Does Size Matter?
As we fast approach the 12th of July, bonfires are being built in Loyalist communities across Northern Ireland. For many people bonfires are an enjoyable part of the annual July festivities, for others they are a scar on the landscape. Whatever your opinion though, bonfires are here to stay. I have nothing against a good ‘bonny’, but, I will say that in my humble opinion, bonfires should be scaled back in size. Some of the bonfires that are built each year are truly gigantic, do they have to be so large?
I contend that they do not. After all, isn’t the point of them to replicate the signal fires lit across the high hills of Ulster to communicate the news that King William III had landed at Carrick? Those original fires were not massive edifices. I fully understand that in some areas, especially in the Greater Belfast area, having the biggest bonfire is a sort of badge of honour. There is obviously a lot of fierce competition. However, there are other factors which need to be urgently considered.
Last “11th Night” I attended a bonfire in County Antrim. Whilst not by any means a record breaker the bonfire was still very large. Consisting almost entirely of wooden pallets, the fire was not very wide at the base but was quite tall. After it was lit it began to burn on only one side. A few minutes later and the inevitable happened- the bonfire collapsed and fell over. Fortunately nobody was hurt but I am convinced that it is only a matter of time before one of these really large bonfires costs someone their life. Shouldn’t the safety of the community, and especially the youth of the community, be paramount? Bonfires don’t have to be gargantuan.
Some Loyalist communities have switched from large, and quite frankly ugly, bonfires to the much smaller and neater beacons. These beacons are metal, usually wrought iron, cage like structures into which combustible bonfire type material is placed. They have a number of benefits: they are safer, easier to clean up afterwards, easier to light etc. I know that in some places pressure has been applied to community groups/representatives to make the switch from bonfire to beacon but that is a counterproductive tactic. Often communities simply dig their heels in and refuse to even consider a beacon. To bribe communities with the promise of funding for other things (children’s playparks etc) is downright reprehensible, though I know full well of several examples of such shady practice.
I don’t condone the burning of flags on bonfires. On the field of battle, an enemies colours, once captured, are rarely desecrated let alone destroyed, the Irish tricolour is though, being routinely burned on 11th of July bonfires, just as Loyalist flags are burned on Irish nationalist/republican bonfires. I can understand the reasoning of the flag burners, even though I don’t agree with their views. For many Loyalists and Unionists the Irish tricolour is a flag that will forever be tainted by it’s association with many and various terrorist gangs. PIRA/SF, RIRA, IPLO, CIRA, OIRA, INLA/IRSP, have all used (or continue to use) the tricolour as their emblem. If you ask the young bonfire builders what the Irish tricolour represents, many of them will tell you that it is the flag of “the IRA”, arguably they would not be incorrect in such an assertion.
Nationalist/republican flags will also continue to go up in flames every summer whilst the Union flag and Ulster banner continue to be burned on republican bonfires. This is a sad indictment of Ulster society but unfortunately that is where we are at in terms of community relations. We live in a “zero sum” society. If one side of our divided community does something, the other side will do the same. “Yous burn our flag and we’ll burn yours”.
An Appeal to Common Sense
Whether or not you agree with me on the issue of bonfires, if you attend the Eleventh Night festivities please use your common sense and keep yourself and those around you safe. Too much alcohol is never a good idea at anytime, and especially not in the vicinity of a large open fire! Orange men and bandsmen should know not to indulge too much, after all, the 12th is a long day for those involved in the actual parade.
Keep dogs away from the bonfire. Never throw glass bottles etc into the fire. Keep a close eye on the youngsters and try to avoid getting your eyebrows singed off! What will I be doing? I’ll be tucked up in bed. Like I said, the 12th is a long day. I might not take an active part anymore but still, a good nights sleep is essential the night before Europe’s largest outdoor cultural festival.