The 12 July celebrations in Belfast have been branded as a retail-friendly attraction by the local government, but the move belies the cultural provocation of a sectarian ritual. Essay and photographs by Declan O’Neill
At midnight on 11 July, hundreds of bonfires are lit throughout Northern Ireland. With hints of Guy Fawkes or Walpurgis Night, these burn-sites are where Loyalists and Protestants gather annually to celebrate and commemorate the victory on 12 July 1690 of the Protestant King William of Orange over the Catholic forces of King James II at the Battle of the Boyne.
The traditional ‘boney’, as the bonfires are called, are a place where some communities assemble to temporarily renounce modern society and to recharge the tribal batteries. For them, these short-lived structures are a distinctive expression of cultural identity.
For others not of this persuasion, the bonfires are sectarian rituals which are designed to reignite a triumphalist and culturally provocative identity; they are vehicles which are intended to induce anxiety and conflict. Since the bonfires are often dressed with the flags of the Republic of Ireland and the Vatican alongside political effigies and racial slogans such as ‘Kill All Taigs’ or ‘KAT ’ − taigs being slang for Catholics − the ‘boney’ starts to look more than a little tainted.
Attempts by local government and tourist agencies at re-imaging and re-branding the fires and other 12 July celebrations as ‘Orangefest’, Europe’s largest outdoor festival, have been problematic. There are genuine concerns that public funds are being used to promote loyalism as a legitimate cultural expression and Orangefest as a family and retail-friendly tourist attraction similar to the Notting Hill Carnival.
Last year, there were 86 bonfires in Belfast alone and the council calculates the clean-up bill at around £5,000 per bonfire. The 11th night bonfires are held on local green spaces, playing fields, parks, waste ground, car parks and even in suburban side streets and at traffic junctions. The bonfires cause enormous environmental damage and are often constructed with dioxin-producing vehicle tyres and furniture, whose fumes engulf entire neighbourhoods that appear either immune to their effects or powerless to change.
Since 2005, Belfast City and other local councils have provided loyalist groups with up to £1,200 each to host community celebrations like street parties at established sites as part of a Bonfire Management Scheme. In a bid to encourage a more responsible approach by bonfir organisers, the ‘boney’ has been replaced with an eco-friendly, carbon-neutral beacon. The beacons are steel pyramids, fille with woodchips on a sand base.
The scheme aims to reduce anti-social behaviour and to cut the cost for the Fire Service and Housing Executive, as well as alleviating pollution by only using clean burn materials on the bonfires. Twenty-four communit beacons were supplied in various locations throughout Northern Ireland in 2011.
For some locals, the idea of the authorities replacing the bonfires with beacons misses the point and ‘takes away the fun’, according to a local participant. Rival Protestant districts compete to build the biggest and teams of teenagers usually construct the fires, some starting as early as April, gathering wood and materials in the build-up to the school summer holidays.
In neighbourhoods such as Sydenham in east Belfast, the bulk of the work is carried out by older men, often with the help of heavy plant hire vehicles such as cherry pickers and forklifts. ‘Dump Wood Here’ signs spring up near burn sites and local businesses; residents and fly tippers comply with pallets, tyres and domestic detritus.
Hundreds of unregulated bonfires are constructed like this and in the early summer months the terrain vague erupts with these pyre-like sculptures. They have been likened to giant beehives and many mimic the stupas and pagodas of Burma and Thailand, and draw crowds of locals and photographers.
With a discernible nod to psychogeography, the structures have given me the excuse to visit neighbourhoods once thought to be off-limits, and I am not alone in my curiosity. At most sites, eager kids pose for the camera and scale the constructions using makeshift steps. At others such as Sandy Row in west Belfast, surly teenagers demand £5 for a photograph and throw rocks when payment is not forthcoming.
In my six years of documenting the bonfires, their number and scale have diminished, displaced through redevelopment projects and a growing indifference from youngsters more interested in gaming, perhaps, and other distractions of the modern age. In Belfast’s Sydenham, however, the descendants of the Titanic’s shipbuilders continue to put their engineering skills to some use in building one of the province’s largest bonfires.
As the night before the 12 July approaches, security is stepped up, with attempts made by competitors either to torch their rivals’ efforts early or to steal their timber reserves. Makeshift shelters built of carpet and pallets house sofas, chairs and a rotating watch of children and teenagers on guard duty. This loyalist clubhouse-cum-domestic parlour will eventually end up on the fire when the time comes. As for the beacons, the majority have been torched early in acts of sabotage. Only the bonfires seem destined to remain.