Culture

Bonfires

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.

Some Eleventh Night bonfires are on a truly epic scale

Some Eleventh Night bonfires are on a truly epic scale

Safety First

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.

Flag Burning

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.

It's not just Loyalists that burn flags on bonfires as vividly demonstrated by this republican "anti-internment" bonfire

It’s not just Loyalists that burn flags on bonfires as vividly demonstrated by this republican “anti-internment” bonfire

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.

YOUR CULTURE: USE IT, OR LOSE IT!

That’s lose it not ‘loose’ it (sorry but that really winds me up).

Ok, a lot is written about culture in Northern Ireland. Most of it is not exactly complimentary towards Ulster-Scots culture & Unionist/Loyalist/Orange traditions. Indeed, some quarters would have you believe that there is only one culture on this island. The Orange Institution is vilified & criticised from every angle, whilst the toxic NI media perpetuate the stereotype of working class Loyalists as being flag obsessed, kerb painting, tyre burning louts. We can complain about it until the proverbial cows come home. We can shake our fists at the TV screen or shout obscenities at the Biggest Ego in the Country (aka Nolan) whenever he’s on the radio, but where will that get us? How will that help? We (Loyalists & Unionists) need to become pro-active. We need to learn the lessons of the past & come up with new strategies for the future.

Can anyone seriously deny that Loyalist/Unionist/Orange heritage is under sustained attack?

Can anyone seriously deny that Loyalist/Unionist/Orange heritage is under sustained attack?

I’m going to shock you here. I was not born an Ulster Loyalist. It was not drummed into me at an early age. My father was in no way political until late in life. My mother was/is a Loyalist, though in what I’d describe as a cultural sense, rather than a political sense. Loyalism was not taught in our house! I became a Loyalist as a teenager, only after long & careful analysis of the situation in Ulster. I became a Loyalist because I believe that my homeland, Ulster, is separate to & different from the Irish nation. Because I believe that the people of Ulster, my people, have an inalienable right to self-determination, exercised in 1921, when Ulster (albeit with redrawn borders) decided to remain a part of the United Kingdom, the British Family of Nations. I became a Loyalist, rather than a Unionist, firstly because I believe Ulster to be a nation, not a Province nor some colonial outpost of the British Empire. Secondly, because I believe that, in the absence of adequate defence (as provided by the UK government) the people of NI have the right to defend themselves, by any means. Something that Loyalists have done many times in the past.

It was that, that quality of self reliance, that my teenage self saw as one of the finest attributes of Ulster Loyalism. If no outside help is forthcoming, then we’ll damn well help ourselves! And it is that quality that we need in abundance today. It’s all very well ranting & raving about the ‘cultural war’ being waged against us, but what are we going to do about it? What are you going to do about it? There are more Loyalist bands now than ever before. That’s great, but how about we tell the world how bands give young people in our community a sense of purpose, teach them musicality & discipline, get them out being active & keep them away from drugs, crime & anti-social activity? While we’re about it, let’s open up Orange halls to community groups, youth groups, senior citizens clubs etc. Some halls already do this, but sadly, in many parts of the country, Orange halls are empty & unused apart from hosting Lodge meetings once a month. Orange halls are a fantastic resource. We need to utilise them far, far more.

There are so many things we can do to promote & protect our culture & heritage. Lambeg drumming clubs are flourishing in rural areas, there’s no reason why that success can’t be replicated in the towns & cities too. Street parties to mark important national occasions are another way to promote culture/heritage, with the bonus of being a great way to bring the community together & foster good relations. There is absolutely no reason why, for example, a street party to mark VE day, could not become a ‘cross community’ event, especially in areas where community relations are something approaching normal. I also believe that the OO, Somme Associations & bands should do more to encourage everyone to take part in commemorating the Battle of the Somme. The Imperial German machineguns didn’t discriminate between Protestant Ulstermen & Catholic Ulstermen. We as Loyalists have a duty to remind people of that fact. To remind people that we, as Ulster Loyalists, remember with pride, all of the Ulster Division’s fallen sons, regardless of creed, class or political persuasion.

Lambeg drummers in the United States

Lambeg drummers in the United States

Last but by no means least, let’s get serious about our mother tongue, Ullans (Ulster-Scots). Oft lampooned by those who oppose us, Ulster-Scots is the language of our ancestors & unlike many other (now sadly extinct) minority languages, it is still alive in the mouths of thousands of our people. Some people like to criticise Ulster-Scots, saying that it isn’t really a language because it, in terms of vocabulary, it is close to English. Indeed, many will tell you that it is just bad English. Really? Because Ullans is mutually intelligible with Scots & English? If that’s the case, then half of the languages of Europe will have to be written off. Norwegian? Swedish? Nah, just bad Danish. Dutch? Just bad German. Bosnian & Croatian? Just bad Serbian. Ukrainian? Ha! Don’t make me laugh. The sad thing here is, that those who use this argument are embarrassing themselves in the eyes of every person who knows anything about linguistics. English, Scots & Ulster-Scots share a lot of words (albeit spelt slightly differently) because they are from the same language group! Just as Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Manx etc are all Celtic languages, so English, Scots & Ulster-Scots are all part of the Anglo-Frisian branch of the West Germanic language group! Norwegians can understand most of what a Swede says (in Swedish) & almost all of what a Dane says (in Danish) so does that mean it’s open season to take the piss out of the Norwegian language? C’mon all you cultural fascists, lets hear you tell a Norwegian or a Bosnian or a Slovak (Slovak having far more mutual intelligibility with Czech than Ulster-Scots has with English) that they don’t really have a language. Better still, try explaining to a Scandinavian or someone from the Balkans, why you cling so bitterly, to the childish notion that Ulster-Scots is not a language because “its nat different enough from English”.

'mutual intelligibility' it's not rocket science!

‘mutual intelligibility’ it’s not rocket science!

I’m sorry if I’m labouring the point here, but this fallacious, infantile ‘argument’ that Ullans is not a language, is so stupid & so easily refuted that it makes my blood boil that so many of the enemies of our culture still cling to it like drowning rats. That they get away with using their kindergarten tactics is a mark of shame on all of those who call themselves a Loyalist or an Ulster-Scot (for the benefit of Irish nationalist readers: Loyalist & Ulster-Scot are not mutually exclusive terms. Despite what you’ve been told) It is time for us to collectively call bullshit on our hatefilled opponents & take pride in our mother tongue. Perhaps countering the close-minded, moronic, spiteful ‘argument’ of Irish cultural fascists should be lesson one in any Ulster-Scots language class. We Ulster-Scots, (Protestant, Catholic, Atheist or whatever) have a rich & diverse cultural heritage. Music, dance, food, language, poetry, mythology etc. But that culture will disappear unless we make a conscious effort to keep it alive. The world becomes a smaller place each day. Globalisation has done tremendous damage to many cultures around the world. Ulster-Scots face these problems and the strenuous efforts of bitter & bigoted people who have a vested interest in denying the very existence of anything on this island which is not Gaelic/Celtic.

Take pride in the Ulster-Scots language. Take pride in your heritage

Take pride in the Ulster-Scots language. Take pride in your heritage

Certain people want to perpetuate the stereotype of Loyalists as jeering, drunken, sectarian thugs, wrapped in a Union flag. Are we going to allow them to do that? Are we going to whine & complain? Or are we going to take up the challenge before us & destroy the pernicious lies of the cultural chauvinists? I hope that Loyalism has not lost it’s sense of self-reliance. I hope we have not lost that precious attribute which served our forebears so well (& in much more serious circumstances). The Brave Thirteen, who slammed shut the gates of Londonderry, had that sense of self-reliance. Carson’s Volunteers had it in 1912. Is it still part of our ethnic makeup in 2014? Only time will tell. Either we take a stand now, do something to preserve & promote our age old heritage & culture, something positive, creative & meaningful, or we will lose it forever. We can wait no longer. We can no longer allow the agenda to be set by others. If not you, then who? If not now, then when? It is the responsibility of all Loyalists & Unionists to ensure that our heritage & traditions are still here when we are not. It’s your culture, use it or lose it!

I leave you now with a few words of verse ben Ullans (in Ulster-Scots)

“Ir ye strange, frightfu’ chiel, auld Nick,
Tha’s come tae herd für Charlie,
Tae hiner thá smaa bürds tae pick,
Thá corn that ripens earlie.
Ir some vile wretch claad ben disguise,
That swings fowk i’ a tether;
Whá at Doonpatrick last assize
Did toom three aff the liéther.
Ir are ye jist a true scarecraa,
Wi’ clout an’ auld sca’t caster,
That’s come tae flie the bürds  awa,
Für pickin aff yer master.
The darna luik ye in thá face,
Nor yet aboot ye prattle;
Ye’ll save poor Charlie mony a rase,
That he ran waé his rattle.”