Less heat, more light: surveillance, peace treaties, and bonfires…

The recent “industrial scale” data blunder by the Police Service of Northern Ireland has brought a renewed topicality to a piece of writing I set aside in the run-up to last May’s Local Government elections. Espionage has rarely been made so simple, but it is a practice as old as war itself.

‘Know your enemy’ is a key tenet of The Art of War, the magnum opus of Sun Tzu, a philosopher and general who lived through the tumultuous autumn years of the Chinese Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE). He set great store by intelligence gathering, asserting that “spies are the most important element in war, for upon them depends an army’s ability to move”. Surveillance and reconnaissance remain key concerns for both Eastern and Western powers and have evolved to include the use of high-altitude aircraft and low-Earth orbiting satellites. However, ‘weather balloons’ drifting over sensitive North American installations and hobbyist drones in Ukraine monitoring the movements of invading Russian troops are a reminder that becoming familiar with your enemy can still be a relatively low-tech affair.

Some of the earliest and most basic images of combat to have been captured were discovered in Iberia. Dated to the late Mesolithic (9000-6000 BCE), a cave painting in Cueva del Roure, near Valencia in Northern Spain, captures a skirmish between two small groups of archers. In a rock shelter in nearby Les Dogue, Ares del Maestrat, a larger, possibly early Neolithic (6000-3000 BCE) battle scene depicts eleven stationary archers being attacked by seventeen running archers. The context of these clashes must remain unknown but someone, presumably the victors, deemed them worthy of record.

By the time of the 19th dynasty in ancient Egypt (1292-1190 BCE), the commemoration and propagandisation of military actions had reached truly monumental proportions. Set on a cliff face overlooking the second cataract of the River Nile, at Aswan in southern Egypt, the Abu Simbel complex is comprised of two massive rock-cut temples with huge external rock relief colossi that have become iconic images of Ramesses II, speculated nemesis of Moses, and queen Nefertari, his chief wife. The Great Temple commemorates the life of the Pharaoh whilst the Small Temple is dedicated to his consort. The bas-reliefs on the walls of its Hypostyle Hall are a lasting testimony to his many military conquests, including those over the Hittites, Egypt’s historic enemies to the south.

In 1274 BCE, the fifth year of his reign, the young Ramesses personally headed a force of 20,000 foot-soldiers and 2,000 chariots on an expedition into the heart of King Muwatalli’s Hittite Empire to face an army almost twice as large. Named after the Hittite capital in modern-day Syria, The Battle of Kadesh was the highlight of this military action and is the earliest pitched battle for which a detailed description survives. Despite both sides claiming victory, the campaign was in fact inconclusive, with hostilities eventually ending decades later in what is referred to as the treaty of Kadesh, the world’s first known peace treaty. However, the road to peace is seldom smooth and Muvattalli II was killed in a riot during negotiations, the agreement eventually being signed by his successor, Hattuşilli III.

More recently, on the 31st of March 1603, a week after the death of Elizabeth I, the treaty of Milliford was signed so ending a struggle that had cost the lives of tens of thousands. Faught between August 15 and March 1603, the Nine Years War was one of the most protracted, bloody, and transformative conflicts in Irish history and would herald the demise of the old Gaelic order and secure English (later British) rule in Ireland for the next three centuries.

The main protagonists of the war were Hugh O’Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone, and Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, later replaced by Charles Blount, 8th Baron Mountjoy, when he was appointed Lord Deputy in 1600. The opening shots were fired at a crossing on the Arney River, Co. Fermanagh, when a relief column of almost 650 English troops on route to Enniskillen Castle was ambushed and defeated by Hugh Maguire. This encounter would become known as the Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits after the abandoned English rations that floated off downstream.

In addition to the surviving written record of this tumultuous period in Irish history, a rich collection of pictorial material still exists. The National Library of Ireland has digitised a collection of drawings and plans by, among others, English military cartographer Richard Bartlett. These show the main fortifications of the Irish during the Nine Years War and chart several of the conflict’s key military campaigns.

A marginal note on a 1601 map of Kinsale, Co. Cork, on the perils of approaching too close to the town, gives a flavour of the conditions under which Bartlett was often obliged to work. He states that, ‘All… is here sett downe is by judgment & not by measure neither could I without danger come so ner the towne as I might take perfect vew nor discover the order of the streets…’ For all Bartlett’s caution, however, a contemporary account records that in about 1603, ‘when he came to Tyrconnell [modern-day Donegal] the inhabitants took off his head, because they would not have their country discovered’.

Perhaps the most poignant of Bartlett’s works, ‘Drawing of Dungannon Castle and the stone chair at Tullaghoge, Co. Tyrone’, celebrates the principal successes of Mountjoy’s final campaign in Tyrone during the summer of 1602. The upper portion shows an attack on an Irish crannog, a defensive artificial island; the central image is of a slighted Dungannon Castle, O’Neill’s headquarters; at the bottom is the rath at Tullaghogue featuring the stone inaugural chair of the O’Neills, which Mountjoy destroyed in early September.

The scene of an inauguration using the Tyrone chair is prominent in a 1601 map of the East part of Ulster. A caption beneath reads, ‘Tullogh ogé, on this hill the Irish Create their O-Neale.’ Probably copied from an original by Bartlett, it is now part of the Dartmouth collection held by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. This map has been reproduced as a large mural on the wall of the 1st floor of the Ulster Museum in Belfast. It can appear somewhat peculiar to a modern observer as it is East-oriented, like all medieval Mappa Mundi, with the holy city of Jerusalem at their centre.

Another featured detail on the East Ulster map is the scene of a prominent hill with large flames visible at its summit. Beneath is a caption that reads, ‘Here the Scotts make their warninge fyres’. The actual location of these conflagrations appears to be Torr Head, Ireland’s closest point to Scotland, with a clear view of the Mull of Kintyre only 12 miles distant. Correspondence between Dr Meredith Hanmer, a Welsh cleric who travelled to Ireland in about 1591 and Lord Burleigh, principal adviser to Elizabeth I, reflects on the fact that the Earl of Tyrone “has only to make a signal fire on the coast, when within seven hours he can be joined by an endless supply of Scots”.

A map of Ireland, drawn in 1610 by John Norden, includes a note in the vicinity of Torr Head which states that ‘[a]t this marke the Scottes used to make their warning- fire’. The use of the past tense is significant. Three years previously, in September 1607, a French ship had sailed from the harbour of Rathmullan in Lough Swilly, Co. Donegal. On board were the Earl of Tyrone and Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell, along with a retinue made up of over ninety followers and family members, a voyage that would become known as the Flight of the Earls.

Fire is believed to have played a significant role in the evolution of our species, having been described as “fundamental to the human condition”. Archaeologists generally agree that while our Neanderthal cousins certainly made use of fire whenever it was available to them, as they were physically cold adapted, it was not essential to their survival. Our branch of humanity, on the other hand, would not have strayed far from the savannas of African without the ability to create fire. Recent research suggests that Homo Sapiens alone mastered this technique and that our close association with fire has even altered us on a genetic level, to offer protection against the carcinogens found in wood smoke. This did not happen for Neanderthal.

While the earliest fires would undoubtedly have been valued for their practical applications, such as heating, cooking, and warding off wild animals, the bright, penetrating light they radiated had a quality that transcended the mundane. In Greek mythology, Prometheus, greatest of all the Titans and creator of mankind, stole a spark from the forge of the gods and, much to the displeasure of Zeus, smuggled it down to earth so fostering the development of human technologies, including metalwork. Prometheus would come to be associated more generally with culture and the sciences.

In Irish mythology, the goddess Brigid was, among other things, also credited with the custodianship of fire and metalworking. Following her syncretisation with the Christian St Brigid, nineteen nuns of the Abbey of Kildare were said to have maintained a perpetual fire in her honour which had burned since pre-Christian times and that no man was permitted to approach. Her Feast Day, 1st. February, was originally the pagan festival of Imbolc, marking the beginning of spring which was welcomed in with feasts and bonfires. It is now a public holiday in the Republic of Ireland, the first to be named after a woman.

In 1588, five years before the outbreak of the Nine Years War in Ireland, a network of bonfires was lit on hilltops, church towers and castle parapets along the South Coast of England to warn of the much-anticipated approach of the Spanish Armada. This event may have given rise to the origin myth associated with the bonfires that light the night skies of Northern Ireland on the 11th of July. It has been suggested that this tradition springs from a folk-memory of fires lit in June 1690 “on the hills of Antrim and Down to aid William’s navigation along Belfast Lough”, or Carrickfergus Lough as it was then known. But this custom may not have been as ubiquitous as is generally supposed.

In 1991, in an interview with American Professor of Popular Culture Jack Santino, Dr Philip Robinson, Keeper of Material Culture at the Ulster Folk Museum who grew up near Carrickfergus, recalled that in his youth, the town’s only annual bonfires tradition related to the celebration of Halloween. This originally marked the end of the annual harvest and the coming of Winter and is rooted in the pre-Christian feast of Samhain. However, Robinson could clearly remember that at about the age of 18, the mass influx of rehoused families from Belfast brought with them the tradition of building bonfires on 11th July, a practice which completely supplanted local Halloween bonfire traditions.

Whatever the genesis of today’s 11th July bonfires, the enormous structures they have become bears no resemblance to the fires that were traditionally lit to commemorate significant local events. Towering up to 200 feet into the air, they represent a danger to those that build them, with several recent cases of serious injury, and even the loss of life. Antisocial behaviour and damage to property is another consistent problem associated with these celebrations and the clean-up bill is substantial. Air quality also suffers, particularly if carcinogenic material such as tyres and foam cushions are being burnt. With the growing awareness that we are merely the temporary custodians of our planet, we should be reviewing our every action that has the potential to cause it lasting damage.

Yet another feature of modern bonfires is the burning of flags and the election posters and effigies of local political representatives. The self-regulation that bonfire-builders have signed up to has not eliminated this disturbing practice. Bonfires cannot continue to grow ever larger and be adorned with sectarian and intolerant messages. Whatever the original purpose of these annual summer beacons, they are now sending out all the wrong signals.

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