political leaders to compromise on the simplest of things so I left in 1981.
    It was a good move for me.
    I still wish both sides over there the peace that most people seem to desperately want and there has been progress, albeit at a snail’s pace. Perhaps come the Fall, progress will accelerate a bit.
    I admit that, for the most part, I am an incurable optimist, so people don’t need to post to tell me that.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Maybe next time about, if the leaders are willing to, like, y’know, LEAD, maybe something will get done.

    Political leadership is the whole problem in this place. Half of the problem is the way we are detached from the politicians who take so many decisions for us. The local politicians do not have to concern themselves with accountability. Leadership is why there are no unionist politicians on BBC Newsline willing to condemn the damage and pollution being caused by these bonfires we’re discussing.

    Stephen C:

    So you’ve really just joined the mass of the ‘don’t know/don’t care/don’t vote/don’t get involved’ near-majority?

    What does that make you Stephen, a member of the “sit in my cosy house and debate it on Slugger” minority ? There was a day when I’d have packed you straight off for coffee with Beria.

  • joeCanuck

    Coffee with Beria?
    You sent shivers down my spine comrade.
    If I’d been invited I would have drank a bottle or two of Vodka first.

  • joeCanuck

    And, talking about that period, I’ve just about finished a novel (written in 1940) by Arthur Koestler, called “Darkness at Noon”. It deals with the inner struggle, of a revolutionary about to be executed (murdered) by his former colleagues, over the morality of absolutism (the end justifies the means) versus relativism (the innocent should not be sacrificed).
    Sound familiar?

  • Comrade Stalin

    Vodka ? Wouldn’t touch the stuff. The idea is to get other people to drink it and then beat a confession out of them. A bit like the PSNI do, except due to cutbacks they don’t provide the vodka. I understand the SDLP have raised the matter at the Police Board.

    To be honest, I find a lot of these in-depth psychological analyses of my time in power to get a little boring after a while. Absolute power simply ruins people.

  • Kathy_C

    posted by Kathy C

    Hi all,

    On the day the subject of the bonfires are being debated and how some people are stating they are an manifistation of unionist superiority over the minority Catholic community…Gerry Adams goes and helps defuse the situation for the loyalist and has to have a press conference today of all days to condem the IRA… Too bad he didn’t condem the hatred by some in the orange order and those who participate in the bonfires for Catholcis….Anything to be in the papers and on the news adams linked himself to the coverage. A way to get in the news…but he’s going against his own…..I really don’t like him anymore.

  • Garibaldy

    Stalin’s main problem was that he was too moderate

  • Allen R Butler

    Kathy_C

    Is this news conference on Adams available on the net yet? I’m at work and they block alot of stuff.

    Please, anyone, let me know. This is of great interest to me.

    AL

  • joeCanuck

    Allen, from BBC online:
    IRA ‘was wrong’ over bodies issue
    The way the IRA dealt with the bodies of those they abducted and murdered was “wrong”, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has said.
    New levels of cooperation between the IRA, Sinn Fein and the Irish government should see the recovery of the remaining five Disappeared, he said.
    Mr Adams also revealed that IRA members involved in the killings have visited burial sites with a forensics expert.
    The Sinn Fein president was speaking at a briefing for journalists on Tuesday.
    “There were not primary sources involved in all cases because in some cases these people themselves had either died or been killed in the intervening years,” he said.
    “By primary sources I presume that it is people who were there when the killings took place – either transporting those who were killed, or in fact killed those who were killed or buried those who were killed.”
    ‘Killers’
    BBC Northern Ireland’s home affairs correspondent Vincent Kearney said Mr Adams revealed that the IRA has met a forensics expert seven times during a 10 month period.
    He said they had also visited the sites where the IRA believes the five remaining bodies are buried.
    “On some occasions, IRA members present included people who carried out the killings, people the Sinn Fein leader called primary sources,” he said.
    “A forensic expert is said to have submitted a report to the Irish government in February, making a number of recommendations that he believes could lead to the bodies being found.
    “Gerry Adams called on the government to act on that report, and acknowledged that what the IRA did was wrong.”
    Nine people murdered and secretly buried by the IRA during the 1970s became known as the Disappeared.
    The remains of four have been found, the latest in 2003.
    This was mother of 10 Jean McConville, who the IRA claimed at the weekend had been an “informer” who passed information to the British security forces.
    On Friday Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan said she had found no evidence that Mrs McConville had passed information to the security forces.
    Beach
    However, the IRA later insisted a “thorough investigation” confirmed that the mother of 10 “was working as an informer for the British army”.
    In 1999, the IRA admitted they had killed Mrs McConville and several other of the Disappeared, but alleged some of them had been informers.
    Mrs McConville, who was a widow, was killed after she went to the aid of a fatally wounded British soldier outside her home in west Belfast’s Divis flats.
    Her remains were finally found at Shelling Hill beach in County Louth in the Irish Republic in August 2003.
    Mr Kearney said that at Tuesday’s briefing Mr Adams “would not be drawn on the issue of Jean McConville”.
    “The fact that Gerry Adams has gone public with details of this secretive process at this time clearly demonstrates that the fate of the disappeared is once again firmly on the political agenda, as DUP leader Ian Paisley has called for the recovery of the bodies,” he said.
    “Republicans clearly know that to move forward, they have to be seen to be attempting to deal with the past.”
    In a statement the Irish government said it was involved in discussions with the Northern Ireland Office about how to respond to the forensic report.
    It said the families of the Disappeared will be informed of the outcome of these discussions “shortly”.

  • Rory

    Joe Canuck,

    Koestler’s Darkness at Noon had quite an impact on me when I first read it as a young impressionable man forty five years ago. So did a movie around the same era, THe Prisoner with Alec Guinness as a cardinal in an (unspecified) eastern bloc country (clearly intended to be Hungary) and Jack Hawkins as his gaoler and interrogator (clearly assumed to be a Soviet communist). With hindsight I was able to see them for the sophisticated propaganda they were.

    Koestler went on to become the leading figure in Britain for the promulgation of belief in ghosties and ghoulies and all things that go bump in the night. Indeed he left his accumulated wealth to establish a chair in such research. The favoured universities shied away from this largesse and eventually the trustees of Koestler’s estate were able to persuade one of the Scottish universities of the wisdom of acceptance. I cannot recall if it was Glasgow or Edinburgh and I would not wish to stigmatise the innocent party by hazarding a wrong guess.

    I mention this only because I was wondering what application Koestler might have to the problem to hand but now (after a quick burst on the ouija board) all is clear – a supernatural intervention will do the trick and the clergy and their followers will be obliged to follow (march if they must) along.

    Hallelujah! Peace at last!

  • joeCanuck

    rory

    I was thinking more about the application of the absolutism argument with respect to Mrs. McConville.
    Even if she was a tout, and we have yet to see any evidence of that, does the end justify the means?

  • joeCanuck

    I came across the book in a secondhand bookstore (50p) and know nothing about Koestler other than what you have just told me.
    Regards

  • ST

    Referring back to the original article:

    “Burning tyres could create more of a stink in North Down than West Belfast.”

    I’m a middle class unionist who has just returned from viewing 3 of Bangor’s fires. So I’m not drunkenly shouting abuse till 5am – but I did enjoy the spectacle.

    Some of us North Down types are more easy going than you think.

  • Allen R Butler

    Thank You Joe for the BBC article. This explains a lot. I read somewhere that Gerry Adams was a section head of the PIRA in Belfast at the time of this disappearance. If that is so then he is obviously not being forthwright in his explanation.

    If Mrs. McConville was a “tout” then why doesn’t the PIRA put forth evidence to defend this argument?

    If She wasn’t an informer, and the PIRA ” made a mistake” then wouldn’t it be better to come out and say so?

    I am not believing the argument put forth by SF or PIRA on this matter. To say one made the mistake would have far less negative implications attached to it than to say ” We were justified ”
    It doesn’t wash, and if I was in the PIRA I would be watching my back, as it looks like Gerry is going to hang someone out to dry.

    I really hope that I am wrong as this scenerio hits deep into my Republican beliefs.

  • johnkingii

    Left house at 9PM drink at mum in laws in Woodvale. Me and bro in law couple of pints in Montainview. Seen Lwr Shankill being lit. Did tour of R/Coole, Monkstown, Ballyduff, Cloughfern bonies with wife and kids, very laid bck no tension trouble seen anywhere or fire brigade, police. Lots of familys, BBQ’s the way it should be. 2 am going to bed now then up at 7 am to get ready for wlk to Edenderry with my father and rest of lodge happy 12th to all.

  • skinbop

    happy twelfth to all in norn iron. hope youse see some sunshine and behave yourselves.

  • rubber legs

    “Architecturally, the larger ones demonstrate that the skills loyalists have for building large semi-permanent structures didn’t disappear with the Titanic.”

    I found this line a little amusing.

  • skinbop

    who knows – maybe next year they can fork out for a polish flag or something.

  • Rory

    I take your point Joe. How does the end justify the means? That is the $64,000 question to which I’m afraid I do not have an answer.

    I can see how by applying a wider political morality it could be justified, but my own private morality I trust never could. That is the dilemna that often faces activists in conflict and in deciding a man really is alone and naked up against the wall of moral choice with nothing between him and hell but the tattered loincloth of his own conscience.

  • Interesting comment from Sue Denham in the The Sunday Times today

    Meanwhile a lady from Foxrock has written to The Irish Times complaining about loyalist bonfires on the Twelfth. “One wonders if these should be allowed as they must give off large quantities of toxic smoke in residential areas,” fussed Ann McInerney of Brighton Road, which is a long way from east Belfast.

    Tell you what, missus, why not tour the loyalist estates next summer yourself and explain which particular EU environmental regulations they’re breaching?