Bedding down in the shadows of Belfast’s bonfires

The bonfires of Belfast have a raw relevance. Pádraig Ó Meiscill reflects on an annual controversy.

August 4, 2020 · 7 min read

What’s in a fire? Well, there’s all the obvious stuff. The ingredients. Sometimes turf, other times coal, sometimes car tyres, wooden pallets, old sofas and a statue of the Virgin Mary. Then there’s what it gives off when lit: the heat and smoke and light.

There are other things, though, that go into fires. People’s effort and imagination. Their nightmares. And the exhilaration that comes out the other end. And ultimately, the deflation of the next morning’s ashes.

Imagine the heat the bonfire pictured above is giving off. Close your eyes and attempt to generate the intensity of it on your cheeks, and what about the giddiness that’s felt when you realise it’s falling and nothing can stop it and there’s going to be a crash like no other, and noise and fury and choking? You can already feel the yell gathering at the back of your throat, which will join in union with all those other yells in this cramped, smoky street. Are there people behind those boarded-up windows nervously awaiting the conclusion or have they fled somewhere else for the night? Or are the residents all in the street, watching the fire under the tiny glow of the superfluous streetlight, leaving the satellite dishes redundant and the chimney pots smokeless?

I am a Belfast Catholic, so it would be fair to say that I’m not a fan of the bonfires which are lit annually on July 11 to mark the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over the Papist forces of King James II in the 1690 Battle of the Boyne.

Then again, many things in the above statement are a lie. I am not a Catholic: I have been an atheist for as long as I’ve been old enough to seriously consider the question. King William III did not score an almighty victory over Catholicism: his military campaign was bankrolled by the Vatican and Pope Alexander VIII ordered a Te Deum sung in William’s honour when he received word of the result at the Boyne. The victory laid the ground for religious penal laws in Ireland that were almost as repressive against dissenting Protestants as they were towards poor Catholics. And I am a fan of fires, even bonfires. Which just goes to show how careful you should be when you set down words on a page as a statement of fact.

The atmosphere of Belfast in July tends to bring thoughts like these to the surface. Before they dissipate, I have tried to put some kind of reflection down on paper about where it is we are, and why.

Do the bonfires of Belfast meet a want? Can they be justified as art or culture – the emotional collision of the want in one person’s lived experience being met by the immovable force of an unasked for explanation, crafted by another person who knew not what they really meant when they began? Are those building, lighting and watching them burn changed by the experience? Their want, I suspect, is the same as the want in me – and there you have a claim which could meet with one million outraged rebuttals. But we do live side-by-side in our partitioned cities within a single city, cut off, disconnected from one another, watching each other warily over concrete and corrugated iron ‘Peace Walls’ and through the lens of a fickle media. I, too, am confused and perpetually malcontented living in a no-man’s land not of my making. Some call it Northern Ireland. To me, and to many who think like me, it’s just another part of Ireland.

A peace wall in Belfast. Photo by Still Burning

The acronym KAT stands for ‘Kill all Taigs’ – ‘taig’ being a pejorative term for an Irish Catholic. KAT is a favourite slogan to paint on the bonfires of Belfast before they are ignited. When the annual ritual of daubing KAT slogans was again carried out in July, the Democratic Unionist Party Special Advisor Emma Little Pengelly dismissed the concerns raised on social media by stating she didn’t know a single Protestant who wanted to carry such threats through to their logical conclusion. Yet, the words remain, temporarily ground to ashes as they are, before next July’s resurrection.

The national flag of Ireland is ritually burnt on the bonfires year after year – as are the flags of newer arrivals to the city, such as Poles, alongside the emblems of Palestine and Antifa and Islamic State and gay rights, as well as photographs of politicians ranging from liberals to republicans to socialists, symbols of the Irish-language revival and more besides. Belfast was never a homogenous place but, as it becomes more diverse, so do its newer citizens unwillingly join the ranks of those consigned to suffer their own annual symbolic cremation.

The irony of burning everything Catholic or Irish upon the bonfires is that it obscures the very real divisions in contemporary Belfast between a new nationalist middle class, which has thrived as a result of the peace process, and the working-class communities that bore the brunt of the conflict and continue to suffer the ingrained social and economic inequalities of the ‘New Northern Ireland’. In this, the largely Catholic Short Strand, the Falls and New Lodge have much in common with the traditionally Protestant neighbourhoods like Tigers Bay, the Shankill and Donegall Pass in which the bonfires are built.

Many cultures love setting fire to things. The Celts did it to mark the summer and winter solstices, the English to make sure Guy Fawkes is still dead, Indians to celebrate Diwali, Catholics to glory in the ascension of Mary Mother of God into Heaven, but there is an ongoing meaning in the making to Belfast’s Eleventh Night bonfires that makes them stand out.

Their ostensible justification, that 300-year-old victory, has long since been supplanted by a very real tragedy playing out on the city streets. Nowadays, the bonfires speak to both the loss of marginal power and privilege, and to fear. Today’s fear is felt not only by those Catholics and other non-Unionists who have to bed down in the flames’ shadows, but also by those who have had their purported historical purpose taken from them and now treat the flames like the ones in Plato’s allegorical cave, dancing around them to make their shadows seem supreme.

Much damage could still be wreaked in this cave that was built for us to subsist in together but, on an optimistic reading of things, we could always effect our escape by digging a tunnel to the moon.

Pádraig Ó Meiscill is a writer from Belfast. He is currently finishing his first novel, Misadventure, based on the events of the Falls Curfew.

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